Sunday, July 26, 2020

Climate and architecture

Someone once quipped that nowadays the purpose of architecture schools is to graduate tortured geniuses who design one-of-a-kind buildings which have no relationship to their surroundings. There is a lot to analyze in that observation, but I am going to focus on "no relationship to their surroundings."

Prior to the invention of air-conditioning, architects had to figure out ways to keep people cool and ventilated through design rather than through the action of refrigerants and compressors. I can remember walking into an upscale late 19th century home with an open tower just off the foyer, a foyer connected by large openings to the rest of the house. To stay cool, the residents would simply open the windows. The hot air would flow upward into the tower and rush out the open windows at the top, thus pulling air in through the ground floor windows. This created a constant internal breeze in the heat of the summer.

Other methods of beating the heat included:

  1. Single-room-width homes which promoted cross-ventilation when owners opened windows on each side.
  2. Wraparound porches which shield the interior from the sun and allow open windows even during rainstorms.
  3. Tall ceilings that allow hot air to rise above the people in the room.
  4. Sleeping porches for outside sleeping, sometimes screened in. (My boyhood home had one of these just off my parents' second-floor bedroom.)
  5. Transom windows which allow circulation between rooms when the doors are closed (popular in apartment houses and hotels).

As it turns out there were many efforts to adapt modern architecture to climate all the way up through the late 1950s. Air-conditioning was available but still expensive and not widely used. Then came the 1960s and widespread adoption occurred as more and more homes and other buildings were built with central air-conditioning.

The result: Climate no longer limited how architects could design buildings.

Demand for air-conditioning is catapulting higher as developing countries seek the same access to indoor climate control as developed ones. Since fossil fuels remain the dominant fuels for generating electricity, this rising demand for cooling is now driving global warming—an ironic and obvious self-reinforcing loop.

The International Energy Agency predicts that the number of air conditioners in buildings will grow from approximately 1.6 billion today to 5.6 billion by 2050. I have my doubts that at mid-century our civilization will look anything like it does now. I believe economic growth will have stopped long before that date and may have essentially stopped already. That many billions of air-conditioners therefore seem implausible to me. (See my recent piece, "The world in straight lines: Why we are not ready for discontinuities.")

What then might we do to stay cool? The first task is to allow our bodies to adapt to the heat. They will do this naturally if we let them. Making it through the first heat wave of summer may be a little uncomfortable, but each subsequent wave won't seem all that hot.

The second is to rediscover ventilation. It's easier to do this in old homes since they are built for ventilation. Newer ones may need some reconfiguring.

With so many people now working at home, summer clothing is easy to wear.

And then, there is simply moving around. Exercise during the heat (if you are healthy enough to do so) actually increases the pace and extent of your adaptation.

There are, of course, many more ways to stay cool. As we contemplate a future where we must burn less fossil fuel, almost of necessity we will have to keep cool with less air-conditioning. It will help if the buildings we build and renovate take this into account.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Post Peak Medicine said...

Several years ago, I had the misfortune to spend a few days in a hospital in the south of France. The hospital was clean and modern, and my room had large windows and air conditioning. The windows couldn't be opened. In the early morning it was comfortable, but as the morning wore on, the air conditioning fought a losing battle with the heat coming in through the large windows, and by lunchtime each day, it was clear that the air conditioning had lost. My room remained uncomfortably hot until the evening.

When I was out of the hospital, I walked around the local village which was a typical medieval French village where all the houses had small windows and thick stone walls. I'm sure they were a lot cooler and more comfortable than my hospital room.

S. W. Lawrence said...

I can personally testify as to the superiority of heat pumps over traditional air conditioners using a vapor compression cycle technology. Our new PassivHaus-certified home has a ground source heat pump which provides both hydronic heating and cooling as well as domestic hot water, all in one unit. The reduction in electricity use for this purpose is about 80 percent.

But this home situated in northern Wasington State does not actually require air conditioning except when exposed to the smoke of wildfires. It has a long east-west axis, foot-thick walls with R-value of approximately 50 and appropriate overhangs for summer shading. A few operable windows on first and second floor allow us to turn off the heat-recovery ventilator systems for weeks and weeks during the hottest days.

But climate change is inescapable for all, and we had intense smoke exposure for weeks in both 2017 and 2018, with origins from Washington State, British Columbia and Siberia. The Sun was a scarlet color. If it occurs this summer, then we will simply close those windows, rely on the filters of the HRV and use the ground source cooling function of the GSHP.