Why the anti-air conditioning guy changed his mind

A long-time advocate for going without air conditioning has changed his tune, saying climate change and how we design cities means air-conditioning is no longer a luxury.

'Living like Grandma' in the sweltering summers 'was never realistic', Lloyd Alter writes

A Ryerson university professor who once argued against air conditioning now says we should focus on ways to reduce our reliance on mechanical cooling. (File Photo)

For a long time, Lloyd Alter has resisted air conditioning, telling anyone who would listen to "live like Grandma" and avoid the energy-sucking A/C.

But this summer, the Toronto professor and urban planner has changed his mind.

Alter has long argued for going without air conditioning but now admits it's a necessary evil, since climate change and poor building design leave us with few effective options to beat the heat.

"I am not going to talk as much about living like Grandma; it was never realistic for most people," wrote Alter in a July 28 post on the Tree Hugger blog

Alter, a professor at Ryerson University where he teaches sustainable design, discussed his change of heart in an interview on CBC Radio's Metro Morning show Wednesday. 

He spoke as temperatures in Toronto edged toward a daytime high of 34 C, extreme temperatures that prompted the city to issue a heat alert and extend operating hours of some outdoor pools. Toronto Hydro is also asking people to curb their electricity use to avoid over-taxing the power system.

Much of that electricity is sucked up by air conditioning. In the past, Alter argued that people should switch them off and find other ways to keep cool. 

"I always thought that we could actually do without [air conditioning] if we lived the way people in Toronto have lived for many years, where the big street trees were our air conditioners, where our houses were designed with natural cross-ventilation."

Alter now says his ardent stance against A/C was "unrealistic" because while he lives in a house on a tree-lined street, urban dwellers increasingly reside in high-density buildings with almost no natural ventilation. 

He said Toronto's glass towers would be "uninhabitable within hours" without air conditioning.

"I realized I was being a hypocrite," he said.

Alter said the focus should be not on eliminating air conditioning but on reducing its use through improved building design. As an example he points to super-insulated buildings that require almost no mechanical cooling, even in sweltering temperatures.

He said many newer buildings "have no capacity to stay cool or stay warm and that is setting us up for disaster. This is the kind of thing we have to think about when we build our new buildings."