05.12.22
Rachel Lehrer + Lee Moreau | Audio

The Futures Archive S2E5: The Air Conditioner


On a hot summer day there's nothing like walking into a freezing cold office building to remind you of how much humans are modifying their environments. On this episode of The Futures Archive Lee Moreau and Rachel Lehrer discuss the pleasures and pains of air conditioning for ourselves and the sustainability of the planet.

With additional insights from Salvatore Basile, Daniel Barber, Kofi Boone, and Gail Brager.

Rachel told Lee about her concerns with ubiquitous products like air conditioning:
Part of the problem with our current system, I think, is that we don't feel the impacts of it. It's all long term impacts, not immediate. And so that motivation to relegate our pleasure to a larger principle, to a larger purpose, it's not there.
Lee Moreau is President of Other Tomorrows, a design and innovation consultancy based in Boston, and a Professor of Practice in Design at Northeastern University.

Rachel Lehrer works on high risk, high reward projects that span violence to pleasure and is building a company for men with the goal of increasing pleasure for women.

Salvatore Basile is the author of COOL: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything.

Daniel Barber is associate professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design and the author of Modern Architecture and Climate: Design before Air Conditioning   .

Kofi Boone is a University Faculty Scholar and Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at NC State University College of Design.

Gail Brager is the Director of the Center for Environmental Design Research, and Professor of Architecture at UC Berkley.


Subscribe to The Futures Archive on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app. And you can browse the show archive.

Kathleen Fu created the illustrations for each episode.

A big thanks to this season’s sponsor, Automattic.



Transcript

Lee Moreau
Welcome to The Futures Archive, a show about human centered design, where this season, we'll take an object, look for the human at the center and keep asking questions. I'm Lee Moreau...

Rachel Lehrer
...and I'm Rachel Lehrer.

Lee Moreau
On each episode, we're going to start with an object with power. Today, that object is the air conditioner. We'll look at the history of that object from our perspective, as designers who've done work in human centered design, not just how it looks and feels, but also the relationship between that object and the people it was designed for.

Rachel Lehrer
And with other humans and buildings, too.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is brought to you by the design team at Automattic. Later on, we'll hear from talent design manager and member of the Designer Experience team, Toto Castiglione.

Lee Moreau
Hi, Rachel. It's so good to see you again. Thanks for joining us and continuing our conversation on pleasure.

Rachel Lehrer
My pleasure.

Lee Moreau
Perfect. Well played. I have to ask— and this will become more more appropriate as we go into the episode, but I'm wondering where you are right now and like, how's the weather?

Rachel Lehrer
Well, I'm really one of those people when someone asked me that question and I'm going to be quite specific with you, usually I actually go outside and check the temperature. I'm not one of those people who looks at the weather app on my phone. So, Lee, when about 20 minutes ago, when I was outside, the weather was perfect. And it's rare to get to say that in New York, but it was like pretty chilly, warm enough in the sun. How about where you are?

Lee Moreau
Well, I'm glad I dragged you in for this conversation, but- but where I'm at is unseasonably chilly up in Boston, and it's been like that for the last week. So I'm looking forward to that spring weather from New York coming up here. So we're here to talk about the air conditioner today. And I think we'll be talking about issues related to how we feel and what good feeling is like. But we're also going to be thinking about that in relationship to pleasure. And have you been doing a lot of thinking about the relationship between pleasure and air conditioning in preparation?

Rachel Lehrer
Yes. Yes, and my my temperature specifically. I'm sure we'll get into this — it's a little bit less about the object and more about what environment I feel comfortable in relative to like the air around me.

Lee Moreau
Okay. So the-the feeling, right?

Rachel Lehrer
Yeah. The-the feeling of my body and what I mean, it's sort of like what I think I was just describing of the air around me can be one temperature, but in the sun I feel warmer than in the shade. And so it's a little bit of like maybe it's not the temperature, maybe it's sort of where I am in space that makes me feel pleasure or makes my body feel better than in another space. But yes, I've been doing thinking about this and feeling most importantly, I think.

Lee Moreau
And do you have thoughts about the air conditioner itself as a thing or maybe as a system?

