Towards the End of Air Conditioning

Andrew Cruse

Comfort is the energetic and symbolic nexus between citizens and cities. It simultaneously describes the thermal relationship between a body and its environment, and the social one between the individual and larger groups. Architects are professionally predisposed see buildings as the primary context for comfort. Yet, shifting focus from the building to the body highlights how clothing responds to and shapes contemporary notions of comfort in ways that buildings cannot. The dominant concept of thermal comfort that developed during the twentieth century relies almost exclusively on conditioned air within sealed building envelopes. This air is kept at “ideal” steady-state conditions so that an average body maintains homeostasis with the interior climate without the occupant’s conscious attention. Yet, comfort is not the result of a simple interplay between the body and an enclosed volume of air; instead, it results from the dynamic energetic exchanges at the narrow boundary layer around the skin. Clothing, not air conditioning, is a principal mediator of such comfort. Exploring this energetic boundary focuses attention on the beginning of a new approach to comfort and the end of air conditioning.

Driven in part by global climatic instability and a focus on energy use, attention to comfort is increasing. Architects typically bracket comfort within normative practice, focusing on improving the efficiency of materials and systems we already use.1

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1. That is not to say that architects pay no attention to clothing and fashion. See, for example, Mark Wigley, White Walls, Designer Dresses: Fashioning Modern Architecture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001). Several design exhibitions have also dealt with the substance and material of clothing, including Bernard Rudofsky’s exhibition “Are Clothes Modern?” (1944) at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The museum will revisit the topic of this show in the upcoming exhibition “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” (2017). MoMA’s “Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design” (1995) and the National Design Museum’s “Extreme Textiles” (2005), also in New York, highlighted many material advances including fabric for clothing. The protective role of clothing and the effect it has on comfort is less well studied.
2. The architect and engineer Michelle Addington has written regularly about this topic. See, for example, her “Energy, Body, Building: Rethinking Sustainable Design Solutions,” Harvard Design Magazine 18 (Spring/Summer 2003): 18–21.
3. Artifacts such as awls and needles—indirect evidence of clothing, as they could have been used to sew animal skins into simple garments—are confined to the last 40,000 years of human history and are found primarily outside the tropics. See Nina G. Jablonski, Skin: A Natural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 42.
4. Differences between biological and cultural evolution, and other insights of deep history are discussed in many sources. My source has been Daniel Lieberman, The Story of the Human Body (New York: Penguin, 2013), 126–153.