Issue 044
September, 15, 2020

Airflow is Life

Background and notes on my recent ventilation / airflow piece for The Atlantic

Fresh Air Fanatics —

It is I, Craig Mod, your humble guide to all things regulatory of humidity, moiling away at code cracking airy comfort. And this is Humidity Monthly, your semi-annual, once-yearly, totally unscheduled newsletter about fighting back mold and keeping your clothes crisp like a well-formed sourdough ear.

Well, kind readers, I have taken it too far.

I have taken my humidity hijinks all the way to The Atlantic:

How I Mastered the Art of Ventilating My Home:
Let me tell you about my fans

Since this is a mid-month bonus Roden, I thought I’d talk some craft; talk about how I went from writing goofy intros about humidity in this newsletter to writing a kinda serious, kinda useful (I hope!) essay for a much bigger publication.

Although I’ve mentioned humidity in passing many times over the years, as far as I can tell, the first time I wrote more than a sentence or two was last September, after visiting Kazakstan (the humidity in Kazakstan, as you’d expect, was maximally comfortable, A+ crispness):

Hello from the tail end of Japan Swelter Summer. The humidity broke a few days ago and everything is crisp and glorious and markedly less soggy. I am obsessed with humidity — my home is filled with hygrometers. I have a dry case for camera equipment and my one pair of fancy leather shoes. My friends send me the latest in dehumidifier news. Few people fully understand the implications of runaway humidity. What an odd thing to care about, you may think. But spend a summer in certain corners of Japan and you will suddenly care very much. A comfortable life is contingent on very narrow bands of humidity:temperature ratios. 60% humidity and 22 degrees Celsius is excellent. Crest 70% and 26 degrees and you have just bought a ticket for a mold dance. But increase airflow and the mold can be mitigated. Airflow is underrated. A stagnant room is screaming to be reclaimed by nature. Of all rooms, my bathroom has the best airflow. Its airflow is beautiful, a masterwork. Were you to toke a cigar in my tub the smoke would perform elegant acrobatics all about the volume. You would be awed by the flow. There are no mold issues in the bathroom.

This is all true — my home really is full of hygrometers. And since I moved down to a plot of land sandwiched between wet mountains and a wetter sea, I’ve had to contend with — really look into the black, beady, lifeconsuming eyes of — Humidity Related Issues.

Close friends of mine have been bombarded in private by my dehumidifier updates. “This is it. THE ONE,” I wrote a friend after investing in a Mitsubishi model capable of continuous, nonstop dehumidification through a hose.

Eventually, all humidity related jokes were sent my way.

This New Yorker cartoon was forwarded to me no fewer than a dozen times:

Six weeks ago, a friend — after I declared over text message how this was the first summer I felt like I had gained total mastery of my home’s airflow — finally said: Dude, just write it up.

So I did.

I sat down, turned off the internet, and banged out a thousand-word first draft in about forty minutes. To be fair: I had been thinking about this for a while. So it wasn’t much of a stretch to begin writing. And as soon as I found the opening sentence, the rest was there to be nabbed. It began:

Airflow is life. I’ve been saying this for years. You may think, Airflow? And I will repeat: Airflow. Airflow is the difference between a staid and stuffy room and the lightness of a sunset walk through an autumn meadow. Grace and airflow go hand in hand. As air moves, so too does the mind. And now, it seems, so too does our health. For all signs seem to indicate that airflow plays a critical role in the difference between life and Covid.

OK. Great. That’s something: Playful voice, promise of an improved life, a way to fight off Covid. I saw this piece as a spiritual successor to “Let’s Fly: How to Survive Airtravel.” You know, that old Dalai Lama peaceful-skies essay.

I finished the draft and thought I’d just plop it at the bottom of a Roden as I do with many essays that don’t seem to have an obvious home (i.e., last month’s emotional intelligence piece). But before doing so, I figured I’d shoot it over to an editor I have worked with in the past at The Atlantic. The response was enthusiastic, and off we were to banging this thing into better shape.

I hate to break it to aspiring writers — but making a living doing one-off freelance pieces is a tough gig. These publications simply don’t pay that much for essays, and certainly not for essays that are online-only (a distinction — between print-prestige and digital — that still looms intriguingly, nonsensically large at these institutions).

And so, the real benefits of publishing an essay like this with a bigger magazine are:

  • Obviously, you get access to their giant audience. Bonus points if you have something to sell on the other end (i.e., SPECIAL PROJECTS memberships, books, et cetera).
  • Publishing with a “formal” entity brings with it a rigor that makes me work harder at the piece than I would publishing for myself. That feels good.
  • There’s an obvious status / prestige component to publishing somewhere like The Atlantic. I aim to publish 2-3 pieces a year with these sorts of publications to keep me feeling sane (“I can do this”) and to lightly signal to the outside world that I’m not a complete charlatan.
  • But more than anything else, I get the benefit of working and bantering with one or two razor sharp brains about the craft of writing.

The first chunk of editorial feedback I got was:

The story could make for a really fun addition to our pandemic coverage. It would need some more work—broadly, I’d love to see you build out the coronavirus component just enough to underscore how airflow really is something a lot of people (and institutions) should be thinking about right now. And I actually wonder if we could get an HVAC expert to weigh in on your techniques …

This sent me on the hunt. After poking around I found an extremely recent study by some professors at the University of Minnesota. Airflow, aerosols, room ventilation design — perfect. Emailed. Instant response.

Ah! — this is another benefit of writing for a “big publication” — if you email anyone with a subject of “Airflow article for The Atlantic” or “Piece for WIRED Magazine,” the response rate is not only about 100%, but usually instantaneous.

Professor Hong and I chatted for an hour. He was gracious and patient. And provided enough context for me to feel good about my tips — to feel like they weren’t complete bullshit, and were backed up by actual science.

From there, it was a matter of writing, rewriting, clarifying, simplifying, expanding, over and over. All in Google Docs, which is — truly — a superb piece of collaborate writing software. The piece went back and forth between me and editors a dozen times. We did a Zoom call partway through to chat about a few still-fuzzy bits. You’d be amazed at how much work goes into ridding a piece of ambiguity. I probably spent … ten hours? Rewriting and editing that initial forty-minute draft. In part, it took so long because my general mode and tone of writing is more newsletter, less storied publication. And so I thank the editors for their patience with me. But I think we found a good balance in the end.

For your curiosity, I’m pasting the initial draft (as I sent it to The Atlantic) below. You can compare to the finished piece — see what was whittled away, and what was expanded upon.

One change was to shift from using “airflow” to “ventilation.” I find the phrase airflow to be funny — it’s a ridiculous word. I love it. Which is why I was drawn to it. But everyone is talking ventilation these days — and ventilation is a more generally accurate word. Ventilation is the “in and out of air into a space;” to me, airflow is the general vibe and tenor of the quality of air, how it moves, where it moves, why it’s moving. But, in the end I had to concede that ventilation was probably more accessible.

Another obvious change was the omission of my first graph, my “warmup” graph, for which I often harbor an irrational fondness. Fun may it be, it usually gets in the way of the heart of things. For a piece like this, I try to take an egoless, deshi (a pretentious way of saying “student”) stance. Like I said above: I’m here to learn, and part of that is conceding edits, and most certainly, killing darlings, dead.

I had fun writing this, and the response has been heartening. Lots of professors and researchers pushing it, giving it a thumbs up on the Twitterverse.

I figured you all might like a peek behind the process of getting the piece done and dusted.

Thanks for all of your continued support <3

Here’s the original first draft, as was, for your perusal:

Airflow is Life

Airflow is life. I’ve been saying this for years. You may think: Airflow? And I will respond: Airflow. Airflow is the difference between a staid and stuffy room and the lightness of a stroll at sunset through a meadow in autumn. Lightness and airflow go hand in hand. As the air moves, so too does the mind. And now, it seems, so too does our health. For airflow has become the difference between life and Covid.

Let me teach you everything I know. You, too, can master the airflow in your own life.

My obsession with airflow began about five years ago when I moved from Tokyo to the coast of Japan and a blanket of humidity — the likes of which I had never before experienced — seemed to levitate out from the surrounding mountains and wrap me, and all of my possessions, in a kind of moist haze. That moistness combined with summer heat is a perfect alchemy for mold.

That first costal summer my tatami mats turned green, I lost several pairs of shoes, and half of my books seemed to become sentient. Folks who moved into my neighborhood during the rainy season didn’t unpack their boxes quickly enough. When they finally opened the wet cardboard boxes a few days after moving, they realized they had lost half their furniture and anything made of leather to sprawling tendrils of hyphae.

My first impulse towards perfect air and a mold-free life was to keep the air conditioner on all the time. Mold thrives on the intersection of humidity and high temperatures. Lowering the temperature is one part of the equation. The A/C worked, to a degree. But the technique wasn’t comprehensive, and created pockets of moisture. I came home from a weekend trip to find my bedroom door had grown askin. The culprit: The A/C created enough condensation on the outside of the doors to facilitate mold growth.

Dehumidifiers came next. Industrial machines, the likes of which you stick a hose in the back and put the hose in your sink, and leave it on 24 hours a day. These plus the air conditioning certainly helped. But in the end, the biggest, most cost effective way to combat humidity and mold and create the most comfortable environment was the simplest: Fans.

I’m now convinced the most important aspect of house design is airflow. How the air flows, where it flows, how much control you have over that flow. So, too, with restaurants, cafes, barber shops. I purchased one Vornado fan to such superb effect, that I now have three, strategically placed so no particle of air stagnates anywhere in my 1,000 sq foot home. Light a cigarette in my entryway and you’d be dazzled by the flow of the smoke — up and around, through doorways, swirling towards the ceiling and then back to the floor, inscribing gorgeous arcs through the air until it finds its way out the ventilation fan stuck in a window. Those ventilation fans can not be underestimated. My bathroom’s vent is so powerful, so efficient at moving air, that the one place in my whole house I’ve never once — ever! — seen a speck of mold in is, improbably, unbelievably, my bathroom. All because of the vortex of moving air eliminates any chance for stagnation, for condensation build up, for a heaviness of atmosphere.

Become sensitive to airflow and you can no longer abide by badly ventilated rooms. You sense the torpor of a hotel room where the windows don’t open. You feel suffocated in a cafe with no good vents.

Who would have thought this sensitivity would be a kind of superpower in the age of air-borne viruses. Were I designing a home or running a shop today, this is how I would engineer the air:

Each room needs a vent pushing air from the inside out. In an ideal home the vents would be built into the walls, bearings well lubricated, whispery silent, slyly positioned in various places, keeping the air particles subtly but usefully in motion. In you own home, you can approximate this by buying window mounted fans and having them blow as exhausts.

Each room should also have a cracked window. Even with the air conditioner on! You’re not an animal, and a cracked window will help replenish the otherwise stagnant air you’d accumulate from running an AC in a sealed box. For bonus points, open them wide once every few hours to fully cycle the indoor air.

In the corner of each room, place a floor-based fan. Aim it towards the diagonally opposite ceiling corner. The result should be a clear but subtle — the goal isn’t a wind tunnel — sense of air flowing throughout the room.

You’ll know if you’ve been successful because the room should feel lighter, smell better, feel fresher than it did before. Odors should dissipate quickly. And most importantly, in the case of businesses, micro-particles of spittle from the chatter of clientele should be whisked away at a pace that makes contracting Covid significantly less likely.

Airflow is life. Living where I do, I’ve been forced to wrangle a life in which my airflow is perfected. It’s the only way to stay sane. And now, it’s one way to stay alive. Airflow can always be improved, often easily. Do not underestimate how much it can elevate a life.