Rachel Lehrer
Yes, I do. You know, but it's very it's very colored by my personal experience. I've lived in New York for 20 years. Before that, I lived and I grew up in Los Angeles, where air conditioners weren't really a thing. We had a ton of ventilation. And the the temperature in LA is pretty mild and so we didn't need to think about temperature control. And then in New York, I always was in sort of cheap rentals that had no centralized AC, and I always had window units. And I was so keenly aware of the trade off between taking this one space where light came in and locking it with a window unit. And so I've always disliked the air conditioning unit. I recognized its value during like three days of the year, but I was mainly angry at it for like blocking my ability to open my windows and I still feel that way. So, yes, I'm not a huge fan, but I recognize that at critical peak moments, it is a necessary tool.

Lee Moreau
So we're going to hear a lot more about the air conditioner in this episode. We'll talk to some historians and designers who've done work on the topic of the air conditioner. And this is what we've heard so far.

Salvatore Basile
This is one of those inventions that doesn't have a specific inventor.

Lee Moreau
Salvatore Basil is the author of Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything.

Salvatore Basile
There have been attempts to cool the air surrounding us for thousands of years. As long as people have been living in dwellings, there have been attempts to cool that air. It wasn't until about 1902 when there was a very young engineer named Willis Carrier. Invented a system where air would be drawn over pipes filled with very cold water. Humidity would be lowered. Temperature would be lowered. What he called the apparatus for treating air, which was soon called air conditioning, offering it not only to improve factory production, but to improve comfort of people.

Lee Moreau
So before air conditioning was introduced into the home, it was really the product for industry where there are these big warehouses and factories that were being built and all the investment in air conditioning was really mostly for the benefit of the products that companies were selling, not for the benefits of humans living in their homes.

Salvatore Basile
And indeed, in 1929, the first home units, the first machines for air conditioning, living spaces were offered to the public. They were huge. They were clumsy. They were incredibly expensive. They cost as much as a car and they were hundreds of pounds.

Lee Moreau
And we're really talking about design for pleasure or were hoping to. How do you make people feel comfortable with this new thing like air conditioning they've never experienced before? You can imagine, like people saying, like, that's not something I want. How do you help people get comfortable with a new idea, even when it's designed for their pleasure?

Rachel Lehrer
Part of it is I think you have to make people's pain or discomfort evident or obvious, right? It's all— for this it would all be about timing. Ideally, if you're bringing something new into a society, you want it to actually be solving a problem. And so, you know, as designers, we talk to people who actually experience the problem and say: Hey, this is the way to do it. And you-one would hope that there isn't already a better solution out there. So for me, I guess in this situation or for designers, you really want to know who your target market is. And it sounds like from this it's really — we will make your machine work. And for humans, it's probably finding those who are suffering from heat the most and providing this as an alternative, saying: Hey, this might be a big, ugly, noisy, expensive machine, but it can do things that you weren't able to achieve before.

Lee Moreau
It does definitely sound like I'm hearing marketing speak as you're talking a little bit, which is like let's let's convince them that they actually have a problem when they may not have a problem that's so bad, but they have to have a problem that's big enough to introduce a very expensive, noisy machine that's going to like be- have its own burdens, right?

Rachel Lehrer
Yeah. We're definitely selling toothpaste a little bit here.

Lee Moreau
A little bit. So let's hear from Salvatore again about the air conditioner, how air conditioning wasn't necessarily an obvious thing for many people.

Salvatore Basile
There was very much a Victorian feeling that God made hot weather and you should put up with it. You shouldn't tamper with such things. Even though winter time was countered by heating devices and a fire in the fireplace, the opposite was just considered too foreign for most people to grasp.

Lee Moreau
You're not supposed to put up with the cold, but you are supposed to just put up with heat— and that's how God intended it. But it's kind of kind of an absurd thing when you hear it that way. But I can imagine that the introduction of air conditioning was met originally with like, why do we need this, like, we've never had this before.

