Err Conditioning?

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While making us more comfortable, AC also has made us less neighborly.

August 01, 2001
E-mail Ron Jones at greenbuilder@juno.com.

 

I was driving home from the city a few months ago when I noticed that my truck was losing power as it climbed into the foothills. By the time I made it home, it was apparent that the engine was a goner. I immediately began unloading the old guy and called for a tow to haul him to my mechanic back in town. The odometer read only 190,000 miles. Guess they just don’t build ’em like they used to.

A couple of weeks (and $3,000) later, I drove away from the mechanic’s shop with a rebuilt engine and a 12-month warranty. Heck, I figure we’re good for at least another 100,000 miles. But I failed to have the air-conditioning system recharged. The first time I switched it on, it blew hot air, so I just turned it off and kept the windows open.

I haven’t had time to take it in to be serviced, so I’m still driving from job to job in the middle of summer without AC. It’s not the most comfortable situation, but it got me to thinking.

People point to particular products and inventions as having profound effects on our society, most notably the television. Television un-doubtedly has changed our daily lives and how we interact as families, neighbors and communities. More recently, our culture has been revolutionized by personal computers.

I think another invention, though, has changed American life in at least as large a way as televisions and computers: air conditioning.

Air conditioning is the worst thing that ever happened to alligators, even worse than shoes and purses. It has made it much more attractive to live in parts of the South once occupied by very few people and lots of swamp critters. Vast areas of Florida, I contend, would still be largely uninhabited by people were it not for air conditioning. Now the most commonly heard sound in Florida might be a Northeastern accent, all thanks to this wonderful invention.

The old stone house I live in at the base of the mountains was constructed back in the early ’60s by an owner/ builder. He was apparently an eccentric employee of the nearby National Laboratories, and he built the place pretty much by himself, including digging a very large hole in the rocky soil by hand for the septic tank and then laying a cement block vault, block by block.

He lived here for more than 30 years, mostly by himself. The house had no air conditioning. It is constructed of CMU walls with a layer of locally gathered rock on the exterior. The rock was laid in the "rubble stone" technique that Frank Lloyd Wright used at Taliesin West in Arizona. The house has poor insulation, and the heat really builds up in the summer. All that masonry eventually warms up, and even at an elevation of 6,400 feet, the place gets too warm to sleep in at night.

During my fourth summer here, I installed an evaporative cooler. I had spent most summer evenings out back sipping a cool drink and enjoying the rural night sky. After the cooler was up and running, I found myself spending more time inside, mostly checking out what was on television or working at the computer.

Maybe the same thing happened to our society in general when air conditioning became common in most homes. People used to retreat to the front porch in the evening after supper. There they interacted visually and verbally with their neighbors. People talked to one another as they strolled through the neighborhood. Parents watched the collective gaggle of neighborhood kids play from yard to yard and as they rode their bikes and other wheeled contraptions.

Eventually, these activities ceased, and the people went indoors. Now they pretty much spend their evenings inside. Several television sets per household and a personal computer or two allow the residents to separate themselves into different rooms, all in air-conditioned comfort. There is diminished opportunity for people to interact at the family level, and even less at the neighborhood level.

I’m not saying this change is all for the worse. I sure enjoy sleeping better during hot weather, and I am pleased to have the entertainment and information available on my television and computer. It does raise interesting questions for me as a builder, though.

Am I designing and building houses that are just following established patterns, or am I making it possible for my customers to determine their own choices based on a wider menu of opportunities? For example, are my houses sited in such a way as to promote activities that advance the use of outdoor spaces as well as those found on the interior?

Through thoughtful and innovative design, have I encouraged the occupants to interact if they choose to, or have they simply been provided the mandatory number of climate-controlled cubicles?

Do they have a sense of neighborhood, a sense of being related to the remainder of the built environment, or are they being given isolation as a substitute for careful handling of privacy and security? Have I caused them to give as much consideration to the design of shading overhangs and protective landscaping as they have given to the dimensions of the opening for the big screen in the entertainment center?

The thousand things I help them decide are not just about bricks and mortar, not just about floor coverings and plumbing fixtures. They look to me for experience and information in addition to technical expertise. A good deal of whether their new home will meet their needs and enhance their lives rests in the decisions we reach together.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is a place for everything, including front porches, where people can seek a little balance in their lives.

Building homes that keep my customers comfortable is a big part of my job. It goes far beyond shelter, and that is why the modern home includes all those advances, such as cooling systems.

Of course, there are alligators that would like to see air conditioning banned altogether. Sorry about that, but at least the fashion in shoes and purses has changed.

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