Sunday, July 21, 2013

Life After Air Conditioning

As I type, I am sitting in my air conditioned office and it is a torrid 90 degrees outside. These days it's hard to imagine life without AC, and those times when storms have knocked out the power have made it abundantly clear how much of a necessity it's become. And yet I grew up--in the Deep South, no less--without air conditioning, and managed to survive without even feeling particularly deprived. How did we get from there to here? By making incremental changes in residential architecture and urban design, none of which have made for a healthier planet. Here's one case where the rural South of 50 years ago could show the rest of the world how to live in a post-industrial future. How did they do it?They used:
  • Trees. Not those puny little things developers set up on the front lawn after they have denuded the landscape to build another housing tract, but actual trees--the kind that may be older than the inhabitants of the houses they shade. Your basic oak or maple or tulip poplar or whatever is a complex ecosystem that takes in greenhouse gases and turns it into oxygen, while sheltering human beings from heat and preventing soil erosion, providing a home for birds, insects and other wildlife, not to mention the occasional treehouse. Trees are amazing. And yet: the managers at my gym recently cut down a 50-year-old tree because one of the members complained it was dripping sap on his car. There are times when I despair, and start to consider the possibility that human beings deserve extinction.
  • Hassock fans. They were round, built like something you'd rest your feet on, and they moved air in all directions around the room at a level where you could actually feel it. Ceiling fans rarely work that well, especially when they are placed 15 feet overhead in a cathedral-style ceilinged living room, where they serve mere decoration. It goes without saying that we did not have skylights, since the whole point was to keep the summer sun out of the house, for pete's sake. (I saw a house the other day with a front porch where somebody had put skylights in the porch roof. Talk about being unclear on the concept.)
  • Iced tea.
  • Cross ventilation. The "dog trot" style of architecture, where there's a central hallway that moves air from front to back, worked with nature to move the air around. We have replaced this with house layouts with more angles than a pinball machine, one HVAC unit per floor and (often) a humongous generator out back for when the grid goes down. Which it will.
  • Sleeping porches. Even in a sultry climate, the night air is usually cool, and there is something mesmerizing about dozing off looking at the stars and judging the passing of the hours by their movement if you wake up in the middle of the night. The cicadas and tree frogs will sing you to sleep, if the hum of the hassock fan doesn't do it first. It beats the frigid woosh of central air conditioning by a mile. 
  • Porches, period. The demise of the front porch is one of the major tragedies of late 20th century residential architecture. Front porches invite people out of their house toward the street, where they can watch the neighbors and the neighbors can watch them, where they can converse with each other or gossip about each other as they see fit, where they can simply sit and contemplate the human comedy. They are cool places to sit and catch a breeze when the house is too hot to stand. They are good places to sit while shelling peas or stringing beans, chores that frequently involve long, meandering conversations of and great story-telling. Backyard decks say "we are all hanging out back here to get away from all you riffraff." Poches say, "Come on in and sit a spell." They create community. 
          All this we know, or at least used to know. When will home-builders get a clue? When, oh Lord?

30 comments:

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  3. It’s always great to look back at the good ol' days, where everything seemed simpler, though not as convenient. But Technology has really made a great change, and some for the better. Before, all they need are trees and iced tea to cool off during the hot weather. But now, it’s a must to have a reliable AC unit at home to endure a weather like that. And it's good that you have one at home. At least you’re still comfortable even the weather is at 90 degrees. Anyway, this is a very interesting topic to ponder. Thanks for sharing!

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  4. Life after Air Conditioning is worst for those people who have the addiction of sitting for regular hours in the ac.So it will be more difficult for them to have comfort from the hot summer.

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  5. Without air conditioner life would be dull and it will be a great loss to the people , they can't survive because the Air conditioner is the only way for having comfort in summer for people. If they don't get that how they will be able to get rid from hot weather.

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