BUILDING WITHOUT AIR CONDITIONING IN A WARMING WORLD

This summer’s heat and drought are reaching record proportions in southern Wisconsin and across much of the United States.  The disturbed soil around our building site has gradually turned into powder about 4 inches deep so that every step raised clouds of dust around our ankles. 

Every plant that we have not hauled water to has been showing signs of stress.  And speaking of stress,  our amazing, dedicated crew has been experiencing some as well as they have kept on building Underhill House  – climbing the ladders a little more slowly, but still climbing.

I expected to be describing our straw bale wall building today, but the heat slowed the preparations and then an extreme storm pounded us Wednesday night.  Three inches of driving rain flooded our basement and dampened the bales even though they were piled under tarps in the middle of the house frame.  Thursday was spent mopping up.

Now it looks like we’re right back into a hot, dry weather cycle, and today Doug and I are revisiting the air conditioning question.  Our goal for Underhill House is to create a home that is comfortable with as little energy usage as possible, and we crossed things like A/C, garbage disposal and dishwasher off the list long ago.

That was before the daily temperatures camping out in the upper 90s and then huddling in the hundreds.  The heat has given  us cold feet.  We have asked ourselves if we are crazy to leave A/C out of Underhill.

But we think not.  Underhill House has been designed to weather extreme temperatures.  We are counting on our thick, straw bale walls and a sod roof that slopes down from south to north.  Because the north side of the house is built into the hill we expect to be able to hold onto a little overnight coolness during the heat of the day by shutting windows.  And with 3-1/2 foot-deep soffits shading the passive solar windows on the south side, we don’t expect to be soaking up a lot of day-time heat in the summer.

This hybrid design that includes both earth sheltered and passive solar elements is fundamental to Underhill House and makes it possible to consider skipping air conditioning in a warming world.

Ultimately, no matter how good the design it’s hard to stay cooler than the overnight temperature, and in the heat wave we are enduring the overnight lows have not always been dropping below the 80s.

At those nighttime temperatures, what you are left with are coping strategies.

This may make things cooler inside, but it’s heating up the outside.

In the winter, it’s easy to keep adding layers.  In the summer you are limited.  Sleeping naked on top of the sheets is as far as you can go.  Moving the air helps, and in all our previous houses we have used oscillating fans to blow a cool breeze.   In Underhill we are going to put a ceiling fan over the bed.

And we northerners have a lot to learn from some southern traditions.    Things like the by-gone hand fan.  It’s amazing how much refreshment you can get with a flick of the wrist.  In our main room, the prevailing  breezes entering the house will be drawn up to the ceiling with a second ceiling fan and then blown out the loft windows on the east side of the house using an exhaust fan.

Ultimately, we just don’t feel  it makes sense to respond to this heat wave and those that will inevitably follow it by cranking up an air conditioning unit.  The heat that it pumps out into the world only makes the global warming problem worse.

According to the US Energy Information Agency, in a typical East North Central household (the region that includes my home state of Wisconsin) central air-conditioning systems accounted for 12 percent of total household electricity consumption in 2001, compared with 16 percent nationwide. And while air-conditioning was a smaller end use than refrigerators in the East North Central Division, it was the actually the single biggest end use of electricity nationwide.  No doubt everyone’s A/C usage is trending upward since these figures were tallied.

photo credit for this all too blazing sun: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tedkoston/3961985794/sizes/l/

I’m o.k. with feeling a little warm on a sweltering day.  Dialing up the air conditioning as the globe warms seems like a ponzi scheme – in which future generations will get stuck holding the bag.  As far as I’m concerned, that big bag of hot air has to stop here.  I’ve burned more than my fair share of carbon.  I’ll take my medicine, keep cool using as little nonrenewable energy as possible, tough out some warm nights,and do what I can  to turn the global warming trend  around.

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3 replies

  1. I know it’s a little late to be asking this question, but did you consider a pitched roof? Yours is likely to hold snow–that’s why “ranch” homes don’t make sense in places that get lots of snow. Plus a pitched roof would let you install an attic fan, which used judiciously has allowed us to avoid turning on the air conditioning until daytime temps are well into the 90s. If you can’t reconsider roof pitch at this late date, consider making sure that you can place large fans to draw cool air in one part of the house (fan facing in) and then cross-ventilate by making a fan on the opposite side of the house face out. Use the fans in the evening as soon as the outside temp is the same as the inside temp and run it through to morning.

    By the way, count yourself lucky. We’ve had several days over 110 and were some of the rare few acres in the state to get a paltry single inch of rain in what’s coming up on two months.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    Our pitch is indeed going to be relatively shallow – on average about 2-in-12. It’s a shed roof that slopes continuously downward from south to north, therefore slightly away from the sun.
    In terms of snow load, we are pretty confident we are in good shape because of the added strength that comes from the basic timber frame design.
    This roof will have 12 inches of insulation underneath relatively cool sod as apposed to traditional heat-absorbing asphalt shingles.

    We are on the same page with you about air flow.

    In our current house, we do exactly as you suggest and vent the attic. We have a full attic that we can blow air out of, and I agree it’s a great way to go. My husband is just starting to close the house down for the day at 8 a.m., as we face another hot one.
    We won’t be able to do that with Underhill House’s cathedral ceiling design, however we will use the cross ventilation approach that you describe to great advantage.
    With prevailing breezes entering from the west, we intend to blow air out the high loft windows in the east wall. We anticipate being able to create a cooling breeze with ease. We’ll supplement this air flow with fans as necessary.

    There are always unknowns when building a non-traditional structure, but we have thought it through as best we can, and we will put it to the test next year.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I love hearing from you, and hope you get rain soon.

    • Thank you! We finally got 1.75 inches two days ago. It was a huge relief, but almost all of Arkansas is still in “severe” or “extreme” drought. We need a nice hurricane coming up from the Gulf.

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