The Influence of Air Conditioning on Architectural Design

Modern city
© Yuriy Kirsanov / Adobe Stock

Most modern buildings are built with air conditioning systems as standard. The challenge of keeping people cool, with good ventilation and airflow in their home and workplace, has shaped the construction industry over the years.

Builders and architects continually strive to develop innovative new building designs and cooling techniques for our comfort as temperatures rise. The hottest day of 2018 in the UK was recorded on 8th July in Gosport, Hampshire – the temperature rocketed to 32.4°C during the heatwave.

Scientists are predicting record-breaking temperatures all over the world this summer. The Met Office believes 2019 will be one of the hottest years since records began. The average worldwide temperature this summer is expected to be around 1.1°C higher than the pre-industrial level.

This will bring it close to the heatwave of 2016, when 34.4°C was recorded in Gravesend, making it the hottest September day in 105 years. The summer of 2016 had previously set a record for the hottest day on 24th August, when people in Cavendish, Suffolk, baked in temperatures of 33.8°C.

Air conditioning evolution

Rising temperatures have led to an air conditioning evolution in recent years. Prior to the invention of AC, buildings commonly had high ceilings and large windows that would open wide to encourage good ventilation. They were often designed with central open courts to ensure good aeration everywhere.

Ventilation systems were invented to help structures to “breathe”. These systems focused more on sanitation than ventilation – removing dirty air from packed workplaces. In many busy cities, a lack of fresh air in the workplace was a major problem, because employees couldn’t open the windows due to dust.

In the summer, air cooled by ice was often pumped into the buildings, although this technique didn’t work very well. A refrigeration system was invented using underground pipelines, which supplied ice-cooled air for the interior.

When this didn’t make much difference, a new technique was invented, whereby hot air was sent into a “misting unit”, which was meant to cool it. Then, it was sprayed out as cold air. However, none of these complicated technologies worked well.

Willis Carrier

New York engineer Willis Carrier had invented air conditioning in 1902 and patented his creation in 1906. However, it wasn’t widely used in workplaces or people’s homes until the 1950s.

When artificial refrigeration was launched, air was passed through water to cool it down. The method was first used in industry and was later customised for people’s homes.

Buildings were also modified and a system called “thermo ventilation” became popular. Although technically advanced, it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, but it did offer comfort and convenience.

Architects designed homes with a cooler layout incorporating a flat roof, overhanging eaves and even glass walls, where wind ventilation helped keep them cool. It was thanks to modern engineering that these steel and glass structures were possible.

Commercial buildings adapted the “glass box” design and used opening windows and sun breakers to make them cooler. To a degree, this was a success, although it wasn’t 100% effective. The design was popular because it cut down on cooling and cleaning costs, with less heat and dirt entering the building.

Cinema air conditioning

Today, air conditioning is commonplace in just about every commercial building and also in many homes. It changed the face of going to the cinema, boosting customer numbers, as no-one enjoyed sitting in a hot, stuffy auditorium.

The first air-conditioned cinema was the Rivoli Theatre, in Times Square, New York. In 1925, Carrier installed his innovative “refrigerating plant” at a cost of $100,000, creating a comfortable, controlled temperature. Summertime box office receipts improved and the Rivoli took advantage of its investment by inviting people in to experience its “refrigeration plant” and escape the “sweltering” heat outside.

By 1930, more than 300 cinemas had followed the Rivoli’s lead and installed air conditioning. It was a selling point that they were “cooled by refrigeration” and they did much better at the box office than their competitors who didn’t have air conditioning.

It was said that air conditioning helped establish the tradition of the “summer blockbuster”, as studios released big movies during the summer, safe in the knowledge that plenty of people would flock to the cool cinema to have some respite from the heat outside.

Skyscrapers

Another type of building which has benefited greatly from air conditioning is the skyscraper. The first skyscraper was the Home Insurance Building, which opened in Chicago in 1884. It was a challenge keeping the workforce cool and it was reported that the windows were frequently left open for ventilation.

Techniques used for ventilation in skyscrapers were the same as those used in regular buildings, such as high ceilings, central open courts and light wells – the open area or vertical shaft in the centre of the building. In the modern era, it’s virtually unheard of to have the windows of a skyscraper open.

Built in 1932, the first high-rise building to have modern air conditioning was considered to be the PSFS Building in Philadelphia, which was designed by George Howe and William Lescaze.

Two decades later, with further advances in technology, Lever Brothers’ futuristic headquarters in New York had an updated “glass box” design, thanks to architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s talents.

The 24-storey building was the first skyscraper to have a truly modern design, with a ground-level plaza, underground parking, a cafeteria and a fully air conditioned office, creating a pleasant working environment. As well as creating a new, iconic design for skyscrapers, Lever House became so famous that it made the company a mainstream brand.

Air conditioning meant employees didn’t have to sit near the windows to keep cool, so more staff could fit on the floor space, encouraging collaboration.

Renovating older homes

Air conditioning is commonplace in most new buildings in the 21st century. People owning older homes or commercial buildings will frequently refurbish them to include air conditioning. There can be challenges, as sometimes, the old properties don’t have sufficient space to install the necessary duct-work.

In addition, the old electrical systems may not be up to handling the load of modern air conditioning equipment. Some common solutions include lowering ceilings or giving up cupboard space to make room for AC equipment, but it’s well worth it to benefit from the results.

LH-PLC is one of the UK’s leading air conditioning specialists, with more than 25 years’ experience in the industry. Please contact us for more information about our market-leading products and services.

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