Why your office is so cold, and how to deal with it
By Kate Baggaley
24 May 2018
CED professor and office climate comfort expert Stefano Schiavon was recently highlighted in Popular Science regarding office temperature standards and energy efficient solutions to alleviate office climate discomfort. Despite the gender parity of many corporate offices, office temperature standards have not changed much since the 60s and 70s, calibrated to suit the preferences of “the average male.” The blasting chill of air conditioning in these environments has left many women and other cold-sensitive individuals shivering in their offices, according to Shiavon.
Research has shown that changing a person’s tolerance for cold or heat is much more challenging than accommodating an individual's preference. Women in particular are more greatly affected by chilly office environments due to their slightly higher body fat percentages. “Fat is a great insulator and because of that, the skin temperature can actually get a little bit lower in women than men,” says John Castellani, a research physiologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Massachusetts. So even though their core temperature is comfortably warm, they feel colder in heavily air conditioned environments.
Women’s lower metabolic rates also contribute to feeling uncomfortable in chilly workplaces. In a 2015 published study in Nature Climate Change, researchers found women prefer an average room temperature of 77 degrees Fahrenheit, while men are most comfortable at around 72 degrees. The study's findings need to be taken in the context of larger climate comfort research. “Your physiology, your height, your weight, your body mass, how much you are clothed, [and] the type of activity you do all affect your thermal comfort,” Schiavon says.
Air conditioning equipment is often oversized and fails to maintain a consistent comfortable temperature. “It is like to trying to cut your nail with a ribbon cutting scissor,” Schiavon says. “You don’t have the right machine for the work that you are doing and therefore you tend to overcool.” There’s an additional environmental downside to overly-chilled offices too: “At the same time you waste energy and you make people uncomfortable,” Schiavon says.
So, how do we make everyone feel comfortable without wasting energy? Researchers have discovered that changing lighting colors and filters can alter warmth perception. People who sat in a room illuminated by yellow-red light felt warmer than those in a room bathed in blue light. Military units have researched how best to acclimate people as quickly as possible to uncomfortable working climate. Military researchers were able to habituate men to chilly conditions by asking them to sit in cold water for 90 minutes a day, five days a week, for five weeks while wearing nothing but swim trunks.
Schiavon and his colleagues argue that installing office fans would conserve energy while accommodating a wider range of climate preferences. Instead of running the air conditioner all summer, offices would rely on fans until the temperature climbed past a certain level, at which point the AC would kick in. Fans are more energy efficient and cheaper than air conditioners, according to Shiavon.
Since this extreme approach is only workable in unusual and select scenarios, climate comfort experts generally agree on a multi-variable approach to addressing office temperatures, as individual’s preferences often vary widely. “There is not one temperature that satisfies everyone; it would be the equivalent of saying there is one clothing size or one shoe size that needs to fit everyone,” Schiavon says. “We are all different and we need to provide a more personalized environment.”
In an ideal office environment, every worker would have their own desk fan for warmer months and heated foot mats or chairs during cooler months. Since this individualized approach might not be financially feasible or practical for all office environments, Schiavon and his colleagues are also developing smart fans for shared spaces. The smart fan software invites feedback by text message about whether workers think it’s too hot or cold. The fan would then adjust its temperature based on this real-time feedback.
To view the complete article and other research studies on climate comfort, read the article in Popular Science.
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash