Taliesin West is an air conditioned nightmare

Taliesin West exterior
CC BY 2.0 Taliesin West/ Living quarters are on the right/ Lloyd Alter

I do not think I have ever been in a building less suited to AC.

Frank Lloyd Wright never liked air conditioning. In 1954 he wrote in The Natural House: "To me air conditioning is a dangerous circumstance. The extreme changes in temperature that tear down a building also tear down the human body." He described how he built Taliesin West:

So, in a very hot climate, the way to deal with air conditioning best would be to have a thorough protection overhead and the rest of the building as open to the breezes as it possibly can be made. On the desert slopes at Taliesin West there is always a breeze.

Wright designed Taliesin West as a seasonal building, and used it only in the winter; he designed it low to the ground and enclosed by heavy rubble walls with thermal mass, canvas roofs to keep out the sun, and careful siting to catch the breezes.

Taliesin West Living Room with guideFrank Lloyd Wright's living room with guide/CC BY 2.0

I visited Taliesin West this past weekend on a very comfortable fall day for the Phoenix valley, a beautiful and balmy 78°F. As we toured Frank Lloyd Wright's living quarters, the guide told a cute story about when the glass was installed in the mid-1950s at the insistence of his wife, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright.

hole cut in glass in Taliesinhole cut behind vase in Taliesin West/CC BY 2.0

There was a vase on a shelf, and the designers of the glass enclosures (probably students, they did much of the work there) asked to move the vase. Frank Lloyd Wright absolutely refused, saying he liked it where it was. So they went around it, cutting a big hole in the glass behind the vase, which remains there to this day.

Taliesin Nest thermostatNest thermostat on Taliesin wall/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

When I turned around, I noticed a Nest thermostat mounted sloppily on a piece of wood, set at 70°, and realized that I was actually a bit cold. (Olgivanna had AC installed after Wright died.) I had grown accustomed to the warmer temperature outside while I was waiting for the tour. As Wright explains, our bodies don't like all these changes:

The human body is able to continually adjust itself—to and fro. But if you carry these contrasts too far too often, when you are cooled the heat becomes more unendurable; it becomes hotter and hotter outside as you get cooler and cooler inside. Finally, Nature will give up. She will just say for you, “Well, what’s the use?” Even Nature can’t please everybody all the time.

taliesin living roomTaliesin Living Room/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

And I looked back at the big hole in the glass, the single glazing of the walls, the polycarbonate that was now over the canvas roof, and I realized that this was probably the most unsuitable, extravagant and wasteful air conditioning installation I had ever been in.

living room looking backLiving room at Taliesin/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

All of the things that made the building so wonderful for Frank Lloyd Wright in a Phoenix winter made it impossible to air condition efficiently. And here we were, on a day that would have been perfectly comfortable had the building been used the way it was designed, and cold air is pumping out of the floor and the Nest thermostat is set 10 degrees below ambient temperature.

Taliesin West is open year round now, and you can't live in this part of the world in summer without air conditioning. But I cannot think of a building where AC is less appropriate. That giant hole in the glass behind the vase isn't a cute story -- it is an embarrassment, all that expensively chilled air leaking out.

taliesin lawnIt has a lawn! and sprinklers! / Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It should be noted that Taliesin West has a big 250 Kilowatt photovoltaic system that was donated by First Solar as the first phase of "a pioneering effort to transform the entire National Historic Landmark Taliesin West site into a 'net zero' energy customer, producing as much energy as it consumes annually, while maintaining the historic and architectural integrity of the site." You can see the panels as you drive in.

I also owe a big apology to Christopher Mims, now of the Wall Street Journal, whom I criticized in 2012 for a short post in Grist titled Frank Lloyd Wright goes solar, posthumously; I claimed that Wright wasn't going solar posthumously, he always was solar. I was wrong; they needed a lot of power to run all that air conditioning. And I give the last word to Frank Lloyd Wright:

Even in cold climates air conditioning has now caught on because the aim now is to maintain the degree of humidity for comfort within, no matter what is going on outside. I do not much believe in that. I think it far better to go with the natural climate than try to fix a special artificial climate of your own. Climate means something to man. It means something in relation to one’s life in it. Nature makes the body flexible and so the life of the individual invariably becomes adapted to environment and circumstance.

Taliesin West is an air conditioned nightmare
I do not think I have ever been in a building less suited to AC.

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