Friday, October 9, 2015

Imagine thousands of people without air conditioning!

We found ourselves in Point Pedro in Sri Lanka's far north, a place which, if it has air conditioning, I haven't seen it. As a matter of fact we were in Jaffna just before this, a boiling hot place that even I had trouble coping with. (I chose Sri Lanka for my Fulbright partly because I wanted to be free of the cold for a year. So far it's worked). 

Our place in Jaffna had AC but we never felt the need to turn it on. Could be the way our guesthouse was constructed, kind of like a tube that pulls breezes through it. 

Come to think of it we've noticed the same thing in Point Pedro. We have breakfast and dinner at our hosts' place and the great Sri Lankan food is the only thing that's fiery. Their house is also shaped like a tube, with lots of spaces for air circulation. 

I think people in Sri Lanka have already forgotten what we'll never learn in the West. Our house on Boston, true blue Yankee vernacular architecture, pulls heat up from the ground floor straight to the top of the house. Can't keep the place warm enough. At least not on our budget. I guess in the days of "unlimited" wood or coal or oil you could heat a place like ours, only at the cost of incredible waste. Same thing goes for the place my parents lived in in Arizona. Solar panels might as well have been outlawed. Maybe they were. Only way to keep a place cool was to air condition it. Unlimited electricity anyone? What is it about Americans that we build our spaces so wastefully?

Here in Sri Lanka, a poor country, people are rich with vernacular building conditions that simply work. And work simply. Let the air in. Let it circulate. To us, a ceiling fan is a great luxury. But I think these places worked before electricity became available. 

Yes houses here are built in the shade of trees. But don't try to tell me that's a rule of thumb we should use in New England. My neighbor, an urban designer yet, keeps two huge overages Norway spruce that abut our property. They drip sap on our house, drop their cones, twigs, and needles into our gutter, and act as a squirrel highway, encouraging the critters to dig and delve in our roof. Oh they do shade that part of the house. So much so that we have to keep a dehumidifier running there since it never dries out. I have a running email correspondence recorded for the day one of Ross's trees blows into our place in a storm. The insurance lawyers will be able to see how many times I asked him nicely to take down these aging, wholly inappropriate trees. 

guess that's one more thing about American "neighborliness." It ends where you want it to. So our other next door neighbor, whose house was horribly designed to soak up the sun on a summer afternoon, simply "has" to run her AC when the thermometer creeps above 75. Speaking of '75 that's about the time her place was built and her AC units installed. Every single nice day of summer we are in the direct line of their sound exhaust. Maybe she could take a little more responsibility for her space and put a central AC unit in her back yard, joining the world of 2015 Instead of making the rest of the world suffer so she can stay cool.

Oh no you've started me on my usual diatribe. But like it or not, it's prompted by what I've seen here in Sri Lanka. A harsh climate, relatively poor resources, and architectural innovations that are hundreds of years old used in a sustainable, balanced way that spares the neighbors and the environment.  

It's not that there aren't problems. It's appalling how much burning goes on here in the countryside. Garbage burning, brush burning, agricultural burning, and who knows what else. People all around me are coughing and hacking and sneezing. And it's not pleasant at all for us to breathe it in. It's something of a public health problem and it would be nice to moderate the fires, something we did accomplish in the States some time in the '70s when we came to understand "air pollution." 

Still, the vents and hallways and windows open to the breeze are something to be celebrated here. In our unsustainable "developed" world, which will have to come crashing down one of these days, we can learn a huge amount from our poorer, but dare I say, wiser neighbors. 

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