Rachel Lehrer
You know, it, it also probably has to do with like how extreme it gets and where you grew up. In a lot of ways it's like, yeah, put up with the heat, just wear less clothing. Right. There are lots of ways to mitigate heat and similarly with cooling. But yes, I, I, I hear Salvatore talking about this and I think how did I grow up with Victorian sensibilities and have managed to maintain them?

Lee Moreau
Right. So okay, we're kind of going down this path where it's actually not the air conditioner that need to be invented or air conditioning that needed to be designed as an experience, it's really that we needed to sort of redesign people or reprogram people to accept these machines and the conditions that they create. You do this a lot in your own work, right? Like you go into places as a designer and you. Talk to people and help them accept or react to things that they wouldn't have otherwise been introduced to in some circumstances, right?

Rachel Lehrer
Yeah, certainly. I mean, it's I think it's also very much about aligning with what people's values are. So it's first understanding what are your values, what motivates you, and then thinking about, well, how are our goals aligned if they are aligned and how can I make this something that is easy to adopt? So I think it's a little bit of, yes, how can you get people to accept something? But also recognizing that for some people it's just irrelevant or, you know, if it is relevant, it's in a very particular moment or instance.

Lee Moreau
And when you're looking for those moments of alignment. Is pleasure or has pleasure ever been a motivator that you've encountered in your work?

Rachel Lehrer
Absolutely. And it's really interesting because I think in a lot of the places where I've worked that have been historically like underinvested communities, lower resource environments, people don't think of pleasure. They just think about reducing need or reducing suffering. But really, if you think about people's values or what motivates them, a lot of it is pleasure. And it's this I think is very interesting in terms of, you know, temperature control, because it is one of those things that in the most extreme environments, people are not willing to give up. They're not willing to say: Oh, I'm going to forgo this because is it is attached to sleep, it is attached to rest, it is attached to the ability to move around your house. I was doing work in Pakistan in 2013 and I was in a-an informal settlement. I was doing work for the World Bank and I was talking about how people spend their money. These women who were getting these payments from the government were saying the one- the first thing that I will use this money to do is to pay our electricity bill because that turns on the fan. And in the summer you need the fan. And this was above school fees, this was above food, this was about having air flowing over your body and having a comfortable body.

Lee Moreau
So we're going to go back to air conditioning but your fan brings us, right, it brings us right there to the precipice, right. Which is like using electricity to change one's environment. And with the introduction of air conditioning, the entire built environment changed. So we think about this a lot in the architecture world. It's great— yes, you could live in hotter places, but the buildings also changed as a result. And now you can start to build insulated glass towers. You can build in the Sunbelt, but you are starting to build differently and in different places.

Daniel Barber
Anyone interested in modern architecture should see that this climatic aspect is a huge part of it.

Lee Moreau
Daniel Barber is associate professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design.

Daniel Barber
We have become accustomed to air conditioning not only individually but just sort of culturally.

Lee Moreau
And I have to say, when I hear this clip, it makes me think of doing research in a call center, watching people that were answering telephones and making these kind of calls, doing customer service, and how they would adapt their cubicle to the conditions of air conditioning. So it's like, yay, we have air conditioning, but then they have space heaters underneath and they're wearing snuggies, or they have fans. I mean, there's all kinds of adaptations that we do now because we're operating in conditioned spaces. It's- it's a total paradigm shift.

Rachel Lehrer
Yes, I have been in a lot of offices where it is beautiful outside and then it is just it feels like average inside. And yet what that actually makes me realize is that people feel comfortable at very different temperatures because not everyone is using the space heater at the same time. But the idea that there is or not everyone is wearing a sweater at the same time, but the idea that there is one temperature at which we are all comfortable seems completely bizarre, right? Like based on where we come from, where we were raised, the kind of home we were raised in. Right. Like I am most comfortable with wind on my skin. It actually has very little to do with the actual temperature of the air, but it is about the breeze. And to pretend that there could be like one person who is controlling a thermostat that has figured out the right temperature for all of us. I mean, seems a little insane that that that's somehow the trap we've fallen into.

Lee Moreau
We'll hear more about this trap from Daniel. He's also the author of Modern Architecture and Climate: Design Before Air Conditioning.

