Turn air-cond bills into a breeze: The virtues of air-flow cooling in homes

It's another hot, humid and sweaty day as you reach out to crank up the air-conditioner turbo power. You mutter under your breath as you ponder, in disbelief, on how your parents manage with no electricity back in the day. They didn't even have electric fans, let alone the latest nanotechnology air-conditioner.

So how did our parents and grandparents survived the sweltering heat of tropical Malaysia before? 

The short answer is the way their homes were built. Don't you agree that the kampong house always seem to be cooler, and less suffocating? This is true even of kampong houses of today, which unfortunately are getting fewer and fewer in number. Granted the kampong house is bigger and are usually detached while homes in urban areas where most of us live, are generally smaller, usually linked homes or apartment units. City dwellers too have home with less natural vegetation nearby.

Houses are not just shrinking in size though. Certain features such as air-wells seem to be a thing of the past, and the familiar louvred windows of the 60s and 70s seem to have all gone. The houses today are built seemingly to be air-conditioned. Most people sleep in air-conditioned bedrooms while an increasing number of homes are air-conditioned the whole day. Even among the kampong houses still available in the countryside, many have been modified to cater for 'modern' lifestyles. These include converting the semi-open area formed by stilts into an extra room; lourved windows changed to sliding ones made with contemporary materials such as steel and glass; and increasingly, entire wooden walls being replaced with concrete ones.

A pity really. Why did we change our living environment by making our homes less comfortable to live in, and making it necessary to rely on constant air-conditioning? The disadvantages of that is glaring - apart from the huge utility bill every month, constant air-conditioning can bring about ill health.

Research shows that those who work or spend prolonged hours in an air-conditioned environment are prone to chronic headaches and fatigue. Dry skin is common due to loss of moisture in the air, and air-conditioning contributes to worsening the illnesses one already has, such as high blood pressure and arthritis. Children who grow up in air-conditioned homes are likely to have problems dealing with heat. Being cloistered in air-conditioned comfort 24/7 means they find it uncomfortable to run around in the park or play ball in the fields, preferring to stay indoors (think computer games). This is detrimental to a child's natural development. Add to that, the fact that air-conditioners harbour germs and moulds that can cause breathing problems and you should have enough reasons to shun the air-conditioner.

Think about it. Fresh air is free. So why pay for air-conditioning when it causes you more harm than good? Whether it’s your lungs or your home, you would want clean, fresh air to be circulated constantly and freely through the system, while eliminating stagnant or contaminated air. Perhaps it is time we look to the past to rediscover the ingenuity of designing homes that suit our climate, with features that circulate fresh, clean air through our homes.

In the old days when air-conditioning was hardly heard of, architects and builders constructed homes that allow airflow to naturally cool the interior. Houses had proper ventilation, which is the intentional introduction of outdoor air into the interior to control the indoor air quality. This can be done through natural or mechanical ventilation. While mechanical ventilation uses fans (or air-conditioner), natural ventilation directs the passive flow of outdoor air into the house interior through strategic openings such as doors, windows and vents.

With thoughtful house design which prioritises building layout, facade construction and materials used for interior finishes, good airflow and natural ventilation can be optimised. The fact that the world is hotter today than it was 50 years ago, is another reason why we need well-designed homes. It's time we demand architectural designs that work with nature and not against it. The result surely would be a home that is cooling and comfortable, with air quality that promotes good health, and without electricity bills that hurt the pocket every month.