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Seija Linnanmäki: ‘Climate change forces us to rethink air conditioning for comfort’

Modern architecture and the air conditioning industry have together forgotten the local climate and local building practices, which would nevertheless be effective in combating climate change from a construction industry perspective, Seija Linnanmäki believes. Increasing cooling air conditioning cannot be the only solution to manage indoor climate.
Woman welding in blue overalls and protective gear in a yard
Seija Linnanmäki doing welding at yard. Photo from Linnanmäki's home album

What's your research about?

‘In my research, I took a look at the entire 20th century architectural development from the perspective of mechanical ventilation technology, from the 1920s to the 2020s. Mechanical ventilation, that was invented in the United States and spread from there to us and around the world, has been in use during that time. In Finland, mechanical ventilation was industrialised after the wars and integrated into countless old buildings.

I wanted to find out what is the "crystallised wisdom" of ventilation solutions, and how architecture and ventilation design work together optimally. I also considered the impact of the air conditioning industry and social practices on indoor air management. Our clothing culture also plays a key role here.

My interest in this topic stems from my own background and my life's work as a restoration researcher and curator at the Finnish Heritage Agency. My dissertation was to some extent a testament to the fact that I had been observing and practically studying the effects of mechanical ventilation on architecture for decades.’

What’s important in it?

‘I studied two historic buildings in Helsinki: the Industrial Centre building at Eteläranta 10 and the Power House designed for Imatran Voima Oy energy company in Kamppi. I thought that once I had studied my cases thoroughly, I would know why they decided to use mechanical ventilation the way they did. I was trying to find an idea of how modern architecture and ventilation should be combined, and insight and knowledge about the benefits of mechanical ventilation. 

However, I could not find any clear justification for the solutions, but it was rather a matter of compromises during construction and, to some extent, of random coincidences. There is no great insight, based on science and technology, as to how best to implement ventilation. Moreover, technology is constantly evolving, so there is no stage at which the 'crystallised best' system has been developed.

Perhaps the most striking understanding along the way was that, although architects and air conditioning engineers have worked together throughout the ages to find the ideal technology for indoor air management, it has still not been found. The best solution depends on the building and the situation.

The problem is that modern architecture and ventilation technology have combined to allow us to live too energy-intensive lifestyles. We are paying a high price for our desire for comfort for the planet. We should be able to return to natural, breathable ventilation, and dress codes that are appropriate for our local climate.’

What can it lead to?

‘There is not much research on building services or air conditioning in the history of architecture, so my study provides a comprehensive background. From an architectural perspective, the study of air conditioning is difficult because air conditioning systems are hidden in the structures.

Personally, I believe we should go back to more traditional building methods developed in the local climate and let nature take care of itself. My research showed me that modern architecture and construction technology are so intertwined that changing one doesn't really help the other but requires a bigger change in thinking and practice.

Woman with eyeglasses in selfie photo taken in Venice, Italy
Seija Linnanmäki, photo from Linnanmäki's home album

Sustainable development and climate change have forced us to take seriously the energy consumption of buildings, and that is a good thing. However, I personally do not believe that the solution lies in replacing the old solutions by adding new technology. In fact, smart appliances and new 'eco-technologies' are consuming more and more energy and material resources, and their material efficiency is poor.

Building services equipment is made of metal. Rare earth mining and extractive industries are causing environmental damage on all continents. This spiral is simply massive and the wrong way to go. Mankind must finally wake up to the fact that the 'sustainable development' that is being touted in soapbox speeches is not enough. We need fundamental changes in mindsets and everyday social practices.’

Linnanmäki's doctoral thesis "Air-conditioned? Modern - Indoor air management in post-war office architecture” was examined at the Aalto University School of Arts and Design on 22 March 2024.

More information:

[email protected], 050 0170 757

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