Daniel Barber
There's an image in the book in the 1950s from a sort of climate discourse right, and it's kind of showing the comfort zone, right? And it's this physio metric, right, it's a quasi technical charge and it has a kind of cloud of the comfort zone across temperature and humidity. And the illustrators in the 50s, the architects in the fifties drew in a little guy in there in a suit, reading the newspaper, smoking a pipe, relaxing, you know, being comfortable. Right, I mean, the epitome of kind of fifties, you know, man in the gray flannel suit, sort of on top of the world, right. How we begin to recognize, yeah, how those cultural values are just sort of there to be disrupted at the stage, right. And, you know, how do we shake ourselves out of that?

Rachel Lehrer
I mean, designing to disrupt cultural values. I think it's recognizing, you know, and this is a lot of the critique of design is that how might we, right, is who is we in this situation? We know that this system was designed for a guy in a suit, but it's also about who is doing the asking and whose values are you designing for and how close are your values as the we of a designer to those people you're designing for. And so in a lot of senses, I think it's about questioning who we are, where we come from, and whether we're really the right people to be doing the designing for, you know, a particular audience. And in my work, it's been so much of my job of doing work in faraway places is about having a team on the ground that is actually from those places and understand not just what people think about things, but how they live and how those things feel. And that includes how they feel on your skin and what pleasure feels like versus discomfort and how that's different.

Lee Moreau
Questioning the we— we have not done a lot of that in design, or-or certainly it's it's been only a topic of conversation relatively recently.

Rachel Lehrer
Yeah. It's a I think it's a really critical piece of recognizing one, the privilege of being a designer and being able to question the products that we use our environment and being able to invent new things. And I think it's an incredible privilege. I never forget that. But it also makes me recognize that I am not the right person to be doing that in a lot of contexts, and that you need to surround yourself with a lot of people, whether they're designers or not, that have a deeper knowledge, that can have that empathy, right? Where there isn't that empathy gap between how I have been raised and what I know and the people we are designing for. So yeah, it's been a sort of, I think reckoning for me and adapting of how we work and what the process looks like and who's on the team and making decisions and, you know, leading us. And hopefully it becomes, you know, more widespread across the industry.

Lee Moreau
Well, we have a lot of things to fix in that, a lot of systems have been built without that kind of mindfulness that we live with every day and the things that we use and produce to affect our climate, like air conditioning, is one of those really big systems that we're trying to tangle with now. In Daniel's work, he writes and sort of thinks and teaches about a term that he called the comfortoscene, which is a play on words on anthropocene, right, which is basically the current geological age that we live in, which is really dominated by human activity and its impact on climate and the environment. And let's hear more about Daniel's take on the comfortoscene.

Daniel Barber
Comfort and discomfort, right, are both sort of conditioned and cultivated. And so I think there's a lot of questions about how we then recognize, you know, draw those networked maps that connect, turning up the air conditioning to the power plants, to the refinery, to the boat, to the extraction processes. That comfort is an essential aspect of that as a driver of carbon emissions, right. But it's also a sort of cultural driver of what we can think of— I'm just making this up right now as carbon aspirations— right, I like that. Which is that, you know, you want something that is carbon dependent. How do you want something else?

Lee Moreau
So here's a new dimension from Daniel about this notion of pleasure or comfort, which is that it comes at the expense of something else, right. How do you think of that in design, this notion that sometimes the design that we do comes at the expense of something else, this notion of tradeoffs.

Rachel Lehrer
This is something that I've thought a lot about. When you think about the ethics of design and design justice, you think about principles that are in other fields, that are doing work with vulnerable people, like the Hippocratic Oath, like do no harm principles. I think they're really nice principles, I think the way you design that is- and the way you make people aware of those tradeoffs and the impact that they are having on other people is essentially about making their use and their experience visible, right. So how are we monitoring or being made aware of our energy usage? How do we then give the individual back the ability to then monitor that, to turn it down or to turn it up? So it's not one centralized thing for a man in a flannel suit.

Lee Moreau
Mhm.

