A cool idea is a big hit at the Red Barn

Red Barn Theatre

In a radically new departure, air conditioning at the Red Barn Theatre in Jackson’s Point on Lake Simcoe, starts at your ankles and works up.

It’s an approach that’s almost counter-intuitive. Cold air is heavier than warm, and so it doesn’t rise. It sinks. That’s why conventional air conditioning vents are usually at the top of rooms. Cool air is blown out, it falls, and it cools you on the way down.


But at the Red Barn, cool air comes in at floor level. If no one is in the theatre, it simply pushes the warm air upward to eventually escape from a cupola at the top of the barn, until the layer of cool air is about three metres deep. Then a thermostat shuts off the system.


If there’s an audience, a mini-convection air current develops around each person. Cool air starts warming at ankle level, and slowly rises. As it rises it continues to cool people on the way up. Warmed by all the bodies, the air keeps rising, and eventually flowing out the cupola. Instead of shutting down, the system keeps running, and the layer of cooler air remains about three metres deep.


There are a number advantages of this system to the Red Barn. First of all it’s a lot cheaper to run. The electricity bill this summer should be an staggering 96 per cent lower than it would be with a conventional system. It’s expected to be about $50, compared to about $1,250 for a conventional system.


Secondly, it was  about 40 per cent cheaper to install. It cost $50,000 compared to $80,000 for conventional air conditioning.


Thirdly, theatregoers will always be breathing fresh air. Each breathe they exhale will be warm, and will rise to escape out the cupola. When they breathe in, they will be taking in fresh air rising along their bodies.


With a conventional air conditioning system, about half of the air in a room is recirculated. Because units are blowing cold air downward, in effect cooling the whole room, it makes economic sense to take in as little of the hot, outside air as possible. The less hot air that has to be cooled, the lower the electricity bill for cooling it, and the smaller (and less expensive) the cooling unit that has to be installed.


Fourthly, the Red Barn uses well water for cooling. In other words, a free coolant. It pumps water from a well, runs it through a heat exchanger — like a car radiator in reverse, with cool water in the radiator instead of hot — and blows hot, outside air through the exchanger, cooling it and pushing it into the building. Warm water from the exchanger is then returned to the underground aquifer through a second well.


« We thought the water would be about 10° Celsius,’’ said Mario Kani, a partner in the Toronto firm of Allen Kani Associates, which designed the system. « It turned out to be 7° Celsius.’’


And finally, there are no uncomfortable drafts in the theatre. The Red Barn cooling unit processes half the volume of air that a conventional system would have — about 298 cubic metres per minute (cmm), compared to 595 cmm. To put that into context, a typical house with a forced air heating system pushes out about 170 cmm. So the entire Red Barn is moving only about three quarters more air than the heating system in a normal house.


Because the pressure is so low, air seeps in more than it blows in, and — Eureka! — no cool breezes on the back of your neck. As Kani explained it, the design concept was to use low-tech solutions to reduce costs, and to benefit the environment by using far less electricity.


Allen Kani Associates were recruited for the project, and their fee was paid, by Enbridge Consumers Gas, as a donation to the theatre.


I attended a performance of the British farce Move Over Mrs. Markham, which ends tonight, and I was completely cool and comfortable. As for the play, well, it was slight. But the actors were a hoot, and next up is My Fair Lady.


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