If you’re unable to make systemic changes to your HVAC system, or to call in the troops for a major renovation, you can do more for your thermal comfort at work than you might expect.
Have you ever felt too cold indoors? How about too hot? Engaged in some polite thermostat wars with others, or secreted a space heater somewhere nearby?
You are not alone. Very much so, in fact. Unfortunately, as a UC Center for the Built Environment study showed, in only 11 percent of buildings are more than 80 percent of occupants actually satisfyingly comfortable. This is further complicated by a major IFMA study which showed that while the top occupant comfort complaint is that their space is too cold, the very next (nearly equal) complaint is that they’re too hot. Obviously, we’ve a ways to go, and it’s not as easy as deciding at what point to set the thermostat.
Of course, thus far this probably only reinforces what you already knew. Whether it’s summer with the AC blasting enough for you to bring in your winter coat, winter in your seat next to a single pane window or under the vent blasting away, or one of the dreaded “shoulder” seasons of spring and summer where nowhere indoor nor outdoors is safe or predictable for comfort—whatever the season, discomfort is likely rampant. Right now, you may even be chuckling inside at articles such as Now That the Sun Has Become a Giant Red Star Ready to Consume Our Planet, My Office Isn’t That Cold Anymore!, or dreading the coming summer season as surely, once again, Women’s Winter is Coming.
But there is hope. Whether you’re unable to make systemic changes to your HVAC system, or in the driver’s seat, able to call in the troops for a major renovation, you can do more than you might expect.
What contributes to thermal comfort, anyway?
First, let’s talk about what contributes to thermal comfort. While everyone’s instinct is to focus on the thermostat, it’s about more than temperature.
Thermal comfort depends on some internal factors. Your activity level is one — if you’re up and moving, or spending most of your time sitting, you will find very different environments desirable. Your metabolism can also be a driver, as can illness or life changes such as menopause. Your own personal layer of insulation can make you significantly cooler or warmer than those around you as well.
When it comes to external factors, four main influences prevail. One is obvious: temperature. Yes, 32° Fahrenheit is certainly different than 78°. But humidity also plays a part—forty to sixty percent relative humidity is the most comfortable — too high a humidity level can create conditions a little too friendly to mold, allergens, and dust mites, while bacteria and viruses like it dry. Air movement, too, can evaporate sweat from our skin to cool us down. Mean radiant temperature is the last, meaning that the temperature of the surfaces around you is a consideration. It’s part of why sitting near the fireplace, of course, is so appealing on a cold winter day.
If you’re not in charge, or not ready for a major renovation.
If you aren’t a decision-maker, or someone who can change the type of thermal system, insulation, or set-point of your space, are you doomed to a life of thermal discomfort?
Gladly, there are steps you can take to improve your comfort without permanently working from home, changing apartments or jobs, or leading a coup to gain mastery over the thermostat. Let’s put our newfound (or refreshed) knowledge of all the influences at play in our comfort. What can you do to calm those chattering teeth or rejuvenate yourself from your wilted swoon?
Change your activity level.
We’ve all heard that sitting is bad for you (so is too much, but more on that some other day). To warm up, let that calorie burn do double duty and consider a quick lap around the floor or take a few flights of stairs. Too hot? Take a leisurely bike ride or walk along the water—swimming, of course, is an ace idea, if your workplace or local gym provides the option.
Consider your own set-point and dress.
If you’re possessed of a high metabolism and low body fat, you’ll likely need a sweater more often than some of your neighbors. If the reverse is true, you’ll probably need some lighter, breezier clothing options than most. You may simply feel you are hot or cold “blooded”. It’s hard to create a thermal set-point that works for multiple occupants in a shared space—even more so if the easily overheated wear a three-piece suit, or the perpetually cool don’t employ a few layers.
Be more mindful of thermal zones—and use them to your advantage.
