My old high-school buddy Phil Rosenthal, who still lives in Chicago, wrote a piece about the social costs of now-ubiquitous air conditioning last week, and it’s had me thinking.
In particular, it’s had me thinking about older houses, and how they were designed to stay fairly comfortable without air conditioning. My house dates from 1903 — it has good cross-ventilation, big windows, and a lot of insulation. If I leave the windows open all night with a couple of fans going, then close the house up in the morning, it stays pretty cool. Right now it’s 92 degrees outside, and the thermometer in my kitchen reads 77.
Now granted, this isn’t Chicago, or Sacramento, or New York, or even North Carolina — places I’ve lived where it gets really hot. But even in those places — we never had air conditioning when I was growing up. It was hot in the summer, and then we went to Northern Wisconsin for a couple of weeks where there were lakes, and cool nights (or later, we went to Camp for the bulk of the summer, but that’s a different post altogether). In North Carolina I worked for a rafting company and lived in a shacky house at the bottom of a “holler.” There wasn’t any AC in the outpost, nor in my shack, but of course, we were on the river much of the day and in the mountains where it usually cooled off some at night. Sacramento vies with New York City for the hottest place I’ve ever lived, but even there, we didn’t use the AC that much because we were broke graduate students (and in NYC I lived in a tenement and sweltered. It sucked). We were just hot a lot of the time. You didn’t do anything outside between one and seven or eight if you could help it.
What got me thinking about Phil’s piece is that when we were in high school we all went downtown on an architecture tour for one of our classes — history maybe? Can’t remember. But we looked at a number of those early skyscrapers from the turn of the 20th century — buildings that were built with windows that opened, and designed for cross-ventilation and natural light. When I was looking for apartments with my mom a few years ago, we looked at a number of commercial buildings from that era that had been converted to apartments, and what was so striking was the huge windows, the natural light (and in Milwaukee, the radiator heat that was generated by the city in a central downtown boiler). We used to have ways of dealing with these things that we seem to have forgotten. Perhaps it’s time to start paying attention again.
Air conditioning is a huge huge drain on our electric grid, and while it is necessary in some circumstances, it seems to me that we would do well to look back a little bit, to figure out what worked in the past and to pay a little attention. Here’s a link to a good article the New York Times ran about fans with some alarming statistics: almost 2/3s of American homes have air conditioning, AC is eating up 25% of our electric usage, while in comparison, a ceiling fan uses up only 30 watts of power.
So I’d love to urge people to reconsider their cooling options. Learn to work with what you have. Window fans are great (mine are the kind with two fans that can blow in, out, or exchange air). Cross ventilation is good. Learning to live outside the typical American comfort zone is not a bad thing.