COVID Meets Climate Change as Architecture Turns to Medieval Solutions

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Robison Wells
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Though air conditioners have long been the primary method of keeping cool, Covid-19 has taught us two things: we need more fresh air than we’ve been getting, and recirculated air means recirculated germs. And when we push our air conditioners harder and harder to keep buildings cooler, we’re producing a bigger carbon footprint.

We are in a year of record-breaking temperatures (Death Valley hit the hottest temperature ever recorded on the face of the earth on August 17th at 130 degrees Fahrenheit, the UK saw its most extended recorded heatwave in history, and Paris hit its hottest recorded temperature ever). Architects are reevaluating the way they design buildings to make air conditioning more efficient and more coronavirus-friendly.

According to Alan Short, professor of architecture at Cambridge University and author of The Recovery of Natural Environments in Architecture, “it is absolutely possible to make comfortable buildings in hot climates with little carbon consequence [but] architects generally pursue badly outdated, late-modern models.”

He cited buildings in North Africa’s Tunisia, where walls are made of thick stone, and the central patio is constructed as an “iwan,” a three-sided central area that allows for shaded air to move in and out of open doors and windows.

Chiraz Mosbah, a researcher at the Laboratory for Archaeology and Architecture in the Maghreb, wrote about his own home with 50cm-thick stone walls. “When you walk in, you would say it is air-conditioned — the stone absorbs the heat and doesn’t let it into the house.”

This is a far cry from most modern office buildings that don’t even allow you to open the windows. Perhaps a solution can be found in one of the world’s hottest cities: Dubai. Their skyscrapers are among the tallest in the world, and they use air conditioning, but they also have wind towers—square turrets that suck air inside.

And ultimately, according to Susan Roaf, from the Architectural Engineering University at Edinburgh, we may have been the victims of the air conditioning industry: “[They have] sold us the myth that you can only be comfortable between 20 and 26 degrees centigrade in order to sell us machines, but in reality, humanity has been able to occupy a huge range of temperatures.”

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