Escape the Heat

Recently I passed a billboard on the freeway showing a smiling woman, an air conditioner, and the tag line “Escape the Heat”. She looked cool and ultra happy. Using women to advertise domestic air conditioning systems has been around since the 1950’s. The idea that seems to be promoted is that housework is made less demanding and that housewives could remain cool with air conditioning. In the early days of air conditioning the choice to install air conditioning was expensive – however it enabled housing developers to open up housing opportunities in more inhospitable places, sell more houses to the expanding suburbs and be less concerned about how buildings might be designed to suit the local climate.

Air conditioning is relatively simple, Blow hot humid outside air over sealed chilled pipes and the outside air is both cooled and dehumidified as it moves to the indoors. Repeat this process over the course of a long hot day and the interior will stay cool. Reverse the process and the same unit can heat the air as well. In hot conditions the air temperature is made cooler and drier making it more comfortable. Air conditioning works best when doors and windows are closed. When air conditioning was first invented it was costly and cumbersome however, with refinement of the technology, air conditioning became much more prevalent. We now see air conditioning as an integral part of a building design – in fact many of today’s buildings could not be occupied for much of the year without air conditioning.

Before air conditioning was invented we had different expectations and we relied more on passive cooling techniques to keep our interior spaces comfortable. Building elements like verandahs, eave overhangs, screens, pergolas, openable windows and other devices restricted heat gain during the day. By allowing for cross ventilation, buildings could quickly cool down when a cool change occurred or as temperatures dropped over the course of the evening. Vernacular architecture is not a style – but rather it is a systematic approach that allowed buildings to respond to the local climate.

It would be a stretch to say air conditioning led to the demise of vernacular architecture – however, it played a role. In a similar way electric lighting has enabled buildings less reliant on daylight for lighting purposes and transport has enabled new light weight materials to be shipped over longer distances. It means that buildings in different locations. It means new buildings are inspired more by trends in the media. Buildings can be designed to be any shape and any size as we now have the technology to heat, cool and light the spaces we create.

The sad aspect to the advance of technology is the potential innovation that could have arisen from the re-interpretation and experimentation of climatic design responsive architecture. Nowadays a building does not have to relate so much to the local climate or to the traditions of the area. Designers are free to choose a style that suits our preference ad tastes. This means architecture can be reduced to an exterior design process of preferred shapes and materials. Engineers now design heating and cooling systems for our buildings and the design of as building design is really driven by economic, functional and compositional considerations.

Air conditioning delivers cold air at a specified target temperature – it does not necessarily mean that everyone will be comfortable. In reality every person has different preferences for their comfort levels and having some degree of thermal variety helps create a more interesting place to occupy. By enabling building spaces to respond to changing conditions means we can create a more dynamic set of spaces for people to find their own comfort level. What’s more the architecture that evolves out of trying to solve the problem of thermal comfort using less technology is far more interesting, innovative and more sustainable.