Tackling the Future of Comfort 

Our aim here is to open up the debate about indoor comfort and the energy consequences of electronic cooling. To that end the focus is on comfort, rather than air conditioning itself, a shift that brings into view broader issues and questions.  

As an interdisciplinary team of researchers, we seek to move beyond the common idea that built environment sustainability is essentially a technical, planning or building science issue, and understand how air conditioning can transform everyday life - in terms of how we live, work and recreate - and the built environment - across different scales, from interior design to architecture, and from urban design to regional planning. By questioning the norms and habits that have taken hold around thermal comfort in Asia and the Middle East - regions with some of the world's fastest developing cities - we also critically assess the opportunities and obstacles for implementing low carbon alternatives to electronic cooling.

Whilst extensive research has been done historicising the various ways in which air-conditioning has altered the habits and material cultures of urban life in North America and Europe, we know much less about such changes in Asia and the Middle East. Likewise we know very little about the ways in which technologies of cooling have transformed cities in these regions and how perceptions of indoor-outdoor spaces have altered in recent decades.

A number of researchers critical about the global rise of air-conditioning have identified the need for approaches that respond to, and build on, local climatic and cultural conditions. Whilst such themes have been pursued extensively within the parameters of architectural design, important work still needs to be done to understand the wider socio-cultural histories of comfort in Asia, and how these might bear upon creating more sustainable comfort futures. 

The projects contained here directly take up such challenges via a number of interconnected strands. Working with various archives, we have investigated historically significant trends in urban development, architecture and interior design in Southeast Asia and the Gulf (GCC). To understand the values people attach to comfort and how they practice it on a day to day basis today we conduct interviews with households, tourists and business owners involved in the service sector. We have also tracked AC energy usage across a variety of different household contexts in Singapore.

Tourism is one of the industries that creates new comfort expectations and standards across urban environments, and to understand this better we have mapped the introduction of air conditioning across the historic urban landscape of Melaka, Malaysia, which became a world heritage site in 2008. Finally, to gain insights into current and future trends in comfort engineering and design we interview architects and engineers working for firms driving innovation at the international level across the sector.   

In developing this integrated approach to indoor comfort our aim is to encourage more sustained and expansive discussions about how we can maintain and promote viable low carbon comfort practices within regions now undergoing rapid urban and social change. 

Tim Winter, October 2015