We Can't Wait Any Longer to Deal With Heat Waves

The heat is on: Our buildings can't cope, our electrical systems can't cope, and our bodies can't cope.

Crowds on the beach in UK
It's 94 degrees in the United Kingdom in June.

John Keeble / Getty Images

If you're paying attention to the news, then you know the undeniable truth of a warming planet and its unbearably high temperatures. The New York Times says heat waves around the world are pushing people to the edge, Bloomberg reports a heat wave is smashing temperature records in France, and Inside Climate News says a heat wave is pushing the limits of human livability. Gizmodo writes about how a heat wave derailed a train outside of San Francisco and The Globe and Mail reports that in Winnipeg, Canada—known for having just two seasons: winter and mosquitoes—extreme heat forced the cancellation of the Manitoba Marathon midway through the race. But perhaps the most troubling headline comes from Earth.org: "China to Increase Coal Production amid Heat-Wave-sparked Surge in Electricity Demand."

In the Financial Times, journalist Simon Kuper described conditions in Nevada and Arizona, writing that "it was the US’s worst heatwave since, well, May." He quoted New York University professor Eric Klinenberg:

“'American infrastructure is not up to the challenge of a hotter, wetter world.' As heatwaves get longer, the US will eventually suffer one that lasts weeks. When that happens, says Klinenberg, the country’s aged electrical grids may not cope with rising demand. If grids fail, food will rot, residents of high-storey apartment buildings risk being trapped without elevators, and it won’t be possible to pump water to people living above the sixth floor."

Designer Andrew Michler said much the same thing a year ago during the rah rah heat pump craze when everyone seemed to forget they are nothing more than air conditioners running backward. And throwing air conditioners at buildings will only exacerbate the problems we are having. We are seeing this all over the world as coal plants get fired up to make more electricity to run the air conditioners.

It is becoming clear that our buildings can't cope, our electrical systems can't cope, and our bodies can't cope.

In his recent post, architect Michael Eliason asked these questions: "Are planning teams evaluating how warmer temperatures will affect their energy modeling assumptions? Are they designing for increased overheating? Simply oversizing heat pumps or planning on A/C reliance to prevent overheating isn't a tenable strategy, especially where power outages will likely become more commonplace due to weather." He thinks Passivhaus is a solution because "they provide a higher level of protection against heat, the cold, energy spikes, and wildfire smoke events." They are also designed holistically, where the building fabric, the mechanical system, the windows, and the shading are all designed together.

The trouble is, this is not how the rest of the building world works. One of the fundamental problems we face in dealing with this problem is we think of our buildings as a bunch of disparate pieces designed by different professionals or trades that are thrown together and somehow become a building. Many years ago the engineer Robert Bean summarized the point:

"When discussing HVAC with your builder or mechanical contractor please understand the folks designing your interior environment very rarely study the relationship between architecture, mechanical systems and human physiology. Unfortunately, that's our North American system."

Bean notes that comfort, which could now be extended to a discussion of safety, does not come from a choice of equipment. Instead, one has to incorporate "the building itself and materials of construction into the definition of HVAC."

North Americans, who are used to being heated and cooled by moving air without thinking about the walls, know that HVAC is short for "heating, ventilating, and air conditioning"—a relic from the days before heating was air conditioning running backward and ventilation was more than a window.

Engineer Eoghan Hayes has a better idea. We have to stop thinking of HVAC as equipment and start thinking of it as a result: health, ventilation, and comfort—with that emphasis on health. It is part of a larger system; we can't have heatpumpification without insulation and we cannot achieve HVAC without dealing with walls, windows, shading, trees, and a lot of white paint.

Way back in 2006, William Saletan wrote "The Deluded World of Air Conditioning" and noted:

"Air conditioning takes indoor heat and pushes it outdoors. To do this, it uses energy, which increases production of greenhouse gases, which warm the atmosphere. From a cooling standpoint, the first transaction is a wash, and the second is a loss. We’re cooking our planet to refrigerate the diminishing part that’s still habitable."

And Saletan didn't even mention the problem of refrigerants as greenhouse gases. We have cooked the planet and there isn't much of it that is still habitable without air conditioning. Calling them heat pumps doesn't change anything in summer. That's why we have to reduce demand so that the coal plants don't get fired up to keep them running, and so that the grid doesn't fail and they can run at all.

We are not even at the hottest part of summer yet, by which time we might be going through the worst heat wave since, well, June. It is becoming clear that our buildings can't cope, our electrical systems can't cope, and our bodies can't cope.

We have to deal with this more quickly than we thought. Eliason has written "26 Climate Actions Cities Should Adopt for Climate Change Resilience"—all of them are good places to start.