Professor's New Book Examines the Implications of Enclosed, Air Conditioned Spaces

Liz McCormick with the cover of her book, Inside Out
Friday, May 17, 2024
Liz McCormick has edited an interdisciplinary investigation of a/c, design, health and behavior.

A new book edited by Assistant Professor of Architecture Liz McCormick considers the many impacts of air conditioning on the built environment and on human health and behavior.

Inside OUT: Human Health and the Air-Conditioning Era, published this spring by Routledge Press, presents an interdisciplinary, holistic analysis of the social, behavioral, and technological issues of air-conditioned indoor space.

"In this extraordinary book, McCormick and collaborators help us to understand the new environment we have created, indoors, from the perspectives of history and architecture. If you would like to understand the spaces in which you spend nearly all of your waking and sleeping hours, how they affect you and how they came to be the way they are, read Inside OUT." 

-     Rob Dunn, biologist, author of A Natural History of the Future

McCormick says that while she has long been interested in the connections between buildings and human health, she began to focus intently on the enclosed environment of fully conditioned buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic, “when buildings became the enemy of respiratory health.” And even though the sudden awareness of air-borne viruses led people to open more windows and spend more time outdoors, most people in the United States still spend 90% of their time inside, where contamination – from people and from products like building materials, furniture, or cleaning chemicals – gets trapped.

“Indoor air is not regulated in the U.S.,” McCormick said. “It’s not even tracked.” Except in unusual cases such as wildfires or high ozone days, she added, “outdoor air is cleaner.”

McCormick grew up in steamy Houston, Texas, and knows the positive value of air conditioning, but she also has witnessed its negative implications – on architectural design, environmental sustainability, and human health and behavior.

For example, fully conditioned buildings have contributed to a homogeneity of design that reduces the distinctiveness of regional architecture.

“You lose some of the spirit of the cities,” McCormick said.

And spending so much time in tightly controlled temperatures has affected our perceptions of what is comfortable.

“As people get more and more used to air conditioning, what we can tolerate has narrowed.”

The burden on the electrical grid – and thus the health of the environment – has been well documented. Then there are the effects on human health.

“There are more cases of allergies and asthma in developed countries than in less developed countries,” she said.

image of old newspaper ad for air conditioningIn the book, McCormick and her contributors,  Sarah HainesMarcel HarmonZ Smith and Ulysses Sean Vance, consider both the past and the present to understand how practices and perceptions have been shaped.

“There is a lot of archival imagery in the book used to convey how our views of the indoors are deeply rooted in historical social constructs of comfort, health, and hygiene,” McCormick said.

As she completes a doctorate in design, with graduation expected in December, McCormick is tracking indoor air quality in four buildings in the southeast, the results of which will be presented in her dissertation, Blurred Edges. With that research and Inside OUT, she hopes she’s “shifting the mind-set and reframing questions" in an effort to understand decisions regarding the wide-spread implementation of air conditioning and the implications of those decisions.

“We don’t even question the harsh divide between inside and out.”

In March 2022, the School of Architecture and AIA Charlotte presented a symposium, Inside | Out, in which McCormick led a panel discussion with  Sarah Haines, Marcel Harmon, Z Smith and Ulysses Sean Vance. A transcript of that conversation can be found in the book.