Pur­suit of `na­tional com­fort'

Down to Earth - - LETTERS -

This is re­gard­ing Su­nita Narain's ed­i­to­rial "Too cold for com­fort!" (1-15 July, 2018) and a re­lated video in which she asked the le­git­i­mate ques­tion on "seg­re­ga­tion". The so­called "adap­tive" the­ory of com­fort doesn't con­tra­dict the "func­tional" the­ory; it only com­ple­ments it. It is not pos­si­ble to de­fine a "na­tional com­fort" in terms of tem­per­a­ture due to sev­eral fac­tors. She men­tioned some of them, but left out the sin­gle-most im­por­tant pa­ram­e­ter for free-run­ning (or bio­cli­matic/ pas­sive) build­ings: the oc­cu­pants' free­dom to act on their en­vi­ron­ment, like op­er­at­ing the win­dows and the fans, mod­i­fy­ing pos­ture and cloth­ing, and choos­ing where they sit and work. The dif­fer­ence be­tween the tem­per­a­ture at which peo­ple feel com­fort­able and the tem­per­a­ture out­side the build­ing is al­ways less when peo­ple are free to mod­ify their en­vi­ron­ment. Hence, the mech­a­nised or bio­cli­matic ef­fort to achieve such a tem­per­a­ture is less, and free-run­ning build­ings can be made to work.

But, this also means that a "pas­sive" build­ing—where there are au­to­matic win­dows and ven­ti­la­tion and a strict dress code—would ren­der oc­cu­pants as finicky as those of air-con­di­tioned build­ings. When you don't have a choice, you be­come ex­tremely in­tol­er­ant—a fact at the fron­tier of the psy­cho­log­i­cal (ir­ri­ta­tion) and the phys­i­cal (sweat­ing). Hence, any at­tempt to de­fine a "na­tional com­fort" would amount to le­git­imis­ing the use of air con­di­tion­ers (AC).

This is even worse than hav­ing AC as a sta­tus sym­bol, as it mostly is to­day. If AC be­comes a le­gal re­quire­ment, it is much, much worse than a few peo­ple try­ing to "show off" by re­frig­er­at­ing their guests! 28ÊC is just not achiev­able by pas­sive means when it is 40ÊC out­side, ex­cept in rare cases (like, in­side a step well or in a base­ment ven­ti­lated via an underground wa­ter tank which are ex­tremely ex­pen­sive, need lots of wa­ter and also don't work in hu­mid places like West Ben­gal). By im­pos­ing this tem­per­a­ture, we ren­der most eco-friendly build­ings il­le­gal, which would be stupid and—for­tu­nately— un­fea­si­ble! The very no­tion of "pas­sive" is wrong: we want to ac­tively en­joy tem­per­a­ture dif­fer­ences. We all have great memories like sit­ting on a swing under the mango trees, feel­ing the faint breeze evap­o­rate our sweat at 45ÊC! But no­body will ever re­mem­ber hav­ing a great time in an air-con­di­tioned shop­ping mall. At stake here is the no­tion that a com­fort­able build­ing should have a de­fined "com­fort tem­per­a­ture" which is a de­vel­oper's dream, but is

only achiev­able via AC or me­chan­i­cal cool­ing.

The an­cient palaces had win­ter and sum­mer rooms, veran­das and rooftop sleep­ing. The same is true with ver­nac­u­lar houses. Palaces had "sta­tus" while or­di­nary houses had—seem­ingly—no "sta­tus". But, all were work­ing in the same man­ner. The real luxury is grad­u­ally be­com­ing not de­pen­dent on AC—by hav­ing a house in its own gar­den where a mi­cro-climate can be cre­ated or to live in a ver­nac­u­lar neigh­bour­hood like Delhi's Chandni Chowk or in the in­for­mal, un­planned set­tle­ment where I live. They have a num­ber of trees, cars can't en­ter the 6-feet wide lanes, houses are only 5 feet apart, and the tem­per­a­ture out­side is 2ÊC less than the "planned" set­tle­ments. The au­thor is ask­ing for the Na­tional Build­ing Code (NBC) to be rewrit­ten but I feel it is either im­pos­si­ble or coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. Hope­fully, your pas­sion­ate in­ter­ven­tions will trig­ger a de­bate, which is ex­tremely nec­es­sary.

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