Modernity was born 116 years, 11 months, 2 weeks and 2 days ago, at a printing plant in the East Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in New York City, when a junior engineer named Willis Carrier devised a contraption that blew air over water-filled pipes to dry out the humidity that was gumming up the pages of a humor magazine called Judge.
And in that moment (well, within a few decades), entire industries and geographies were transformed, and new technologies made possible, including, terribly, the internet: Without cooling, there would be no server farms.
Nearly 90% of American households now have some form of air-conditioning (but just 33.7% in Seattle), more than any other country in the world except Japan, though that will change as global warming alters more temperate zones, and swelling populations and rising incomes in hot zones mean the folks there will clamor for AC, too.
On an overheated planet, air-conditioning becomes more and more desirable, solving in the short term the problem it helped create.
It is another paradox that even as architects and engineers are making ever more efficient buildings to meet energy standards set by cities like New York City, where a new law says that buildings over 25,000 square feet must reduce their carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, we are still freezing in our offices and fighting with our partners over whether to turn on the Friedrich.
Parts of Germany and France were recently steaming through record temperatures — during last week’s heat wave, police officers in Paris used tear gas on climate change protesters — while I was southbound on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional, shivering in the quiet car, rugged up in a scarf, jacket, long pants and boots.
Could buildings do more of the work?
“Cooling is the removal of heat, a form of dieting,” Neri Oxman, the computational designer and architect in charge of the Mediated Matter Group at MIT’s Media Lab, said in an email.
She and her colleagues are developing self-cooling building facades and clothing.
“Overcooling using conventional AC is extreme dieting, removing calories without improving nutrition,” Oxman said. “One ends up installing heaters in summer in office spaces that do not enable local temperature control — the quintessential sugar rush. Air-conditioning demystifies nature’s miracles, and contributes to a culture characterized by disconnection and overconsumption.”
At MIT, Oxman’s team is experimenting with polymers and bacteria in the hopes they might “grow” building facades, and “wearables” — clothing, for example — complete with arteries to hold cooled liquids or gas. They can already 3D-print glass structures with “spatial pockets” designed to be filled with cooling liquid, as well as “biocompatible synthetic skins” for bodies and buildings, Oxman said, which would “act as thermodynamic, environmentally sensitive filters and barriers” to respond to temperature changes in the environment and self-regulate.
Oxman, preternaturally gifted, is attempting to make buildings that sweat. But in her own office, she had been flummoxed by the temperature, suffering the icy blasts of summer until she hacked the AC system and dismantled it.
There is an oft-cited study published in Nature.com that notes how building temperatures, once set to the comfort preferences of 1960s-era men in suits, disregard the “thermal comfort” of female staffers.
Come summer, Twitter invariably lights up with charges that air-conditioning is sexist, an engine of the patriarchy, in threads that in turn fire up conservative commentators eager to prove the daftness of the opposition.
Building temperatures are largely controlled by building managers, to industry standards that aim for the thermal comfort of 80% of a building’s occupants — which means, of course, that 20% will be uncomfortable, if not miserable.
Those standards are updated regularly by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, which suggests that building temperatures range from 67 to 82 degrees and be set according to an enormously complicated calculus.
Among the variables are the number of occupants in the place, what they’re wearing (with values assigned to 17 clothing styles, including sweatpants, miniskirts and bathrobes), humidity, air speed (at one’s ankles) and more. No wonder everyone is caviling. You can’t expect building managers to behave like Stephen Hawking.
Experiments lead to progress
In 2015, Kieran Timberlake, an architectural firm with more than 100 employees in Philadelphia, tried to work without any air-conditioning at all. The firm renovated a former bottling plant — a concrete and steel warehouse built in 1945 — with many, many design flourishes and technologies, but without modern AC.
Passive and active features provided the cooling, like mechanical and natural ventilation (fans and windows that opened); automated shades; insulation, including a concrete slab floor; and dehumidifiers. The design thinking behind these contemporary refinements has worked for millenniums — imagine an adobe house, or a Roman villa, sealed and shaded against the day’s heat, and opened up at night.
That first summer, however, staffers found themselves increasingly hot, limp and damp, their experience captured by daily surveys that included this plaintive report from one suffering soul: “I am physically melting.”
More fans were brought in, employees were encouraged to work early in the morning — before the day got too hot — and the dress code was relaxed. Clients who visited, including State Department officials (at the time, the firm was working on a U.S. Embassy in London) were forewarned. Witold Rybczynski, writing of the experiment in Architect magazine, imagined a scene from a P.G. Wodehouse novel: diplomats in short pants!
It was a grand experiment, and not exactly a failure, since the building, which is now cooled by what’s known as mixed mode operation — that is, using a bit of conventional air-conditioning when needed — is still a model of energy efficiency. Switching to mixed-mode has added only 1% or 2% to the building’s total energy load, according to Roderick Bates, a Kieran Timberlake principal.
Bates said that one of the reasons natural cooling wasn’t fully successful was that Philadelphia’s nighttime temperatures during the peak summer months weren’t low enough to allow natural ventilation to cool the place down. Passive house systems work really well in climates with big diurnal temperature swings, like the desert.
A byproduct of the experiment was the evolution of the survey process, now a cloud-based app called Roast, that revealed something rather illuminating: While there were slightly more survey responses from female staff, the differences in thermal comfort between sexes were insignificant. (Are women just more inclined to participate in surveys?)
It turns out gender is less a predictor of thermal comfort than other factors, like age, activity level or, tellingly, the relative wealth of the society surveyed, according to studies conducted by researchers at the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California, Berkeley.
People in countries with a lower gross domestic product, said David Lehrer, communications director and a researcher there, are more comfortable with a wider range of temperatures. It appears that first world discomfort is a learned behavior.