Sunday, August 9, 2020

How does it feel to live in a crypt? Impressions after one year

to live In "The Outsider" (1926), H. P. Lovecraft tell the story of someone who lives underground and who discovers his true nature only when he comes out of his crypt and sees his own image in a mirror. That's not exactly my case, but it is true that I have been living underground for more than a year, by now. It has been a good experience

Last year, I published a post on Cassandra's Legacy describing my experience with living in an underground apartment in Florence, chosen as my new home with the specific idea of resisting to the summer heat waves, intensifying every year because of global warming. After about one year, I can confirm that it was a good idea and I can add some more details. Below, I reproduce last year's post. 

First of all, I can confirm that an underground apartment is way better than any other kind of homes in the hot summers of central Italy. This year, summer is not being so terrible as last year, but we are in the midst of heat wave that will last at least one more week, probably more. Right now, the thermometer inside my apartment marks 26.2 C, which is a nice temperature. Outside, it is hot and damp, a climate unsuitable for human beings. 

Then, of course, I also spent a winter in this apartment. It is not very small, about 140 square meters, but it was possible to heat it at a very reasonable price using the existing gas-powered system. Nothing fancy, here, but the apartment has three sides against the rock of the hill, so there was very little dispersion of heat. 

Something I was afraid of was the humidity. So much that I bought a de-humidifier. But, over about one year of use, I found that it was not very useful. The apartment maintains by itself a humidity level of about 50%-60%, occasionally gets close to 70%. It is normally less humid than outside, so that by running the dehumidifier at full power I was just trying to dehumidify the whole town! Not so practical.

At the beginning, I was afraid that this relatively high humidity was bad for health. Indeed, last year I was suffering of a bad case of chronic stiff neck (Cervical spondylosis if you like), refractory to most treatments. But, after more than a year that I have been living here, my stiff neck is practically gone. Could it be that this range of humidity is good for you? I can't say that I have a sufficiently large statistical sample (just me!). Also, some arnica gel and getting rid of my bifocal glasses may have helped. Or perhaps the human sacrifices I performed at full moon. But never mind that: let's say that I can tell you that living underground seems not to be a recipe for getting arthritis. 

Not that there are no problems with this relatively high humidity rate. A mistake that my landlord made was to mount sealed window frames that don't let air pass through. It was a bad idea, especially in the bathroom and the kitchen. When someone takes a shower or cooks spaghetti, the result may be that the walls become spotty green, not really oozing out green monsters, but still not pleasant to behold. That required a repainting job, installing air vents, and setting the de-humidifier in the kitchen, ready to go when the cooking starts. Nevertheless, a few green spots are appearing on the walls in other places -- it is mostly an aesthetic problem.

What else? The small garden of the apartment was truly a life-saving relief during the months of lockdown. Just as the internal stairs, allowing good exercise by climbing them up and down some 10 times every day. 

And so things stand. Here is a picture of a touch of class of the apartment, with a sculpture made by a student of my mother at the Art Institute of Florence.

Too bad that not everybody can live underground! And here is the article I wrote last year.


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

From Cassandra's Legacy, Aug 13, 2019

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.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)