Extreme Environmental Design / Part 1

By Khaled Abou Alfa • 20th of February, 2022

While he was completely bald on top, his hair around the back and sides flopped past his ears, resembling big ears. His upper lip adorn a thick moustache. By the time of Povl Ole Fanger’s ascension as the grandfather of thermal comfort, he had developed a befittingly soft, friendly and comfortable look to match. Across the 1950s and 60s, Fanger carried out extensive research experiments. First at the DTU (Denmark Technology University) and then at Pennsylvania University. This research culminated in his 1970s book Thermal Comfort: Analysis and Applications in Environmental Engineering and with it established many of the equations, rules and concepts still in use as part of many national and international regulations. Part of the book’s lasting impact was the introduction of the PMV (Predicted Mean Vote) and the PPD (Predicted Percentage Dissatisfied). These indices and concepts provided engineers the tools to help create spaces that gave the largest possible percentage of a given group’ a comfortable thermal experience. It did this by taking gender, age, clothing, circadian rhythms, humidity and many other factors, into the equation. Fanger would continue his life’s work of understanding the marriage of human psychology and engineering to the betterment of our internal spaces, until he died in 2006.

These rules gave the framework that would guide regulations and engineers for the coming decades. We would seek to create indoor climates that understood how the humans inside buildings would feel and interact with their space. These rules came at a time when the technology was becoming more available that allowed our indoor environment to be controlled and regulated. In warm and humid climates this meant conditioned air. In colder climates this meant better indoor heating. Over time this new blanket of comfort went from being a privilege to becoming an expectation. It is this expectation of complete indoor comfort that contributed to both a different built environment and natural world.

The slow disappearance of vernacular architecture increased the sterilisation and homogenisation of our built world. The tower in Shanghai was now possible and available in Doha and replicated in Toronto. For the most part we sealed our buildings and relied on technology and energy to maintain the artificial environment inside. This came at the expense of the natural world which was (and continues to be) abused and stripped of its resources. This expectation was one of the many pillars of comfort built on the back of using more. More energy. More steel. More sand. More minerals. More coal. More petrol. We created a comfortable reality, one of decadence, at the expense of our planet. We took, but it wasn’t for free. This was all a loan with a very high interest rate. A loan which we all now have to pay the price for.

Action Forced Through Inaction

Conventional wisdom follows that the entities capable of forcing through transformative change necessary to combat climate change, are governments. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is the body designated to lead this charge and is behind several global pacts indented to tackle the issue of climate change. The Kyoto Protocol (1997) was the first international treaty and a symbol of cooperation between some nations. This had limited impact as the US, Canada and Russia did not sign up, while industrious nations such as China and Brazil were exempt from meeting the target. The Doha Amendment followed in 2002 and looked to keep the pressure on nations, except this time even fewer nations signed up or ratified this agreement into law. As it became clear the previous instruments had done all they could, a different international treaty was negotiated. This time 196 nations signed the Paris Agreement in 2015. Having learnt from previous treaties, to keep nations honest, a reporting system (the enhanced transparency framework, ETF), is meant to go into operation in 2024.

This reality, of a slow hunkering international body, is at the core of the frustration felt and demonstrated by thousands of activists around the world. These treaties and targets are the primary instruments we have established and pinned our future on. The fact remains that regardless of what is said or agreed, global emissions continue to increase and with that global temperatures follow. 25 years of summits where (generally) well meaning targets are set, headlines are then captured in the news cycle and we move onto the next headline. In short, these summits haven’t changed our course, and it is arguable whether they have even slowed down our general trajectory.

For decades many governments have been reticent to act, as real action takes courage, treasure and often comes at a high political price. These pledges and targets set in the far and distant future, 2030, 2050, 2070 are missing the point. We are well past the time of thinking about the future impacts of climate change. Life is already difficult for many around the world, and that number is only set to increase in the coming decades.

Our collective habits have changed completely across the last 100 years, which in part has brought us to this point. The world will be forced to make uncomfortable tradeoffs between the status quo and what it needs to ensure our prosperity and wellbeing. Change will need to start from within, as we wake up to our new reality. If we don’t understand this and act of our own accord, then change will be rammed down our collective throats. First by nature itself and then by governments. This will not only change the way we live, but where we can live. Before we get to that point, we will do what humans do best, which is try and technology’ ourselves out of this hole.


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