Rachel Lehrer
And then how do you do behavioral nudges to get people to behave in the right way? So provide comparisons with their neighbors and making sure that that comparison, if you're lower, doesn't mean that you can like turn it up right, which some research has shown humans do. So I think a lot of it is about, you know, making the impact that people have visible. And part of the problem with our current system, I think, is that we don't feel the impacts of it. It's all long term impacts, it's not immediate. And so that motivation to relegate our pleasure to a larger principle, to a larger purpose, it's not there.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is brought to you by the design team at Automattic, which is building a new web and a new workplace all around the world.

Toto Castiglione
My name is Toto Castiglione. I'm a designer, talent manager at Automattic and a member of the designer experience team. I am from Italy, but now I live in Poland.

Lee Moreau
In Toto's role, he can tell what kind of designers work well at Automattic.

Toto Castiglione
You must be really independent at Automattic. We have not a typical heirarchical waterfall organization where you have your boss that tell you what to do. And there is a real freedom here to do things, experiment. Even though this company now is very big um since I join it, I don't know — 200 people join it in the last few months. We always say that we are a chaotic company, but we embrace chaos with positivity because we believe that chaos generates a lot of opportunity and possibility to people, to you to be creative and solve the problem and exponentially grow in this enviroment.

Lee Moreau
Designing a better web. Join us at Automattic dot com slash design. That's AUTO-M-A- double T-I-C dot com slash design.

Lee Moreau
I love that we're still talking about pleasure because if we'd said, like with the disco ball a few weeks ago, this notion that: Hey, you need to make your pleasure visible in this moment, like the last thing you want when you're dancing under a disco ball is to be thinking about the fact that you're dancing in a disco. You want to be in some other place, right? And so there are moments where you want to embrace this notion of acknowledgment of systems and I see what's happening, and there are other times where in order to achieve pleasure, you don't.

Rachel Lehrer
Yeah. And look, I think a-the disco ball isn't necessarily tied into a system, right? It doesn't have immediate impacts or or long term impacts on other people. But I think an air conditioner is inherently different in that way. Right. It is connected into systems. Our decisions with respect to our personal comfort do have implications for other people. And and so it really is, you know, my personal pleasure sometimes it's innocuous in terms of its impact on other people, but other times it's really not. You know, so many things that could point to where like it is a pleasurable experience for me, but it will be harmful for someone else or it will negatively impact someone else.

Lee Moreau
As you were talking, it was like, I wonder if the person who is writing design specifications for a discotheque would be like: Okay, we need a bar — check, we need air conditioning — check, we need a disco ball — check. But those things are- some of those things are operating at very different levels. And yet from a design specifications perspective, you just say, no, we just need to like make these things happen in order to achieve the goal of this environment. But we're not. I think a lot of cases we're not really thinking this through.

Rachel Lehrer
No. And look, I think a lot of the incentives aren't there either for the people who are designing these spaces, right. Or- whether it's the a, you know, a club or our homes. Like if the person that was designing that checklist was incentivized, right, was paid a bonus because people had a better time. Or if I got paid, if the energy bill was lower, if people's energy usage was lower, I'd think really differently about what I was making. But that's not how architecture works, right? That's not how urban design works. That's not how landscape architecture works. So in a sense, like, I think the designers of a lot of these spaces, the designers of our pleasure are incentivized by the wrong things. The motivation is just not there.

Lee Moreau
So our comfort comes at the expense of something else. And yes, our pleasure comes at the expense of other people, it sounds like. So who is that?

Kofi Boone
The most affected communities are not the people producing problems.

Lee Moreau
Kofi Boone is a university faculty scholar and professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at NC State University in the College of Design.

Kofi Boone
So that goes for pollution globally with climate justice. That's one of the huge challenges is that the emitters are not the same people who face the most direct effects on planetary scale. So it's a good sort of micro example, using air conditioners. We are relying on it for convenience. We all think it's relatively neutral, it's most technological thing, but in fact it's not. There's benefits and there's definitely costs. Right? And usually we can't really see those and assess those in real time. And sometimes we need help to see what that means. And that's something that personally I like about design and landscape architecture. Is that we have a lot of skills to visualize what those tradeoffs might be.

