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How an ancient design technique could help us survive extreme heat, no AC needed

In late June, when temperatures climbed to 115 degrees in Portland, Oregon, houses and buildings across the Pacific Northwest were caught way off guard. Most were designed for much cooler temperatures, with insulation and ventilation tuned to handle moderate highs and lows. Typically, even on hot days, the evening lows would be cold enough to bring down the overall temperature of buildings, keeping them from turning into roasting ovens. Air conditioning was typically irrelevant, and buildings could usually stay comfortable passively, or without much intervention.

But that was before. The heat wave showed that temperatures can and probably will continue to be higher than in previous decades. The low- or no-effort temperature control that has been designed into the region’s homes likely won’t be able to keep up, according to Mike Fowler, an architect at Seattle-based Mithun. “We’re going to phase out of that by the end of the decade. And this has been eye-opening for a lot of folks,” he says.

A new type of building design will be needed in the Pacific Northwest sooner than most people expected, he says, but design approaches that are regularly used in hotter, more extreme climates offer some clues for how architecture will need to evolve.

Architects around the world are designing solutions to increasing temperatures and more frequent heat waves. New materials, advanced heat modeling techniques, and some longstanding design principles are showing that even when temperatures hit unexpected peaks, our homes and buildings will be able to stay cool without consuming huge amounts of energy.

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