Air conditioning and a “homogenized standard of comfort”

In an interview, the author of a new book on the development of air conditioning describes the rise of new comfort standards:

Photo by Sergei Akulich on

Before air conditioning really took off in the home, there was a really different sense of what we would call personal comfort, and something that I really argue in the book is that what we’ve come to think of as personal comfort, and specifically, thermal comfort, has changed. What I argue in the book is that it’s really in part a cultural construction.

Now, I want to be really careful that people don’t hear that I’m saying that it’s entirely a construction. Yes, when we get too hot or too cold, then we can die, for sure. But what’s really interesting to me is that there’s a lot of evidence to show that before air conditioning began at the beginning of the twentieth century, people weren’t really hungry for air conditioning.

There was this greater sense that you could deal with the heat. I put that really carefully, because I don’t want to say that they suffered through it. Certainly there were heat waves and summers that got too hot. But there was a real sense that you could manage the heat through analog ways, like sleeping outside, sleeping in parks, or designing buildings that incorporate passive cooling. The thing that really disturbed me was that through the twentieth century, we really kind of forgot all that, because we didn’t need that knowledge anymore because we had air conditioning. So modernist architecture began to kind of ignore the outside conditions, because you could construct whatever conditions you wanted inside.

I think the question that nobody really asked all along is, is this good for everyone? Should we have a homogenized standard of comfort? Nobody really asked that question. And there’s a lot of people that find that the kind of American model of an office or American model of comfort is not comfortable, both in the United States, and in other places.

Air conditioning made a lot of modern life possible. This includes the modern office with hundreds of workers in a single building and in new arrangements. It includes the expansive McMansions and large single-family homes of suburbia. The increasing population of the American Sun Belt is possible due to inside cooling.

But, as noted above, it does lead to new standards of comfort at the individual and collective level. How much heat is too much before air conditioning is needed? Is airflow an important factor when designing homes and buildings or does it not matter much because of what can be done with machines? Collectively, are we willing to pollute more because we have certain expectations about how we should feel?

The biggest backlash I have seen to this is the concerns expressed by many about temperatures within office buildings. Because different people experience the standard temperatures differently, there are expectations about how people should adjust to those standards, and most workers have no control over the temperature for everyone, these can be difficult situations. But, this does not generally lead to a call for no air conditioning whatsoever; it usually leads to a call for a different temperature.

If limiting air conditioning use is a goal, how would it work to move people to different comfort levels? Workplaces could be a good place to start as people can spend a good chunk of the day there.

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