Lee Moreau
You talked about this a little bit before, Rachel, but what is the role of the designer in making these costs visible? Like, how do we do that?

Rachel Lehrer
I think it is a little bit of recognizing the sort of part of-the part of humans that is not willing to forgo near-term benefit for long term benefit, right. We want immediate gratification. We are going we want to spend our money now, we don't want to put it in a 401K, even though we recognize that like in the long term, that will be much better for us. I think the same is true for these kinds of systems where we just need to sort of, as Kofi sort of saying, we need to recognize that this is this is something that is happening. And yet our systems aren't set up to acknowledge that, like we're going to make any difference or we're going to make a change willingly unless something drastically changes. So I always think about the the incentives in the system. So you look at the difference between policies in California versus those in Texas right now when it comes to climate change and regulation. You know, in design, I don't know if designers are doing a great job with this. I think there are some things we can do to make the short term impact more obvious. But I also think there are a lot of things that we need to be doing at a governmental and regulatory level to to actually create a lot of these changes.

Lee Moreau
From a governmental and regulatory perspective, I totally see that. I'm also thinking on the experiential level, when we were talking to Kofi doing the interview with him, he talked about like: Oh, I wonder if there was a sort of like blue color that came out of the air conditioner or like a blue light so that you actually had some recognition that— Hey, this air is blue and it comes at a cost, just to kind of make you aware, because it's almost like we don't even we're not even aware of the experience that we're having when we're having it.

Rachel Lehrer
I love the blue air idea because it's like, what is this unnatural, swirling thing that we have led into our home? Do we understand the chemicals that have been put in this that make this possible? So I think that would make people actually question the ex- the the product a lot. Right. Because what we've conflated here is that we recognize, right, everyone should recognize that your body has a temperature that it is most comfortable at. But what we take for granted is the fact that we have like defaulted to a choice of buying a product that has weird chemicals in it that, yes, is creating blue air or red air or whatever, like uncomfortable, unnatural color we want to put into it to say, you know, the goal is is fine, the goal is great. We appreciate the principle of like temperature control for our bodies, but let's question how we are actually getting there.

Lee Moreau
Let's hear a little bit more from Kofi about the kinds of power that we need to be considering.

Kofi Boone
From the climate justice perspective, that requires countries and corporations that are the most privileged and have the most resources to begin to think about how to pay their fair share.

Rachel Lehrer
And so how do you do that with an air conditioner when it is about protecting people that are far away from us and who we feel distant to? And-and that would be a challenge. But I also think that, like that calls for aggressive design. You know, when we get into our cars and it goes, beep, beep, beep, when you don't put in our seatbelt or when a truck is backing up. Right? Like what if that was attached to our AC? Or it was like, you can turn this on, but you're going to hear something profoundly annoying while you do it. And let's make sure you're aware of the fact that this is a thing that is not desirable for everyone. It's only desirable for you.

Lee Moreau
Well, I'm glad we're bringing it back to the air conditioner. Let's hear a bit more about the relationship between pleasure and its costs.

Gail Brager
When I first started, the word sustainability was not the buzz word that it was today. And I think things have really shifted where at one point it was all about energy and then it started moving into interests of health and comfort.

Lee Moreau
Gail Brager is a professor of architecture at UC Berkeley and the associate director at The Center for the Built Environment.

Gail Brager
For me, the things that interested me the most were always about where the conversations intersected, ideas of environmental values and climate responsive architecture. And ultimately, how do we create buildings that not only minimize their energy use, but create indoor environments that bring people not just comfort, but-but joy.

Lee Moreau
So the answer is not more AC for so many reasons. Like we can't just keep pumping AC into our environment. In fact, I think the physics of that will probably become really prohibitive and weird. But the answer is also like it's not to do nothing and revert to where we were. So maybe as designers, our job is to go back and figure out what the actual pleasure actually is, where the actual pleasure actually comes from.

Gail Brager
Air conditioning is creating spaces that are static, neutral. They disconnect people from nature. I call this thermal monotony and there's nothing pleasurable about it.

