I was recently at the Homes Within Reach Conference sponsored by the Housing Alliance in Harrisburg and saw a presentation by John Hayes of Blackney-Hayes. The presentation focused on the ways that buildings have evolved over the last 100 years, concluding that we have moved from building buildings that were organic (buildings that allowed for spaces that were used seasonally to maximize thermal comfort), to buildings that are more air-tight, "refrigerators with windows", as he called them. It is a valid point. In older architecture many spaces were created to be used during different seasons of the year; sleeping porches, verandahs, root cellars, courtyards and sunrooms. These spaces were driven by thermal comfort; it was more comfortable to sleep outside in the summer on a sleeping porch than it was upstairs, inside the house.
Over the last 100 years as mechanical solutions to thermal comfort have been widely adopted and as our ability to control the temperature and humidity in our spaces has increased, our expectations about our thermal comfort have increased right along with them and those spaces have disappeared. We used to endure higher temperatures in the summer and colder ones in the winter. Our clothing represented this reality too; sweaters and jackets in the winter and sleeveless shirts, and shorts in the summer. Now it is commonplace to walk into buildings in the summer that are conditioned to 68 degrees and below, forcing the occupants to wear sweaters. In fact over conditioning is the norm. Similarly in the winter, homes are kept so that the occupants can go barefoot, wearing T-shirts. This really is madness.
So as we tighten up our buildings to move closer to buildings that are "refrigerators with windows" isn't it important to remember that we as occupants have a responsibility for our environments and tolerate a greater range in the set points that we design towards? Is 68 degrees a really appropriate summer set point or could we move it to 72 degrees or 75? Super-insulation assumes mechanical solutions to thermal comfort. We are headed in this direction because we have a population that simply won't deal. But we as designers have a responsibility to inform our clients of the consequences of these decisions. We can bring set points into the discussion. It is important to realize that we are trading those architectural elements we identify as "the character" in buildings for being able to control the temperature in our buildings to the same set point year round. This means that we have complete mastery over our thermal comfort using mechanicalmeans. Why isn't it ok to be a few degrees warmer in the summer?