I Give Up. Air Conditioning Is a Necessity Now.

Central air luxury

For years, we have been pushing the old ways of keeping cool. They are not enough anymore.

Writing in the Guardian, Rowan Moore writes about a subject dear to TreeHugger’s heart: Air conditioning. He claims it changed buildings more than any other invention:

More than reinforced concrete, plate glass, safety elevators or steel frames. Its effects have directed the locations and shapes of cities. They have been social, cultural and geopolitical.
Ab Anbar

Wikimedia user Zereshk/CC BY 2.0

That’s a bold statement, and probably an exaggeration. But he notes that we have forgotten all those architectural tricks we used to do to keep cool -- dogtrot houses, wind-eating towers, front porches, and -- I would add -- awnings, cross-ventilation, high ceilings and afternoon naps. Indeed, air conditioning has changed the way we live.

In Houston, as in most southern American cities, you can progress from your air-conditioned house to your air-conditioned garage and then in your air-conditioned car to parking garages, malls and workplaces which are all, also, air-conditioned.
Crowds at Coney Island

© Keystone/ Getty Images/ Coney Island on a hot day
He claims that it has meant the end of public space; it has certainly led to its decline. People don’t go to parks in hot weather in the way that they did; they stay inside where it is cool. But Moore also makes some very good points about how perhaps we are too hard on AC. It takes less energy to cool buildings in the south than it does to heat them in the north; overall, we use more energy to make hot water than we do to make cool air.

In pointing out the shortcomings of air conditioning, it is easy to overlook its achievements, to ask, in the style of Life of Brian, what it ever did for us. Considerable reductions in the loss of life through excess heat is one answer. Increased productivity and economic activity in hot regions of the world is another. Or better-functioning hospitals and schools. Most of us would be grateful for its contribution to computing and movies. Few people who have spent time in hot and humid climates would not sometimes want the refuge of artificially cooled air.


Renoir: Luncheon of the Boating Party/Public Domain

Air conditioning has always been controversial on TreeHugger. I used to say "keep cool with culture, not contraptions." I used to think it was a menace, letting people live in otherwise barely habitable places like Phoenix or Florida in summer; letting lazy architects and cheap developers build lousy, inefficient buildings. I quoted Stan Cox, author of Losing our Cool:

Having developed efficient cooling, we've designed homes, businesses and transportation systems that are completely dependent on it, while the resulting greenhouse emissions create the need for even more air-conditioning.
Air conditioners in China

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The problem is that the genie is out of the bottle. All those passive techniques that I loved lowered the temperature a bit, and were the best we could do when AC didn’t exist, but we are kidding ourselves to think that they work as well as AC. And as much of China and India and other developing countries get wealthier, the first thing their citizens buy is an air conditioner. A study by the Berkeley National Lab concluded:

...as these countries boom in wealth and population, and extend electricity to more people even as the climate warms, the projections are clear: They are going to install mind-boggling amounts of air conditioning, not just for comfort but as a health necessity.... Overall, the Berkeley report projects that the world is poised to install 700 million air conditioners by 2030, and 1.6 billion of them by 2050. In terms of electricity use and greenhouse gas emissions, that’s like adding several new countries to the world.
Masdar screen

© KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images/ screen wall in Masdar keeps you cool, sort of

In the end, Moore calls for a return to Pre-AC design, “to develop new forms of public space in hot climates, not the city-scaled habitable fridges of the 20th.

Alas, I think he is dreaming. Look at the temperatures this summer, unbearably hot in much of the world, borderline uninhabitable in a lot of it. Phoenix hit a record 116°F recently; records have been broken this summer around the world. Glacier National Park, which might be Glacier Memorial National Park soon, hit a hundred degrees this week. Nobody is going to pretend we can live with natural ventilation without air conditioning in such a changed world.

Break the feedback loop with better buildings

What we have to do instead is break the feedback loop of more AC needing more electricity meaning more carbon emissions meaning more warming meaning more AC. To do that, once again I repeat my mantra, Reduce Demand! with radical building efficiency. Just like a thermos bottle, super-insulation like you get with Passivhaus design keeps you cool as well as warm. We can combine this with sensible passive design (I am back to using the German Passivhaus; the name Passive House makes this all this passive design stuff so damn confusing) like proper shading, trees, the old stuff, and we might get somewhere. There are lots of ways that design can keep us cool, but in the end we are going to need building science and yes, probably a bit of AC.

Alex Wilson's House

© Alex Wilson/ Horrors, he has a heat pump!

As Alex Wilson of the Resilient Design Institute noted in his article In an Age of Climate Change, Passive Cooling Won’t be Enough:

I’m increasingly feeling that passive cooling won’t be enough as climate change advances and cooling loads increase. I’m now recommending that in most locations, even if passive conditioning is to be relied on initially, buildings be designed so that they can accommodate mechanical cooling measures down-the-road.

Ninety people died from the heat in Quebec this summer. Quebec, where an unofficial anthem by Gilles Vigneault starts with "Mon pays, ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver" ("My country is not a country - it's winter").

Quebec has changed. The world has changed. Our buildings, and our air conditioning, have to change too, and fast.