Lee Moreau
Static, neutral, boring. Just the way she was listing those words, I was like: Oh my God, it sounds horrible. I wonder if, like, what is the most pleasurable atmosphere that you've ever been in? And it's not the kind of boring, static, neutral space, I imagine.

Rachel Lehrer
No. And this it takes me half a second to think of its being on the beach in Hawaii. So warm wind on your skin when you are not wearing a lot. That's- that's it. What's yours Lee?

Lee Moreau
No, there's like- and there's trees, like, kind of giving you a little bit of shade.

Rachel Lehrer
Oh, yeah. And the waves and the sand.

Lee Moreau
Maybe like a birds chirping.

Rachel Lehrer
There's environmental noise. The sound of water is always like a big one for me.

Lee Moreau
Let's hear more from Gail again,

Gail Brager
What I advocate for, for the future is almost a return in some ways to what we had before air conditioning, but in more nuanced and modern ways. So I advocate for more rich variable environments that connect people to the natural rhythms of nature and incorporate people based individually controllable conditioning strategies that focus on creating comfort for people, not just responding to ambient thermostats, but allowing people to have greater adaptive opportunity and choose how to create more rich, variable and dynamic experiences.

Lee Moreau
I'm hearing power to the people, right? Give people control. Give people the power to control their own environments, give them a window. Well, I'm like, that sounds like absurd. But, you know, that's just one of the affordances that she's talking about there.

Rachel Lehrer
You know, one thing that's interesting about all this work from home stuff is— if I feel hot, I can go in the shade. If I feel cool, I can go outside and sit on my porch. You know, what is inherent in what she's saying and is not available to everyone is that they actually have that control and power to like pick where they're working and what they're the space that they are in. But I think it's also, you know, who controls the thermostat for you, as my home has become more automated and we have raspberry pis everywhere at this point. Each of my thermostat has its own control. So at first it was one dumb thermostat. Then we got a nest on every floor, and now it's by room, the sort of height of luxury for us. And keep in mind, I don't have an AC, but for heating is to actually be able to control the temperature in every room is to have it be much more individualized and specific. You know, and I think there's a little bit in design the idea that like, guess that's perfect for everyone. But sometimes I you know, the difference is then, well, now I need to think about this a lot and I need to make decisions. So I think there's tradeoffs with that, too.

Lee Moreau
So you basically are on yourselves doing a project to make the world around you more evident, right. You know, you know what the conditions are because you have the data, but you're also making it as pleasurable as possible based on your own personal preferences in that moment.

Rachel Lehrer
Absolutely. I mean, and I think a big part of this, right, is we want to get solar installed, right. So the whole point is to limit our reliance on fossil fuels. So we want to get solar installed. But in order to do that, we need to know how much energy we're using. And so we've built this whole system, right, on our own because this doesn't actually exist very well to know what is pulling the most power and how to, if we can reduce it, how to sort of streamline it. But in the end, that allows us to know how big our solar array needs to be.

Lee Moreau
So I was going to ask you like tell me a story about your experience working in design where you encountered a situation like this and basically you're doing it on yourselves. But what I learned from this, from that story is like having the data and the information upfront is really foundational. I think you're going to be a case study for Gail Brager, let's hear a little bit more from her.

Gail Brager
I think first we need to move away from this addiction to air conditioning and create more people base conditioning. We need to start with the experience of people so we can measure energy performance, we-we could measure temperatures and humidity and light levels in the room. But ultimately, it's how do people feel about those spaces?

Lee Moreau
You have the information and then what do you do with it? You like then use that knowledge to adapt how you feel. And the feeling comes both from an awareness about what the impacts are, but also your sense, the pleasure that you feel in that space.

Rachel Lehrer
And I think having a multitude of ways to get to one goal. So the great thing about, you know, innovation processes, human centered design is, if you get the goal right, if everyone agrees on the goal, there are a million ways to get there. But if your only option is to turn on an AC, then you're sort of stuck. There's you know, the fun is gone. There's no thinking involved. And you're stuck in this, you know, in your room with blue air. So I think there there has to be an alternative that's opening windows, that is, you know, shading your house, growing trees to shade your house that is equally accessible and available to people. And right now, you know, for for the folks in New York listening who are stuck in their room with one window, it's just not an option. We're not building right, the incentives aren't right.

