No air conditioning? Boohoo


(From left) Estefania and Mae Koblucher run in the fountain within Fischer Pavillion at Seattle Center with Marcella Martins during a warm Seattle day on Tuesday, May 23, 2017.
(Matt M. McKnight/Cascade Public Media)

If you’re cold, put a sweater on. If you’re too warm, take a layer off. Everyone here learns to dress in layers, right? Not anymore. The new normal is “Alexa, turn on the air conditioner!”

I was appalled, but not really surprised, to read a Seattle Times story about how air conditioning is becoming standard in new apartments here. “Big Spike in Apartments with A/C as Seattle Gets Warmer,” said the headline. “[T]he record apartment construction boom sweeping the city has created what some in the industry have called an ‘amenities arms race’ to attract tenants,” the story reports. Only 6 percent of rentals used to have A/C; but during the boom of the past decade, that has jumped to 25 percent of new construction.

My read on this: A/C is the new granite countertops. You’d think humankind couldn’t have lived without granite kitchen slabs in the days of yore. Now A/C is the new must have, along with industrial-sized refrigerators. Dressing in layers and windows that open are out, A/C is in.

Why? According to the Times, landlords claim that it’s global warming, quoting Bradley Karvasek, senior vice president of development at Equity Residential, saying that with “global warming, we’re getting hotter and hotter days in Seattle. More frequently the temperatures are rising above 90 degrees here.”

Hmmmm. Really? Have the summer temps changed that much?

I contacted Cliff Mass, guru of the atmospheric sciences and keeper of the region’s best weather blog. Is this really the case, Cliff? I asked. Do we have a Houston problem, as in hot and humid?

Mass and I agreed that the A/C trend is the granite countertop of amenity inflation, then he set out on his blog to prove it. Here’s what he found: Seattle is the coolest summer city in the lower 48. We are the major city that needs A/C the least, meaning not at all. Writes Mass: “Seattle is one city where A/C is a luxury that is not particularly needed for buildings in which windows can be opened, except for the most unusual and exceptional days. Apartments with poor circulation and facing the sun can get warm (and could use A/C).  Typically, Seattle has two days a year when the maximum temperature reaches 90F.”

Since the 1970s, our average June-September temps have only increased by about 1.5 degrees, from 60.5 F to 62 F, though he admits 2015 was an unusually hot year. Our summers are also low in humidity.

Still, our summers were generally hotter in the 1950s and '60s when we went old school without A/C.

As to warming, he says A/C likely won’t be needed here until perhaps the 2090s— 70 years from now!

Mass thinks that increased affluence is probably responsible for A/C mania.  People want more control over their personal environments. I suspect it’s also because folks are moving in from places — like California — where they’re simply used to air conditioning and can’t imagine life without it.

Personally, I think it is taking Northwest levels of weather wimpiness to new lows.

My son, who has lived in places like Albuquerque and Austin, disagrees. He’s lived in apartments and town houses in Seattle that have upper floors facing the setting sun — opening a window and drawing a shade doesn’t work. He and his wife also have a computer room with two machines running — fans are needed to keep their workspace cool. Plus they have new babies to keep comfortable.

He says I hate A/C because I grew up in a Scandinavian-descended household that was sparing with aspirin. We kept the thermostat low too. Hey, our home was warmer than Norway! In the summer, we sweated honest sweat, and ate homemade popsicles, and took cold showers.

We kids were stashed in upstairs bedrooms that got afternoon sun in the summer. We opened windows and skylights when it got hot, sometimes retreated out onto the roof and sat on summer evenings looking at the stars. Or slept on the porch or in the backyard. Not everyone has those options. In my memory, we never had a fan, let alone A/C. It was fine to suffer with the season, but the suffering wasn’t much, or for too long.

I admit to snobbery about A/C. I was brought up to believe it was bad for the environment, that it burned energy unnecessarily. Air conditioning is now standard in cars, but it used to be a luxury. Windows were for rolling down and, if need be, sticking your head out of, like a dog.

The early conservationist view in the ’60s was that A/C was immoral, especially here because it was unnecessary. Seattle is a city of breezes and water — take advantage of them. On those few truly hot days in summer, you can go soak yourself or just tough it out.

For the record, I live in a 1930s apartment building with no air conditioning and good honest sweat is dripping on the keyboard as I write this. It’s how my parents would have wanted it.

I remember at the Seattle World’s Fair there was a model of future Seattle with a huge transparent glass or plastic dome over the city so we could be protected from wind, sun, rain and pollution. Is that where we’re headed? Are we really so afraid of the elements? I suspect we are, since what we used to call wind and rain is now a “storm system” that has to be “tracked” as if it were an outlaw. Warm days quickly become “hot spells” and many people have taken to wearing wide-brimmed sunhats when the clouds part a few inches. Do we really want to live in a climate-controlled Bubbletown?

We seem to be tiptoeing toward that option, one A/C unit at a time.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.