What I’ve Got – Thermal Desire

When discussing sensory experiences, we often limit ourselves to the over-simplified standard of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Neurologists, meanwhile, have identified between nine and twenty-one distinct senses. Both designers and consumers would benefit from further research into these senses, as well as the numerous ways they break down and recombine with each other.

One sensory quality that is extremely relevant but rarely addressed in architecture is thermal experience. The global trend toward standardized interior environments is worrisome for both the planet and for people. In terms of desire, it is ridiculous to assume that all people everywhere have similar thermal preferences, and that these thermal preferences remain static throughout the day, the year, and their lifetime. In fact, people often seek out contrasting thermal environments. There is unique sensory enjoyment in baking in the sun before leaping into a cold ocean, rolling in the snow before jumping into a hot tub, or sipping a hot coffee on a cool day. While such extremes are impractical for places like offices and schools, a smaller range of temperatures, based on climate, season, and activity, is still desirable. The classic Persian garden, with its diversity of natural elements and microclimates, allows people to choose their preferred balance of sun, warmth, and humidity.

As we enjoy the spring days ahead, we might keep in mind the following quote from Lisa Heschong’s seminal book, Thermal Delight:

A proper gourmet meal has a wide variety of tastes – salty, sweet, spicy, savory – so that the taste buds can be renewed and experience each flavor afresh. This renewal mechanism seems to be especially active for the thermal sense when we experience a temperature change within the basic comfort zone. There is an extra delight in the delicious comfort of a balmy spring day as I walk beneath a row of trees and sense the alternating warmth and coolness of sun and shade (19).