Beat the Heat With Culture, Not Contraptions

Why not have a siesta?

The Siesta
The Siesta.

VIncent van Gogh / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

There's a unique solution that might help Europe survive deadly heatwaves: siestas. Morgan Meaker reports for Wired, "Workers across Europe have been calling for the working day to be restructured to suit a warming world. These calls are not just emerging out of southern Europe but also from traditionally cooler countries: A construction union in Germany is campaigning for longer lunch breaks so workers can avoid the hottest part of the day."

Meaker notes that many in Spain—famous for its "jornada partida," or split working day and siestas—are trying to kill it and move to a more northern European schedule. She even quotes an activist who said: "It’s a misconception that this schedule was designed to avoid the heat," blaming the dictator General Franco because 'most people needed two jobs to survive, one in the morning and in the afternoon.'"

A few years ago, General Franco got blamed for the split working day when he changed the time zone to match Germany's, pushing everything an hour later. According to the BBC, after the time change, "They continued to eat at the same time, but because the clocks had changed, their 1 pm lunches became 2 pm lunches, and they were suddenly eating their 8 pm dinners at 9 pm."

The article suggests this is the reason for the split day: "Spaniards have traditionally coped with their late nights by taking a mid-morning coffee break and a two-hour lunch break, giving them the opportunity to enjoy one of the country’s most famous traditions: the siesta."

Neither of these arguments makes much sense, but the split working day actually does. It's also not just Spanish. Treehugger's Katherine Martinko describes it is common in many hot countries:

"I attended a Sardinian high school for eleventh grade and we started around 8 and wrapped up at 1:30. Students returned to the school in the afternoon (after lunch and siesta) for any extracurriculars. When I lived in northeastern Brazil for a year, the kids in my neighborhood went to school in two cohorts – one in the morning from 8 to 11, the other in the afternoon from 2 to 5."

After I recently wrote about planning one's life around the heat, a commenter noted, "Our Canadian prairie grandparents' generation coped with the 40+ degree C (104°F) temperatures of the 1930s by working the horses from 4 AM to about noon."

Many complain the split working day no longer works because unless you work from home or live in a 15-minute city, you don't get to be with your family or have a siesta, which makes it an urban design issue as well. What's really happened here is that we all traditionally adjusted our lives to the seasons, the weather, and the daylight until electric light and the time clock put us on a schedule that was convenient for business but not for our bodies.

Then air conditioning made it possible to forget about designing our cities and our homes in ways that adapted to different climates or designing our lives to adapt to the climate as well. It all got homogenized. Our buildings and our lives are treated as if they are identical, whether in Boston or Phoenix.

Cool With Culture, Not Contraptions

Dinner in Barcelona

JackF / Getty Images

Many years ago, when Treehugger was young, I read an article by Barbara Flanagan in ID Magazine that I have been quoting ever since. In 2007, she described how we should learn from Barcelona.

"Rather than rely on machines and wreck their old architecture with window units and ducts, they design their habits, hardware, clothes, and attitude to cool themselves off. Now their deference seems sustainably avant-garde. The secret to Catalan comfort is not a gadget, but a self-induced, mind-body state of discomfort suspension: heat tolerance. When it’s summer, everyone expects to be hot. Accordingly, they plan their seasonal vacations, daily routines, food, drinks, and wardrobes for maximum cooling. In other words, it’s the culture that cools, not the contraptions."

She explained how both people's homes, the actual urban fabric, and their lives are designed to deal with the heat. Flanagan wrote, "Dwellings adapt. Double-door-size windows have three layers: usually metal shutters, glass sashes, and drapes. (No bugs, no screens. In the early morning, residents throw open windows; in mid-afternoon, they close the shutters to block the heat.)"

Schedules adapt. "First of all, they tear August off their calendars. Since it’s too hot to do anything but vacation, they vacation," she wrote.

Where you live adapts. Flanagan wrote: "There are four rush hours instead of two, but each commute is short. You live near your work, so you can keep in rhythm with everyone else. (A one-hour commute, acceptable to Americans, is absurd to a Catalan.)"

I have also often quoted Cameron Tonkinwise, now with the University of Technology, Sidney, who I met when he was teaching a decade ago at the Carnegie Mellon School of Design. He noted, “The air conditioner allows architects to be lazy. We don't have to think about making a building work, because you can just buy a box.” But it's not just architects, it's everyone.

It's not just laziness: We have been trained not to adapt but to demand that the world adapts to us as we drive our air-conditioned cars and park them right in front of our air-conditioned destinations. The idea of adaptation to the climate seems almost un-American; we are supposed to go out and buy comfort. But this is going to get more difficult and more expensive.

We are probably past the point where we can adapt to living without air conditioning. But we can adapt to using a lot less of it and less often by making changes in our lifestyle to adapt to changing climates. Adapting our diet and our schedules could make a big difference and help us enjoy these summer days, including adopting the idea of the jornada partida and siesta.

And now I think I will go lie down. You should too.