New in Sustainability: How our ancestors kept cool

As global temperatures continue to increase (and don’t appear to be plateauing anytime soon), researchers are on the hunt for ways to help people stay cool. While air conditioners can work wonders, taking a page out of past architecture may also provide relief—especially in regions that lack the resources to power thousands of air conditioning units. 


Emission-free cooling 

Yazd, a city in modern-day Iran, has been at the epicenter of human ingenuity for millennia. Throughout its history, the city has developed underground refrigeration techniques, an underground irrigation system, and a network of couriers, among other inventions. Perhaps the city’s proudest accomplishment, however, is its wind-catching architecture.


If you look at the city’s skyline, you’ll see rectangular, circular, and square towers puncturing the horizon. These feature openings that face the prevailing wind, catching it and then funneling it down below. This can help cool down entire building complexes, providing relief from the sweltering desert heat. 


Ancient origins 

While many cities across the Middle East incorporated cooling systems into their architecture, the design inspiration is thought to originate ever farther back in history. Some of the earliest wind-catching and cooling technology seems to come from Ancient Egypt and Persia, from over 3,000 years ago.


These ancient empires knew the secrets to staying cool in the heat. They constructed their buildings with thick walls, few sun-facing windows, and openings on either side that funneled wind through the structures. 


Given how effective these techniques and structures were at helping people stay cool, some environmental experts believe that now is the perfect time for them to see a revival. As carbon emissions everywhere continue to exacerbate the climate crisis, using the techniques of the past may help provide people with an effective, non-carbon emitting solution. 


Modern barriers 

Unfortunately, many circumstances prevent the wind-catching architecture of the past from working as effectively as it could. 


For one thing, the desert climate is harsh, and without proper maintenance and upkeep, even ingenious pieces of architecture will start to degrade. On account of droughts, geopolitical tensions, and COVID-19, providing these structures with the maintenance they need has not been a priority.


In other countries like the United States, politicians appear hesitant to do the bare minimum for infrastructure and climate change, no less invest in breakthroughs—even if they do come from the past. 


The Biden Administration recently passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill to combat structural degradation across the country. However, the American Society of Civil Engineers has explained that it will take at least $4.5 trillion to get the country’s current infrastructure up to snuff.


Given that reality, as well as the administration’s refusal to carry out many of its previously promised climate change provisions, the likelihood of embracing new architectural standards and cooling technology seems low. 


Learning from the past and creating a better future 

Ancient civilizations have managed to stay cool for thousands of years—long before the invention of air conditioning. As worldwide temperatures climb higher and higher, incorporating the secret of the past could be a worthwhile endeavor.

Before we can do that, however, we’ll first need to accept the reality that tackling climate change is something we can’t put off.

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