A to Z of Smart Buildings

A: Air Conditioning

Posted by The Comfy Team on April 26, 2016

We've all been there. It's the hottest day of the year and we're freezing in our office. Do a quick search for #coldoffice and you'll see a steady stream of Twitter and Instagram photos of office workers bundled in blankets, hats, and gloves. Cubicle workers huddle around space heaters and cradle their corporate branded mugs. People throw around comparisons to White Walkers, the freezing zombies from Game of Thrones, and remark on how "Winter is Coming...to workstation 369."

But, it's more than just idle water cooler chatter. Over air-conditioning is a rampant—and expensive—problem.

In fact, a 2009 study of 100 U.S. office buildings found that indoor temperatures in the summer were, on average, even cooler than in the winter. Numerous studies have found upwards of 40% of workers dissatisfied with the temperature in their offices and more people feeling too cool rather than too warm during the summer. A 2009 federal report on public buildings determined that the optimal temperature for office spaces in the summertime can float as high as 78°F, but noted a significant proportion of its buildings were operated at temperatures well below that, leading to 61% of building occupants feeling too cold.

Image via The New York Times

Overcooling is costing U.S. businesses billions of dollars every year in unnecessary energy use, in decreased worker productivity, and increased sick days. If we know it is a problem, why does it still happen?

Gender Bias is a Misnomer

In the summer of 2015, a flurry of media outlets, from local morning shows to heavy-hitters like The New York Times, TIME Magazine, Fortune Magazine, and Wired Magazine covered the topic of over air-conditioning. Many were quick to latch onto a small research study from the Netherlands with a sample size consisting of only 16 Dutch women and the contentious thesis that over air-conditioning occurred due to gender bias in the buildings industry. In reality, it's not that simple. Gender is just one factor to consider in the complex issue of personal comfort. The underpinnings of the over-cooling problem are part cultural, part legal, and part mechanical.

We All Want to Be Cool

Image via Pixabay

Air-conditioning has come to be associated with luxury. It is not uncommon for Class A office buildings, luxury department stores, and even casinos to request specific temperature settings to maintain the pretense of excess and a sleek, cool interior. At the same time, in the residential sector, overheating and access to cool air can actually be a life or death situation. For all these reasons, it's not surprising that our society favors over-cooling the indoors to over-heating it.

In office buildings, we often conflate our request for cool air with the desire for fresh, well-circulated air. Employers concerned about sluggish employees in stuffy offices are more inclined to keep it cooler indoors, thinking that it will keep worker bees attentive. In truth, while a comfortable, oxygen-rich environment helps productivity, a frigid office drives us to discomfort and distraction.

Lease Agreements Putting the Squeeze on Temperature

The practice of keeping it cooler, rather than warmer, has also been formalized into leases. It is not uncommon for leases to include a clause explicitly stating a minimum temperature and a maximum temperature. Those temperature setpoints are usually fairly tight, established well before the tenant moves in, and set with tenant control in mind rather than occupant comfort.  

ASHRAE Standard 55 is the international go-to for attempting to meet the indoor thermal comfort needs of at least 80% of building occupants. In theory, ASHRAE 55 allows for a pretty wide range of 15 degrees (67-82℉), but in practice typical office building setpoint ranges are often very narrow—just 4 degrees.

Then, inertia kicks in. Not mechanical inertia, but organizational inertia. Depending on the type of lease agreement, certain costs, like energy bills or HVAC upgrades, are the responsibility of the building owner, the tenant, or shared between both parties. If there is a property manager or third-party vendor involved, things can get even more complicated. Addressing temperature-related complaints is a problem that requires communication and insight from multiple parties, but traditional lease structures sometimes play out in ways that create little incentive for the necessary parties to engage.

What's for Dinner? Aww...72℉ Again?!

From badly positioned thermostats to aging HVAC systems, there are a myriad of ways that the inner workings of a building can create a perfect storm of freezing conditions in the office, but one of the biggest culprits is static temperature setpoints. It is not uncommon for the temperature in an entire building to be set to 70-72℉ for the entire day, leaving little wiggle room for personal preference or micro-climates within the building.

Many buildings maintain the same temperature settings throughout the day, year-round, regardless of whether it's a snowy February morning or a boiling August afternoon. The shoulder seasons of Spring and Fall can be especially fickle, making it a Herculean task for building engineers to satisfactorily adjust temperature settings for every person, every day, every hour.

It's actually a bit ironic when you think about it. Establishing narrow, static temperature setpoints is a really energy-intensive attempt to keep occupants more comfortable that only makes people less comfortable. We actually don't want the temperature to be a static 70-72℉ everywhere, all the time. We like variety.

Smart Buildings to the Rescue

The root causes of over air-conditioning in workplace are bigger than they first appear—from misaligned perceptions to contractual structures to prescribed uncomfortable settings. This is where smart buildings can help. Collecting, calculating, and making sense of data from thousands of sensors every minute and allowing for customization on a zone-by-zone basis, smart buildings are able to adapt to people's ever-changing needs.

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