Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Why I went underground and how I am enjoying my new subterranean life

Here is one of the windows of my new home. No, not the big one. Look at where my wife, Grazia, is pointing. Yes, that one!

This summer in Florence we already had two vicious heat waves. As I am writing, we are in the middle of the third one, even more vicious. It has been, actually, a continuous period of very high temperatures punctuated by a few storms that brought the usual floods and disasters.

Global warming is no joke. If you don't plan for these heat waves you seriously risk your life, especially if you are not so young and you are not in perfect health. And people do die: we don't have statistical data for this year, yet, but the reports from countries like Europe, India, and Japan tell of tens, maybe hundreds, of victims and thousands hospitalized.

As usual, people here and everywhere in the world suffer from the syndrome that Daniel Pauly calls "shifting baselines." They seem to think that it is all normal because that's what they have been seeing during the past decade or so. And they don't seem to realize that they are living in houses that were designed and built in a world where heat waves were occasional and lasted just a few days, not the rule for more than one month per year.

Most homes in Florence have no air conditioning or have the kind of makeshift units that make a lot of noise but don't do much to lower temperatures. Some people insist on saying that air-conditioning is "not ecological" because it consumes energy. In other cases, the city regulations forbid people to install the external unit of a truly efficient air conditioning system. And, worst of all, very few people realize how bad it is going to be in a few years from now.

So, I have been preparing for what's coming. I told you already how we (me and my wife) decided to move from a big, American-style suburban home to a smaller apartment, downtown. It was for several reasons, but one was that our former home was so large that it was impossible to cool it in summer at reasonable costs. So, we chose an apartment that would be especially suitable to survive these terrible heat waves even without air conditioning. An underground apartment.

Actually, our home is not fully underground, It is on the slope of a hill, three sides are against solid rock but the fourth, the North side, opens on a small garden. That's the only side having large windows, but the sun never shines on them. That was part of the choice: it was to keep the house cool. Here is a picture of our living room.

And here is the garden, in the background you can see the bomb shelter that came with the apartment, it is a WWII relic. It is not supposed to be used against heat waves, but it could be useful again for its original purpose, who knows?

Here is my studio, the room that corresponds to the "slit window" shown at the beginning of this post. The picture is taken in a moment when the sun shines exactly on that window, normally the room is much darker, of course. But it is the kind of place where you can concentrate on your work.

The apartment is not very large, but more than enough for two people. It has two bedrooms, kitchen, two bathrooms, storage space, and more things, but I guess what you want to know at this point is how it performs during heat waves. And, I can tell you it performs beautifully.

As I am writing this post, the temperature outside is about 39°C  (102.2°F). Inside, the thermometer marks 26.3 °C, I never saw it going over 26.6 °C (80 °F), so far. No air conditioning, windows are tightly shut. It is a reasonably comfortable temperature although we found we needed a dehumidifier running full time to bring the humidity in the comfortable range of less than 60%. (*)

For comparison, my mother-in-law apartment is nearby. It is an old building with massive walls, but also with windows facing South. With the air conditioning off, it touches 29 °C. My daughter's apartment is on the second floor of a modern building. It arrives at 30-31 °C if the air conditioning is off. Some people tell me that their apartments downtown Florence reach 33-34 °C (91-93 F). That starts to be uncomfortably close to that upper limit of survivability marked by a "wet-bulb temperature" of 36 degrees. Not a joke: heat kills.

So, what's the idea of going underground? Why not just use air conditioning? Sure, it could be done. But there is such a thing as the possibility of a black-out, you heard what happened in England these days. Now, if that happens in Italy at the height of a heat wave perhaps you won't die, but for sure you'll suffer horribly.

But can everybody live underground? No, of course not. Some people do, even in Florence there are plenty of basements used as living quarters. But that's not a good idea: Florence is built on an alluvial plain that's periodically reclaimed by the Arno river. It happens infrequently enough that people forget about these periodic floods -- the last big one was in 1966. But they are unavoidable and if you live in a basement in Florence you have to think that, eventually, you'll have to get out of it swimming, if you can. Our apartment, instead, is built on the slope of a hill and it is safe from flooding. But you can't build the whole city on the slope of a hill.

What you can do, though, is to build houses made to withstand the heat waves that will become worse and worse as time goes by. How to do that is no secret: the house must have a large thermal mass to make it able to absorb the heat. It may be underground or partly underground, it may have massive walls, or it may have other tricks to store heat away from the living quarters. But it shouldn't count 100% on air conditioning: besides being wasteful, it may not be healthy and not even comfortable.

