We are pleased to revisit this topical, and I daresay almost tropical, piece by our Executive Director, Elizabeth Wylie.
-Daniel Wilkinson, Blog Manager & Bon Vivant
“Just wait until July and August.” This has been the frequent refrain as I have mentioned my interest in exploring the idea of going without air-conditioning at Andalusia. A 1962 photograph of the farm house shows a window air conditioning unit installed in Flannery’s room but surely this was a recent addition (the first window unit was introduced in 1939 but just 10 percent of U.S. homes had air conditioning as late as 1965). Instead, we can imagine Flannery and her mother ‘operating’ the farm house in a classic manner. This meant minimizing heat gain by working with the original climate-specific vernacular architecture of the 1850s plantation-style house. The high ceilings, tall windows, deep roof overhang and cross-ventilation were designed for the middle-Georgia climate.
Many of us remember our grandparents keeping the house closed in the day and then opening it up in the evening to cool off. Shutters played an important role in this dance as did behaviors: one would be early to rise to beat the sun. Lots of outdoor work happened early in the morning before it got hot. Mid-day ‘dinner’ was the main meal and was typically followed by rest, or at the very least low-impact activities performed inside or in the shade. Once things cooled, folks would go back outside until sun-down. A light evening meal (‘supper’) would close out the day. This kind of schedule encouraged lively civic engagement with lots of porch sitting, strolls in the town square, and conversation. The human body is also remarkably adaptable. If we were to dial back air-conditioning, we might start to question our assumptions about what is comfortable and can (re)learn how to live in the environment we have.
Today, 90 percent of U.S. homes have air-conditioning. Commercial spaces are typically over-cooled and who can say they have not had to ‘layer-up’ in response to what I call the ‘tyranny’ of air-conditioning in office buildings and commercial spaces. The associated impacts from refrigerants and fossil fuel energy use are contributing to climate change. Going without air-conditioning at Andalusia is certainly a preservation strategy as we demonstrate mid-century life ways, encouraging porch sitting, etc. But revival of the original design intent at the house also underpins a conservation story, one of environmental stewardship and resource efficiency. There is for sure a critical need for climate controlled spaces (for those sick or vulnerable, as Flannery was for example) so I don’t imagine we can or would jettison air-conditioning altogether. Still, Andalusia is valued as a place of beauty and serves as a snap shot of mid-century farm life. It is the place that inspired and supported an original and influential artist; part of our job is to tell the story of how she lived there. That means going without air-conditioning (or trying to anyhow!). What say you? Could you eliminate or minimize your air conditioning use?
Photograph by Joe McTyre. Note the red arrow that points to Flannery's A/C unit.
Elizabeth Wylie is the Executive Director of the Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation.