Wall A/C Units: They cannot be unseen

Warning! Subjective statements about architecture ahead.

We’re in the midst of a multi-family building boom in the Twin Cities. Thousands of new units have been built in the past couple years, and the next couple years will see at least as many. This is great news–maybe all those Style section trendpieces about “the new urban lifestyle” are finally starting to come true?

Among all the cranes, however, some complaints have surfaced. There’s a bit of monotony to the boom. Almost every new project in Minneapolis has followed the same formula: A couple levels of underground parking, a concrete ground floor, and four to six stories of stick-frame construction. And they’re pretty much all half-block rectangles. I, personally, don’t see any inherent problem with that–pretty sure London and Paris are filled with five to seven story buildings, and no one complains about them being cowtowns.

But I do have some constructive criticism about one thing. The individual air conditioning units that pockmark the sides of all the new low-rises. They’re commonly known as Magic Paks, though that appears to be a specific company, so I’ll refer to them generally.

At some point, somebody pointed them out to me, probably on UrbanMSP, and now I always immediately notice them whenever I look at a building. They’ve been around for a while. Minnesota gets hot in the summer! Damn hot. Especially in the upper levels of a multi-story building in a south-facing unit in August.

They’re very common in that typical, shabby, two or three story 60s-/70s-/80s-era walk-up apartment you see all over the city, as well as in the public housing high-rises that were built in the same time period.

They’re everywhere.

As far as I can tell by analyzing the construction fossil record (i.e. looking around) there was a bit of a break in the trend, and lots of new stuff went up from sometime in the 80s until the mid-aughts with central A/C systems. But we’re back to individual units now. The style now isn’t an A/C unit hanging out the side of the building like in the picture above, instead they’re inset flush with the wall of the building. Which, in theory, should look a little more graceful, except when an A/C unit accumulates moisture (when they’re on) and is made out of metal (which they are) and then this starts to happen:

Melrose on District View, Stadium Village

Melrose on District View, Stadium Village

And that’s no good. That’s a pretty egregious example, usually they don’t get quite that bad–though this is an older building (2002!) and could potentially be a sign of things to come with some of the lighter-colored facades. Someone should probably buy them some CLR. There’s also a pretty basic but, again, subjective point you could make about them: They’re usually ugly, and further clutter up building facades that are, lately, already pretty cluttered. I would imagine that most people probably don’t even notice them unless they’ve got the rust streaks hanging down, but awkwardly-spaced rectangles on a building facade are probably part of why you might look at the building and express your vague displeasure with it.

I talked to a fellow who works for a local developer to try get a little background about why they prefer the individual units to a central system, and as I’m sure you can imagine, they’re significantly cheaper. It would vary by project, but in an average new building, installing a full central A/C system is about twice as expensive up front as giving each unit their own A/C. Taller buildings (those over that six or seven story height where concrete construction is required) will generally have a central system, but in this city we’re not anywhere near the point where it’s economical to build lots and lots of 40 story apartment towers–low-rises will be the norm for a while.

So, understanding that developers aren’t in this for fun and that they need to pay the bills, what are some other solutions? There are definitely projects that do a better job hiding the units than others.

Much better!

Much better!

That’s The Elysian, a project on 4th Street Southeast near the University of Minnesota. The A/C units are tucked into the balconies on the side facing 4th Street Southeast. Unfortunately they aren’t entirely concealed on the 8th Avenue Southeast side, even though it would have been so easy to just turn them 90 degrees, but it’s still a huge improvement aesthetically. It’d also be great, where possible, to put them on the inside of interior courtyards or on the alley sides of buildings.

In particular, minimizing that rust drip would probably be pretty easy from an engineering (or at least maintenance) standpoint. Even though many are quickly sold to third parties, we’ll have to live with these buildings for decades. Going forward, I would hope that architects and developers keep the long-term appearance of their projects in mind.

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5 Responses to Wall A/C Units: They cannot be unseen

  1. Morgan August 21, 2013 at 12:09 pm #

    They should be illegal.

  2. Reuben Collins
    Reuben Collins August 21, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

    I’m actually surprised to hear they’re cheaper. I wonder what residents prefer? I would likely prefer having more control over the climate in my particular unit rather than relying on a complex central system to manage the entire building at once (and take into account resident preferences for temperature, etc.). But you are right about them being ugly.

  3. Peter August 21, 2013 at 5:47 pm #

    I wish my building had something like Wall A/C units rather than a single system. The building is 40 years old and the system and duct work needs to be replaced, but that’s a huge chunk of change to fork over at once. I think if the owner could do it one unit at a time and spread it out over a couple of years he’d be much more willing to replace the units.

  4. Janne August 21, 2013 at 7:27 pm #

    There are a couple of other downsides to these units.

    First, Magic Packs (or the other-type of unit) are a little more complex than this. They provide heating and cooling, and are metered by the unit. The key benefit is that you can pass all the utility cost on to tenants. And they’re pretty cheap. They’re also inefficient — because the operating costs are passed on to the occupants, there’s no motivation to make them efficient because the developer/owner buys them. There is literally not a single efficient unit on the market (which is creating some consternation in the affordable housing market where the funder expectations disallow these efficiency levels.)

    One thing owners aren’t thinking about is that instead of maintaining one big central system is that they are maintaining 100 small ones. That’s a lot of maintenance and air filter changing for the maintenance team to do.

    Finally, a central system doesn’t mean that occupants can’t control their own temperatures. It depends on how the system is designed.

  5. Robert Bierma August 22, 2013 at 2:06 pm #

    I like the idea of placing them above or below the window and matching the window dimensions for a clean look. Then having the condensation drain into a window planter.

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