Walking down the street in peak summer temperatures, you will often find yourself escaping the heat by side stepping into a shop or public building. The cool air in these spaces isn’t there by chance. Although often visually disguised and forgotten, air conditioning is something we often rely on and you may not realise how big an impact its invention has had on our lifestyles, architecture and even demographic globally.
Initially air conditioning wasn’t designed for people, it was designed for paper. In 1902, a young engineer, Willis Carrier was asked by a printing company in New York to design a system to help dry ink in the heat. The humidity levels in their factory were causing issues when they were printing in colour because each colour had to be printed separately and the paper would warp in between, causing misalignment. Carrier developed a machine that circulated the air over cooled coils, maintaining a constant humidity level. This was a great success. However, this cooled printing room was not only helping the printing process, workers started spending their lunch breaks there, enjoying an escape from the humid heat.
By 1906, Carrier started to realise the potential for his new machine and seeked out new customers that would benefit from its cooling capabilities. During the summer months, movie theatres were really struggling to make any business. Imagine a room with no windows and lots of people crammed inside, theatres were the last place you’d want to be on a hot summers day. Carrier sold his machine to theatres across the country and this is the first indication of how much influence air conditioning could have. Now that theatres were nice and cool, they became the first place you’d want to be on a hot summers day. Advertisements were put out with images of people sitting in their coats with icicles hanging off them, enticing customers to escape the heat and enjoy a film. Thanks to air conditioning, theatres were now booming with business in the summer and this is when the tradition of the summer blockbuster was born.
Originally, buildings were designed around the climate they were built in, known as vernacular architecture. Buildings in a hot climate were built with thick walls and windows facing away from the sun, with outdoor courtyards and corridors incorporated into the floor plan to allow cold air to flow through the space. However, after air conditioning started to expand beyond cinemas and into a wide range of public and private buildings, this approach to architecture was put aside. Huge skyscrapers, encased in glass windows, started to rise in places like Dubai. The idea of central courtyards were abandoned and without the need for windows to provide cool air, rooms formed deep inside buildings, with no sign of natural light. Without air conditioning, these types of buildings would be uninhabitable in the heat. We could now control the climate inside and this removed the need for vernacular architecture. Cities across the world, in a variety of climates, started to look very similar. Traditional buildings for specific cultures were dying out. It could be argued that air conditioning was responsible for completely transforming the architecture of our cities today. It is fascinating that something that was originally designed to dry ink had the capability to completely change architecture on a global scale.
The transformation of architecture isn’t the only big impact the invention of air conditioning had. In America, the hotter southern states were now more inhabitable thanks to air conditioning. This resulted in a big shift in the population between states, inevitably impacting voting patterns. Now that is was more pleasant to live there, a large amount of conservative retirees moved to the south. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president and some say his success is thanks to air conditioning causing the migration of ‘votes’ from the north to the south. It is hard to comprehend how a relatively simple invention had such a huge impact on a political level.
Air conditioning should definitely be considered to be great design. Its invention has had a positive impact on many sectors. It is beneficial to health, with lower mortality rates during heat waves. Exam results are higher in cases where students are working in cooled rooms. There is a proven relationship between keeping cool and productivity. Air conditioning in offices has lead to much higher productivity rates. It has also allowed people to live comfortably in hotter climates which has increased the amount of land available for housing, always welcome in a growing population.
It’s not all good news though, there are some issues developing with air conditioning. Firstly, it’s worth considering the fact that in order to make inside cooler, you make outside hotter. This has resulted in actually increasing the outdoor temperature. A recent study found that the night time temperature in Phoenix, Arizona increased by 2 degrees thanks to air conditioning units. However the biggest problem associated with air conditioning is the amount of power required to run the units. Although the units are becoming more efficient, the scale of the problem is too high. 75% of homes in America use air conditioning. The electricity powering these units is often reliant on the burning of fossil fuels which has a huge carbon footprint. We have actually trapped ourselves in a corner here as there are now so many buildings world-wide that we are completely dependant on air conditioning. So it is difficult to reduce the environmental impact it is having.
The original design of air conditioning was not intended for such large scale applications and it’s starting to catch up with us. So what can we do? The development of ‘greener’ technology has allowed air conditioning to become more efficient so I guess one approach would be to continue to improve the design to minimise environmental impact. However, I think it’s worth looking at embracing some aspects of vernacular architecture in our future designs. Simple changes, such as the way a building is angled to create shade, can make a huge difference. I’m not saying we should abandon air conditioning completely, but I think there are ways we can reduce our reliance on it through thoughtful design.