Seeing Better Alternatives to the A/C

By: Adeline Sauberli

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We’re thinking up sustainable revisions to almost everything money can buy. What’s next for keeping cool in our buildings on a steadily warming planet?

For a six-floor building, all the electricity, gas, and water can be sourced from the ground, pressurized in great big tanks hidden away in the basement to shoot up and be distributed up and across apartments. From a warm and humid boiler room in which the heat felt like it weighed down on you, I met the origin of all our hot water and got to see these large tanks for the first time. I observed as Mr. Mejia, my building’s superintendent, demonstrated adjusting the setting for either the summer or winter months, which makes sure that the heaters won’t turn on unless the temperature outside the building is less than 54 degrees Fahrenheit. There was even an ominous-looking oil tank in a room that, once unlocked, opened into a nearly pitch-black area for all the fuel to reside. Following the journey of the oil, I learned that the fuel was of a grade that would let out a lot of smoke. The ashes the chimney collected were in their own pile. 

It was eye-opening to see that all of this was needed for what I believed to be a relatively small building. This made me curious about how solar power could come in to support the amount of oil needed to power our homes. But to be better prepared to explore ways in which we can design our buildings more sustainably, I thought it would be helpful to start from the beginning—to take a look at the infrastructure already in place to manage electricity, heating, and overall energy consumption, which are the subjects of the potential redesign I’d like to explore here. 

The way we design our buildings and our homes is becoming more and more inextricably tied to the conditions of our world’s climate. The recent cataclysmic collapse of part of Champlain Towers South in Florida attests to the urgency of applying this idea. Back in 2018, engineers conducted a foreboding report for the condominium’s structural integrity and found alarming “major structural concerns” in the way water was being drained on the pool deck, and suggested the need for a revision of the building’s waterproofing system. In his article “I know all about Condo Living. Change Is Coming”, lawyer David B. Haber, who specializes in laws related to condominiums, looks at conditions specific to Florida that impacts their buildings from climate change. He says, “With sea-level rise and the corrosive salt air along the coasts, waterproofing of concrete is as important as brakes are to cars. Concrete is porous, and when water penetrates it, deterioration can occur.” Haber’s mention of the way that concrete works—or doesn’t work—for our buildings can easily feel disappointing, but ultimately something to be accepted as the building block for our skyscrapers. But is there a different way we can design our buildings to be more adaptive to global warming? Are there ways to support natural cooling and heating indoors? 

This summer has yielded record-shattering heat waves, and with reason to expect a higher frequency of natural disasters as the planet continues to warm, we have to meet the challenging effects of climate change that are already here and affecting the most vulnerable populations by exploring alternatives in our homes. In Stefan Al’s TED-Ed video, “Could we build a wooden skyscraper?” he offers an intriguing solution to the problem that concrete can crack during an earthquake and threaten the entire foundation of a building. 

A visit to the Bronx Zoo demonstrates the zoo’s applications of more energy-efficient methods to run their Lion House, namely the fuel cell: lightweight and compact power generators that only emit heat and water as waste. These byproducts can even be repurposed to heat up a building in the winter months in an energy-saving cogeneration system.

Another reliable and low-maintenance innovation is the Windcatcher. Used in North Africa and the Middle East for thousands of years, windcatchers work with the way heat and wind move to optimize comfortable temperatures. Utilizing concepts like “natural ventilation” and “passive cooling” sure to pique your interest, windcatchers are designed with openings in their walls that let cool wind pass through the building, and can be tailored to local weather conditions by adding internal partitions to redirect the incoming wind to areas in the building that need it the most. Tall windcatchers are perfectly equipped to invite the less dusty, stronger, and cooler winds that occupy that height. Additionally, through the same process that lets heat escape from chimneys, the less-dense hot air in homes can rise and exit through the windcatcher openings. And remember visiting the basement to witness the underground pipes supplying water to apartments? Windcatchers use an evaporative cooling method by sending inflowing wind on a short detour above a stream of water in a reservoir called a qanat!

There are better cooling, heating, and powering systems to outfit our buildings with to prepare for weather becoming more and more extreme. Looking at how regions around the world with seasoned experience deal with rising temperatures, or even the way our local parks and nature centers gear up their buildings, can give us inspiring models to make changes to the places we live.

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