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Living in an artificial environment

Air conditioning may keep us cool, but it further increases global warming.

People with low economic status tend to think that the wealthy are healthier; and they see that the rich people stay in air conditioned spaces in homes, offices, cars and shops, while they are toiling in uncomfortable ambiences.

As such, the myth spreads hat living in artificial environments is better than living with natural conditions.

Modern construction technology can provide air conditioning to any kind of space.

With the AC costs coming down every season and claims about green buildings adopting more efficient systems like radiant cooling, evaporative cooling and such others besides the conventional HVAC systems, building owners do not feel guilty for installing air conditioning.

However, are all the people living inside such artificial environments happy and healthy? Contrary to what the economically poor may dream, reports suggest otherwise. Living without fresh air, day light and nature is today proven to be very unhealthy.

Many indoor spaces do not have adequate fresh air inlet and air change as required, leading to what is called Sick Building Syndrome. Lack of ventilation can also lead to a feel of suffocation, partly due to increased ambient indoor heat, creating a sense of dryness.

The AC can take away internal humidity at such fast rate, too many people feel dehydrated inside, with dried lips and skin.

In places with short summer spells of a few weeks, like in Bengaluru, it is not worth fixing air conditioners for the short duration, letting it lie idle rest of the year.

When we get out of an AC space, the temperature difference between inside and outside causes what is called thermal shock. It can affect the body immune system.

Despite all these, we continue to live with conditioned air, rather than the natural. However, the indoor cool comes at a cost, further increasing the heat island effect and directly promoting greenhouse gas emissions.

Thus, air conditioning may keep us cool, but it further increases global warming.

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Is air conditioning sustainable?

Whether it is worth living with artificial ventilation, inadequate air change cycles, increased carbon dioxide intake, questionable indoor air quality and finally, the now much discussed sick building syndrome?

Twenty years ago this question would have got brushed aside as a nonsense statement, but today many subject experts feel, in its present form, air conditioning cannot be sustained towards a greener future. We condition the air such that we need not sweat or shiver, but we are making the earth sweat and shiver.

Humans can easily adopt their bodies to live in 4 to 40 degree Celsius temperature, with appropriate clothing. So, all our past generations have lived without air conditioning, even in climates harsher than the range mentioned. Our bodies are biologically made for gradual transitions in temperatures and humidity, on daily and seasonal basis. In reality, the body cannot adjust from 22 to 40 degree C. variations as we come out of an air conditioned office, hence moving in and out of A.C. creates body stress and strains.

Right balance

We need a balance and parity between outdoor and indoor temperatures for smoother body adaptions, but in India we follow the western standard of 22-23 degrees Celsius, which is more suited to their colder climates. No wonder when we walk into an A.C. bus or office, most often they feel like freezers. Also, the impact on body varies in auditoriums or offices with the number of occupants.

In urban contexts, people quote sound, smoke and dust to justify A.C., which is valid. But, how many of us can live 24 hours inside the A.C. and even if we can, would it be a greatly healthy life? The choice between letting the body get acclimatised or get conditioned is left to the individual, but what follows the A.C. is a fact — living with artificial ventilation, inadequate air change cycles, increased carbon dioxide intake, questionable indoor air quality and finally, the now much discussed sick building syndrome.

As a nation, India today is embracing this technology at a frenzied rate in every type of building, be it a college or a coffee shop, without being fully aware of the havoc it is creating. Fortunately, industrialised nations are worried about it, considering the energy it consumes, urban heat it increases and the potential it has to deplete the ozone layer. They have realised that HVAC systems (Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning) cannot perform without equipment, electricity, gas generation or creating waste at the end of the life cycle.

Better options

As such, many options for indoor comforts without air conditioning such as air cooling through humidifiers, chilled water pipe systems, earth tunnels, wind catchers with water pots, passive cooling systems, designing for the climatic zone, and design ideas with sky-lit atrium lobbies are being explored. Besides such ongoing research towards alternatives to A.C., the technology of air conditioning is also being improved for low energy consumption, efficient heat transfer systems, long life for machine components or environmentally safer refrigerants.

However, sustaining the growing popularity of air conditioning is still a big challenge.