So, we have been spending this sizzling hot summer tucked in this basement home. An interesting experience. Looking through the window at the haze of the heat, the feeling was like we were living in a science fiction novel. We had landed in an alien planet, too hot for humans to live, and we had to stay inside our spaceship to survive. Maybe that's our destiny in any case: a planet too hot for humans to live, at least during the summer. It is a concept explored by Antonio Turiel in a science fiction story published on his blog "The Oil Crash" titled "Dystopia IX (in Spanish). Maybe we'll really need spacesuits if we want to venture outside in Summer. Who knows?

Elon Musk's spacesuit was designed for Mars, but it could be useful here, on Earth, if things keep going the way they have been going.

(*) We'll have to see how the apartment performs in winter. I expect the rock to act as heat reservoir, but in reverse, so that it may be warm and comfortable with just a little help from the central heating system. Of course, the place will be a little dark but, hey, my ancestors lived in caves, who am I to criticize them?


  1. My apartment is on the third floor and looks to the east. Outside temp is 35 deg.C and inside is 28.9 deg.C. I do have air conditioner with outside unit but I avoid using it. Not because the electricity bill but because it's not really healthy. A lot of fungi and bacteria lives in inside unit and frequent cleaning is necessary if you don't want to inhale the nasty allergens and pathogens. Therefore I prefer to take several cold showers in my bathroom per (hot) day.

    The problem is that city buildings are inside concrete and asphalt areas and heat is much bigger problem here than in the country where there is much grass and trees. Concrete and asphalt reflect heat so people feel like in oven!

    1. Good choice, I'm a HVAC engineer but agree with your point of view for use as less as possible the air conditioner apparatus.

  2. A great article Ugo. Thermal mass management is green cooling and if sustainability ever became a cultural value all sorts of efforts could be undertaken to convert existing arrangements. Properly done all sorts of jobs and goodness would result from doing the needed work. Planning for energy efficiency in buildings curtails energy use in huge ways not often appreciated. Were enough rebuilding projects started a green, truly green, social zeitgeist would follow. That is because rebuilding is an activity that would involve groups and that is the only way the world can get better, through group effort.

    1. Yes indeed, concrete or asphalt street covers and masonry/concret buldings are so big heat accumulators, that in downtown areas at 'Santiago de Chile' the mean dry bulb air temperature is some 3°C higher than in the surroundig fields and suburb areas.

  3. Love it! When we first moved to Oregon we sold our mobilehome in California and bought a 4 story historical mansion for the same price. We lived in the 1400 sq' basement with two bathrooms and a fireplace. Cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Parents almost disowned me for living like a "troll".

  4. In the past (for me as german), Florence in summer could already become hell. I am really worried how things will be in the future. A long time ago in an hot august August I was stuck in a car w/o air condition for 4 hours outside of florence (just usual traffic Autostrada firence-roma). That was the closest I ever have been to a heatstroke.

    Italians will pobably have a problem with staying in southern italy in a few decades and become climate refugees. I guess they might reconsider their current attitude towards refugees from the south then.

    1. Well... Actually we moved from Milan to Sicily and i have to say that summer is worst in pianura padana! We will see in the future

    2. The Pianura Padana is one of the worst places in the world, not just for the summer heat.....

  5. From the linked article:
    "The study projects that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at a high rate, temperatures in parts of northeastern India and most of Bangladesh will exceed that deadly threshold during seasonal heat waves by the end of this century."

    The cynical me thought: Good thing that "most of" Bangla-Desh will be well below sea level by then.

  6. Excellent, Ugo!

    Keep cool!!

    ~ Michael and Connie

  7. Brings up the necessity of adapted building, which comprises not only of a big thermal mass, but also of good heat insulation, which seems counterintuitive at first glance for southern countries. People tend to think, that heat insulation is something for the colder latitudes.
    Then of course: white paint to decrease the overheating in cities. Bright pavements, bright roofs, achieve high albedo. This would unfortunately disturb the optical impression of traditional cities.
    In ancient middle east they used to have open towers called wind catchers. Sometimes, cool air was drawn from ducts in the ground, which greatly increased the effective thermal mass of the building. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windcatcher)

  8. Thats the way it is Ugo, cities and urban landscapes across the planet not constructed for the new climate and the one that is developing, hotter and drier with episodic heavy rain events, causing flash flooding but no retention. I fear it is only a temporary solution, because that urban-city survival does not factor in this - if humans are finding it hard to tolerate, the natural world even less so on a lot of levels. So the green growing plants are being damaged, the crops and fruits diminish in quality and quantity and then slowly they start to die, simply from heat stress and water exhaustion.

