Has air conditioning become "the necessary luxury"? A roundup of our coverage of the issue

Air conditioners in China
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter

After writing a recent post about air conditioning, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation contacted the author to do an interview which has turned into a road show. Here's a summary of our discussions about air conditioning, and how it has evolved over the years.

Our society is built around air conditioning now, but we can still try to use less of it

For years, I have been going on about how and why we should live without air conditioning. There are dozens of posts talking about ways to beat the heat without AC. About how to dress, when to eat, what to eat. And most importantly, how it is all about design. I would quote professor Cameron Tonkinwise of Carnegie Mellon School of Design: "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 this might not be true any more.

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Air conditioning has changed America and will change the world; It is the design issue of our time.

air conditionersLloyd Alter/ minisplits in Changsha/CC BY 2.0

Over the years I have been seriously criticized for being against air conditioning. I am not. I am against bad design that forces you to use air conditioning all the time; things like floor to ceiling glass, no cross-ventilation, or lack of shading because as Cameron Tonkinwise put it,


The window 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.

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Air Conditioning Is Like Driving; It Is Convenient And Our Society Is Built Around It.

sleeping in parkEphemeral New York/Public Domain

Arthur Miller on living without air conditioning:

Even through the nights, the pall of heat never broke. With a couple of other kids, I would go across 110th to the Park and walk among the hundreds of people, singles and families, who slept on the grass, next to their big alarm clocks, which set up a mild cacophony of the seconds passing, one clock’s ticks syncopating with another’s. Babies cried in the darkness, men’s deep voices murmured, and a woman let out an occasional high laugh beside the lake.

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Air Conditioning is a Symptom of Our Massive Entitlement Complex

The notion that air conditioning should be enshrined as a fundamental right is preposterous—there's a difference between feeling entitled to a luxury and defending a human right, after all. The New York Times saw fit to host a debate on that topic last week anyway, and Lloyd promptly skewered the 'we should treat A/C like clean air' contingent.

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Keep Cool With Culture, Not Contraptions

LuncheonRenoir: Luncheon of the Boating Party/Public Domain

What happens when humans treat themselves like dairy products chilled behind glass?

Civilization declines.

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What would happen if everyone used as much air conditioning as Americans did?

We have worried before about what will happen when citizens of China and India all get air conditioners. At American Scientist, Michael Sivak does the math and it isn't pretty.

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Summer In The City: Urban Strategies for Keeping Cool

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Really, when you look at most of the lists of ways to keep cool, you would think that everyone in America lived in a detached house in the 'burbs. But lots of people live in cities and apartments where suggestions like "don't use the dryer" or "plant a tree" are not relevant. How do you keep cool in the city?

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How Air Conditioning Changed How and Where We Live

Before air conditioning, in a bygone and surely less comfortable era, people employed all sorts of strategies for keeping cool in the heat. Houses were designed with airflow in mind -- more windows, higher ceilings..... In addition, many homes had porches where families could spend a hot day, and also sleeping porches with beds where they could ride out a hot night. Many home designs took passive solar design principles into account, even if they didn't name them as such.

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Beat The Heat: 10 Design Tips To Help You Live Without (Or Use Less) Air Conditioning

Elizabeth TaylorElizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof/Screen capture

Elizabeth Taylor knew how to keep cool without air conditioning in A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: She swanned about in her underwear.

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Quotes of the Day: On the Evils of Air Conditioning

air conditioned nightmare quotes

We should consider also the insidious effect of central air- how it enables the development of parts of the country previously uninhabitable and which would still be but for the constant cooling, and how it is destroying the street culture of areas already established. How we are sacrificing neighbourhood and community by forcing our immediate personal climate to adapt to us instead of us adapting to it.

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Design Is The Key To Keeping Cool Without Air Conditioning

cool house without ac image

Vince Michael of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago Time Tells describes how he stays cool without air conditioning: "Short answer: real brick walls and trees."

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More Architectural Tricks To Keep Cool Without Air Conditioning

cupola house image

We have covered many of the old ways of keeping cool, but Matt Grocoff points out another at the Old House Web: Cupolas. He writes:

Cupolas are as functional as they are decorative. As warm air rises cupolas allow hot air to escape at the high points in the house while bringing up cooler air from below. They also create a steady air-flow even when there is no breeze outside. In some homes, cupolas provide soft, indirect sunlight that illuminates the home without bringing in the heat.

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Architects: Go Back To The ABCs and Design Buildings Like Letters Again

design like letters image
There is probably a compromise to be found between Steingruber and modern architecture, between filling our buildings with high-tech "green gizmo" solutions and simply building with healthy materials, lots of light and lots of fresh air.
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Is air conditioning a luxury or a necessity?

I asked that question on Willis Carrier's 110th birthday, and concluded:

As I have noted many times, the problem is not the air conditioning itself, which everyone acknowledges is a lifesaver, and for many, a necessity.

The problem is that we have forgotten how people designed before it, where the architecture of houses and buildings was adapted to climate. Now we just throw electricity at it. A house in a Florida or Phoenix suburb looks pretty much like a house in New England; office buildings and factories are indistinguishable. We made what was once a luxury into a necessity. That is great for the development industry and a whole lot of hack architects and engineers, but not much else.

The Deluded World of Air Conditioning

air conditioning roundup image deluded world

William Saletan nailed it best in an article in Slate:

"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."

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Air Conditioning and Urbanism


thome crescent house photo

We talk often on Treehugger about the new urbanism, the benefits of density, of an active street life, of living close to work. We have talked about the need to reduce our use of electricity. We should consider also the insidious effect of central air- how it enables the development of parts of the country previously uninhabitable and which would still be but for the constant cooling, and how it is destroying the street culture of areas already established. How we are sacrificing neighbourhood and community by forcing our immediate personal climate to adapt to us instead of us adapting to it.

Barbara Flanagan said much the same thing in ID magazine:

"what happens when humans treat themselves like dairy products chilled behind glass?

Civilization declines.

The proof is in Barcelona. Spend five glorious weeks in its barely mitigated heat, as I did last summer, then return home and refrigerate yourself in the relentless mono-temperature now anesthetizing the continent. Conclusion?

A/C is the killing frost sure to wilt the last fragile shoots of American culture."

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America's Air Conditioned Nightmare


thermometer  image

Alternet discusses its impact on the settlement of the United States and the change in its political makeup and voting patterns. Few inventions, perhaps even just the automobile, have has such impact on the way we live. Here is a link again to the first part.. Read also the second part: "Luxuries like comfort air-conditioning are affordable only in a make-believe world with unlimited fossil fuel reserves and a method for pumping carbon dioxide into outer space (or unlimited tolerance for nuclear disaster and storage for radioactive wastes). In a greenhouse future, we will need every kilowatt we can squeeze out of wind machines, solar arrays, and biomass just to fulfil essential needs. None will be left over for cooling down the Astrodome."

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