Lee Moreau
So we can't we're not going be able to throw out the system right away. And really, the people are part of the system. We're all part of the system. And we designed the system really without a consideration for like human agency or like how our desires can be implicated in that. I think if we could step back and say, like, how do we make our office space or the place that you work in, the place that you live in, like that beach in Hawaii? Or how do you know what would be the kind of design cues that you would bring into that space? We would really think of this completely differently, right?

Rachel Lehrer
Yeah. I mean, we'd all have more ceiling fans. I think that, you know, that's always a really, really, really good alternative and they block a hell of a lot less light. Yeah, look, I think there's you know, this is going back to the selling toothpaste a little bit. We've been convinced that there is a solution to heat when in fact there are many, many solutions to heat and some that will give us a much better experience than just having, you know, this manufactured non like humid air blowing on us.

Lee Moreau
Okay. And as designers, we can come up with all these solutions for like better climate adaptability within our living environments, in our working environments. And that's great. But how do we signal to people the end users like normal folks, that they can actually control their environment? How do we give them the permission back that they can control their environment and really control their own pleasure? That's a also really important part of the design process, right? It's not just solving the problem. It's also like introducing it back into society the way that we introduce air conditioning into society 100 years ago.

Rachel Lehrer
You know, there are so many things to consider when you walk into a space and rarely do we think: hey, I can actually change the the climate in here. I can change the way this feels on my skin. And if you do think that, you probably are going to take off a sweater, you know, that's the first thing you're going to do because it's attached to your body. And so maybe it's about understanding what the second go to is and also, you know, trying to get rid of a little bit of the hesitancy of, am I alone in the room? If I'm not alone in the room, then I'm going to change the temperature of the room, but it's also going to affect everyone else. And so having a little bit of a way to have those conversations about, well, would everyone be comfortable trying this? You might be wearing a sweater when I tried this and I might be wearing a tank top, but that's going to feel right- the same temperature will keep us wearing very different things to achieve our separate comforts. But yeah, you know, we're not the men in the gray flannel suit and recognizing that is probably, probably a good place to start.

Lee Moreau
So, Rachel, let's give a little thought to what can be our sort of mindful prompt for this week. What can people do who are listening and thinking like, how can I really take on this idea of air conditioning, the space that I live in, the built environment, the world around me and my influence on that world?

Rachel Lehrer
Try for a period of time in a relatively extreme environment or extreme temperature, to just rely on the tools around you that are not mechanized to actually experience like a pleasurable temperature. And so that might be sitting under a tree that might be going for a run to get your body warm, that might be opening a window, but try to figure out alternative ways of making your physical body feel pleasurable. That isn't relying on a button.

Lee Moreau
It's almost like think of it like a day of self conditioning.

Rachel Lehrer
Totally or just it's exploring all of our other options for doing this. That might not be as convenient but are probably better for us, our skin, our health, and our planet.

Lee Moreau
Rachel, thank you so much for being with us. This was an amazing conversation and I can't wait for the next one.

Rachel Lehrer
Me, too. Thanks so much, Lee.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is a podcast from Design Observer. To keep up with the show go to TFA dot design observer dot com or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you liked what you heard today, we hope you did, please make sure to rate and review us and share it with your friends.

Rachel Lehrer
And make sure you're following me, Rachel Lehrer, L-E-H-R-E-R. You can check in with me on LinkedIn and also go visit my website Rachel Lehrer dot com.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is brought to you this season by Automattic. Thanks again to Salvatore Basile, Daniel Barber, Kofi Boone, and Gail Brager. You can find more about them in our show notes at TFA dot design observer dot com, along with a full transcription of the show. Our producer is Adina Karp. Owen Agnew edits the show. Thanks as always to Design Observer founder Jessica Helfand and to Design Observer executive producer Betsey Vardell.


Posted in: Ecology, Product Design, The Futures Archive



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