Eschewing A/C, hot Seattle residents head for their basements


Screen shot today at 6:15 p.m. PT

Thirty-two years ago, when I became New To Houston, one of my new neighbors described the weather thusly: “Son, we have three seasons in Houston. Summer, followed by July, followed by August.”

During the seven years I lived there, this proved to be quite true.

Last summer, when I became New To Seattle, one of my latest set of new neighbors offered me this advice. “There will be some hot days here,” I was told. “Just stay in the basement.”

Okay, so that isn’t something memorable like “Remember the Alamo!”  But today is the second straight day of 90-degree-plus weather in Seattle, the hottest string in several years. I’ve been staying in the basement, and it’s just fine. The coolness of the earth around the house keeps the lower floor about 12 degrees cooler than the main ground story.

I haven’t lived in a home without some kind of A/C in close to five decades. But in Seattle, I am hardly alone, and this says a lot about the nature of the city.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, which for some reason keeps track of such things, fewer than one out of every seven Seattle-area homes has central air conditioning. This has to be among the lowest rate of major U.S. metropolitan areas. (It’s 57% in the Philadelphia area where I grew up.) As I tool about town, I don’t see a lot of window units sticking out, either.

Of course, Seattle sits at a pretty northern latitude–closer to the North Pole than are Minneapolis and Boston. So even with global warming there is a limit to how many high-temperature days there are each year.

But in my judgment, also coming into play is a combination of three factors: (1)  the nature of Seattle’s terrain, (2) its style of housing and (3) the environmental consciousness of its residents.

Thanks to a generally hilly topography, a huge number of Seattle single-family homes are built partly into the side of a hill. By definition that makes the lowest level a basement, with at least one story above that.  This is so unlike many metropolitan areas where basements are as rare as, say, a winning Seattle Mariners season. In the Los Angeles area, where I lived for awhile, I never saw a home with a basement. In Houston, a flat town with a high water level, the only basement I knew of was one across the street from my house in an older inner-city neighborhood that had been the home 70 years earlier of Howard Hughes Sr., the  father of future tycoon Howard Hughes.

In every Seattle home I’ve been in, that lowest level is a finished basement, with a number of tricked out enclosures–rec rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms, carpeting. Across the country, this is also pretty unusual in my experience. Basements tend to be drab unfinished spaces without windows suitable only for storage and maybe the washing machine and a freezer. Elsewhere, an unfinished basement’s square footage often is not even included in real estate listings.

Finally, I think the no-A/C, head-for-the-basement preference squares nicely with Seattle’s madly recycling persona as a green town. You know, less energy consumption, a smaller carbon footprint and all that. For me, it’s certainly nice having summer electric bills of less than $60 $50 a month, compared with upwards of $300 in the hotter Los Angeles suburbs and Houston.

Now if I could just figure out how to heat the house in the winter so efficiently …

Follow William P. Barrett’s work on Twitter by clicking here.

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