July 5th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

What's Up with My "Mood" Lately

The few of you who pay any attention to the "mood" line on these posts may have noticed that I've been feeling a trifle under-the-weather lately. What may not have been obvious, because I had other things I wanted to write about first, was that it had nothing to do with the subjects I was writing about.

You see, we just ended a five-day mini-heatwave, five days of temperatures about 10°F above normal. And on day one of that heatwave, both air conditioners crapped out on me. Now three of those five days I might not have bothered with air conditioning ... if this building weren't, like almost every building in St. Louis and most of the commercial buildings in America built since 1900, an engineering nightmare. As it was, it got pretty swelteringly hot in here. Oh, with the front, main one replaced on day two the living room got more or less comfortable and stayed that way for the second and third days. But it, by itself, couldn't keep up with the air conditioning out in the sunny side of the apartment. This led to both air conditioners (I was getting some trickle of cold air out of the back one) running flat-out on maximum fan and with the compressors on 100% of the time for three and a half days, a total sound volume (especially in the bedroom) of well over 40 decibels of roaring noise. Which was steadily and rapidly liquifying my brains and dribbling them out of my ears. Not only do continuous noises push my "overstimulation" button as an Aspie, they especially screw up my ability to sleep. So for five and a half days, I've only barely intermittently napped, and that mostly filled with weird, non-specific nightmares.

The weather has broken and is back to normal, so I've got a break from the air conditioning, and some time in the next couple of days at most the rear air conditioner will also be replaced. So it's a dealt-with problem, and after even one nap with the air conditioners off I already feel substantially better.

But damn it. For at least a hundred years now western civilization as a rule, Americans in general, and St. Louisans in particular have built the most terrifyingly stupid buildings that it is possible for a human being to erect, or else this wouldn't have been a problem. And the widespread adoption of air conditioning, during a time when the rest of the world's economies were still so bombed out they weren't competing with us in the energy market, only made things exponentially worse.

For one thing, like nearly every building in St. Louis, this apartment building is built out of brick. There was a reason for this back when the City made it legally mandatory back in the 1800s; at the time, St. Louis had burned to the ground twice in a single lifetime. Never mind that this was back in the coal-burning days and back when US fire companies were still privatized, it set in as a tradition. The idiots who keep building brick buildings, and who insist on rehabbing them rather than tearing them down, extol the virtues of St. Louis brick, which is in fact still a major export for the city. However, it is a mind numbingly stupid material to build out of in this climate, because we have both unusually hot summers and unusually cold winters. And during the summer, that dark red brick soaks up heat all day, and radiates it into the house all night so that it never actually cools off inside; without state of the art and energy-expensive air conditioning running flat out around the clock, St. Louis brick structures are death traps in the summer. And then, all winter long, the cycle reverses; 24x7 the brick sucks the heat out of your space and radiates it steadily to the outside world. Brick's thermal insulation properties are totally overwhelmed by how well, after very little time, it conducts heat from its surface to air.

We make this steadily worse, like virtually every commercial building in America and in the rest of the world post-Bauhaus, by building nothing but flat roofs. Which is insane. No place that ever gets snow, let alone the foot or more of it at a time that we get at least once per year, should be built with a flat roof. Heck, even places that only get rain are stupid places to build flat roofs, as it is guaranteed to puddle and eventually the weight of the water and/or snow deforms and sags the roof trusses. But we managed to make this worse in almost every building built before the last 25 years by making them black tar roofs, which contribute no particular heat in the winter when they're snow covered and you need it most but that do everything in their power to heat the buildings underneath them all summer long.

And then, as if that weren't stupid enough, they were built with no eaves. Who in their right mind builds buildings anywhere for any reason without eaves? Even if you don't get weather, eliminating the eaves guarantees that you can't open your windows in even a slight drizzle, and can't open the door in the rain without rain pouring in. And in any place that has seasons, well over 90% of this country by area, a properly-calculated eave will keep the sun off of your windows during the summer, when you don't want it, while not blocking them at all in the winter, when you do want it. There's an elvish insult in Emma Bull's War for the Oakes about "the kind of thinking that leads to buildings with windows that don't open," and boy you couldn't find a better example of it. And to top off the revolting stupidity, back when I was a kid and air conditioning took off we went on a tear in this country and ripped out nearly all the ceiling fans, and 99.99% of the attic exhaust fans. Anywhere but maybe San Francisco, living without ceiling fans is madness even with state of the art air conditioning and furnaces, the kind of foolhardiness you only see when energy is literally free. And even if energy were completely free, there is no building in the world that wouldn't be more comfortable with some way to bring cold air up off the floor during the summer and warm air down off of the ceiling during the winter.

So yeah, if I lived in a sanely designed building, one completely and utterly unlike every apartment building or city house in America, one with a properly insulated frame structure and properly-calculated eaves with ceiling fans in every room, any kind of deciduous shade on the south side of the property, and ideally a high-velocity ceiling exhaust fan to dump the hottest air in the house out and up, I know from long experience that for all but a few days of the year, I wouldn't need air conditioning. In this building, unfortunately, without it I'm miserable for probably close to two months' equivalent out of the year.