    We have managed to cope dwelling wise with the heat on our farm here in Australia, in what is now the longest and worst recorded drought ever. We have large air cavity masonry block construction, high ceilings and N-S alignment to minimise heat intake or thermal rise and have small windows on the heat side. In summer we generally can keep the inside of the building to about 26C but there is about a 10 degree limit between inside and outside at the max, so if it goes to 43 outside, which it is now doing, then inside goes to 33 but we use fans to move the air as best we can, the days are more and more now.

    However outside is a different story, trees that have withstood some 200 years + of the vague Australian climate ( I know their age we have ring counted a few of the old ones) are now dying, Australian trees shed limbs and leaves constantly to reduce moisture loss but there is a point where Osmosis fails due lack of water and pressure and the trees begin to die from the top. Our forest loss at the moment is 10% and rising, it took hundreds of years for that forest and landscape to develop into balance and two years to begin to destroy it. Growing anything at the moment is not possible, no water, too much moisture loss. We are buying in water by the truckload from a local dam that will be empty in about 6 months, then what? No idea, abandon the farm I guess, the animals apart from a precious few are gone, unsupportable with water and grass. A cow needs 100 litres a day and a horse some 70 litres a day to survive. We are farmers and now rely on food from other areas to feed us. We have been unable to harvest fruit (it fails to develop) and grow vegetables (they wither or bolt to seed and hence you get nothing) We have tried shade cloth, watering regime changes but the critical issue remains once that temp goes above 34C and stays like that the plants just cease to function and then begin to die, stunted and withering. So that is the future but that other food pool is diminishing as well. Oh and at the moment it is winter so now we are getting -5 to -7 mornings, no rain and summer is only a few months around the corner.

    Might need to come and live in your basement Ugo. Well there are a lot of people who are now facing that choice, and that will be their decision, that is the next consequence mass migrations and unrest it incurs.

    1. That's a truly dramatic report, Mike. I am more and more convinced that if we lose the trees, we lose everything. But that doesn't seem to be clear to many people, especially the psychos in power. Here in Florence the city government seems to be convinced that we have too few tourists and too many trees, and they are acting accordingly, cutting the trees to make parking lots. And so it goes....

    2. As a footnote we are at an elevation above mean sea level of 1400 metres, with the ISA lapse rate of 2c/1000ft we should be @6C cooler than sea level temp but weird temp inverstions are happening in that area as well.

      It is the heat changes that are going to get us and everything else that requires stable moderate temps to survive, plants and animals both. GAIA will reregulate itself but the time scales are epochal, we dont have that time, we cannot continue to accumulate heat energy and adding to it as Professor Andrew Glickson recently said the Anthropocene is the equivalent of a change that would be caused by a large meteor strike such as at Yucatan which wiped out the Reptile or Dinosaur era some 65 millions years, that is a sobering analogy.

  9. From bad to worse:


  10. Inproving Human Habitation is a great adaptation to Climate Change.
    If it gets warmer or cooler, wetter or dryier, calmer or more windy and human habitat is capable of supporting life across a wider range of conditions, this is good.
    I used to be a Carbon Warmist presenting on the topic at Technology Conferences. Now I'm a Solar Coolist, believing we are in the beginning of a Grand Solar Minimum where Earths Temprature may decline greatly due to Normal Cyclic reductions in Solar Energy Outputs.
    I also live below ground level now, do not use Airconditioning and minimal Heating even when tempratures outside are -30 Fairenhight and the winds are strong.

    1. I has to be the heat of this summer that has this effect on human minds.

  11. It is quite a head-banger when you try to air condition in Europe. We own a small 1400 SQft 2-story in Bulgaria. To install a central HVAC system with gas furnace would be a snap as ducting is already built in from coal days. We found only 1 HVAC company in the entire country. To install a system in the USA would run $15,000 tops. The quote we got equates to $60,000 USD. The entire house is not worth that much! So, everyone has single-room wall units. Our solution? Stop summering in Europe - Fall or Spring is now the option.

  12. Adaptation is so locally specific.
    What is the best investment of fossil-fuel energy today?
    It takes energy to dig a hole and build a home into it. Don't do it in a swamp. What does one best do in a swamp?



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)