For most countries, around half of all carbon emissions come from buildings. For tropical and sub-tropical countries, a significant proportion of that energy consumption is tied to cooling, and across the Asia region this has increased dramatically in recent decades through the introduction of electronic air conditioning. The electronic cooling of buildings in Southeast Asia will be a significant factor contributing to a demand in energy that is outpacing much of the world, increasing from current levels by 75 per cent in 2030. More broadly, with Asia being the main driver of a 40 per cent increase in global energy consumption over the coming two decades, the energy usage of the region's buildings needs a much wider debate.
Similarly, if we look at the Gulf (GCC) - a region experiencing rapid urban development in harsh climatic conditions - up to 70 per cent of the energy used by buildings today is through electronic cooling. In a few short decades air conditioning has become a near ubiquitous technology for regulating the temperature and humidity levels of interior spaces throughout desert and tropical zones. With urban modernity almost always associated with increased energy consumption and shifts in expectations and norms around comfort and convenience, this project seeks to address and highlight the wider questions and social complexities that surround thermal comfort today.
To date cultural geographers and planners working on cities in Asia and the Middle East have typically discussed sustainability in terms of exterior spaces. Considerable work needs to be done to integrate their analyses with the ideas and frameworks of architects and designers to construct a more critical analysis of ‘interior geographies’. Along with escalators, elevators, and communications infrastructures, temperature control systems form part of the technological matrix of construction. Air-conditioning, in particular, has proved to be a pivotal technology in the expansion of high rise architecture across Middle East and Asia regions. Indeed the prestige of occupying space in the sky, along with the unforgiving economics of real-estate footprints in urban environments are among the forces that negated pre-aircon ways of living including forms of architecture that featured high ceilings, courtyards, verandas, shaded interiors and an underlying concern for air-flow.
Today, wider forces are at play which serve to polarise how indoor and outdoor spaces are valued and perceived as spaces of comfort, risk and security. The unwanted externalities of fast paced urban growth, such as environmental pollution and the fear of transmittable diseases have created distinct fears and anxieties around the air. Capitalising on this, new markets for safer more comfortable indoor atmospheres have been created for both work and leisure spaces, with shopping malls, offices and even the home being notable examples here.
The dramatic increase in the volume of indoor space that is artificially cooled (and dried) represents a very significant factor in developing more sustainable of development and urban cultures. We believe some new, innovative thinking is required in this space. The future of comfort requires a wider debate about we might promote and sustain less energy intensive alternatives.