Beyond your personal layers, look (and sense) around you. Is there a part of the space, perhaps in a southern exposure, where the heat builds consistently? A side with a cooler bent? If you’re someone who constantly “runs” cold or hot, consider moving your seat—especially if you can swap with someone of the opposite persuasion. If enough like-minded folks congregate together, you might even (depending on the type of system in your space) be able to speak to your building management about adjusting the temperature set-point in your area.
Adjust humidity, if you can.
This one can be tricky—you don’t want to make things too humid or dry and your options to change this on your own can be limited. If feasible (and you may need to sit next to others who feel too dry for this one), a humidifier can be employed—but make sure you clean it often and use distilled water to cut down on pathogens. If you’re lucky enough to be in a space with a system which can moderate humidity, ask about the set-point, and whether it can be changed within that optimal range.
Consider existing air paths—or make one of your own.
If you run hot, and there’s a space where there always seems to be a draft? Get in it! The area others consider too stuffy might help you feel a bit warmer when you need it. If you can open a window, crack it open. And fans can do wonders—you might be surprised how much cooler you feel on a hot summer day with a bit of a breeze, even if it’s artificially created. If you’re up for it, there are even office chairs with built in fans. If you can’t get one of those, consider one with a mesh seat or back to allow for passive air movement.
Radiant temperature is a powerful tool.
You’ve likely experienced this when you’ve been near an old single pane window or sat too close to the campfire. It’s a known phenomenon—but all too often, we only think of space heaters as a tool to create this for ourselves. Their use is highly likely to be banned by your lease. After all, these are equipment with a lot of safety concerns, spiking up your energy bill and perhaps even releasing pathogens into the air at the same time. Consider, instead, using an electric blanket (using typically half the wattage of a space heater) or heating pad (now you’re down to a quarter) with an auto shut off for safety. An ice pack can cool you down in a hurry and be popped back in the freezer for as many rounds as you like. Even a cool or hot beverage borrow some influence from this principle. There are even heated keyboards, mice, and footrests—chilled fingers and toes while surfing the net don’t need to be a feature in your life.
If you’re ready for some upgrades…
New starts call for new thinking. If you’re in for a major upgrade, consider a variety of systems and their integration into the architecture. The more of the thermal comfort factor “levers” are under your control, the better you’ll be able to address the occupant experience.
Consider starting with a contextually mindful thermal zoning plan.
If you work regularly in design, you may be familiar with the typical zoning plan—one which simply parcels out real estate into blocks of similar occupancy types and chooses who gets the (largely placebo) thermostat in their office. But instead, use this as a tool to establish a system which responds to several different factors. Consider activity level—where will occupants be the most sedentary, and the most active? Factor in exposure as well and let the fluctuations of temperature on the sunny and shaded sides of the building work to your advantage. Thermal comfort need not come at the cost of energy efficiency—if we design with exposure, rather than against it, we can deliberately allow, and take advantage of, natural thermal gradients.
Reconsider the locus of control.
While most buildings are designed to, and many facility managers go to great pains and expense to fight to maintain, air temperature in a narrow band around 72 degrees Fahrenheit, personal thermal comfort varies much more widely. Active design and alternative working strategies are now quite common in design, which frees occupants up to increase their movement and provides them with the ability to choose their working environment. If thermal zoning is designed for a variety of set-points and those zones are clearly communicated to occupants, when coupled with an ability to choose the environment that suits the occupant rather than tethering to a set locale occupant satisfaction can be better optimized. Consider, as well, providing access to the actual thermal comfort levels themselves—the ability to change thermostats (for real), open windows, or redirect vents.
Learn from the vernacular.
In many areas, even though thermal comfort is a widespread issue, design of the thermal system is often an afterthought. While the default is forced air variable air volume (or even worse, constant air volume) mechanical systems with hermetically sealed windows, this is far from our only, or best, option. First give thought to whether the vernacular architectural styles—developed in times prior to the availability of mechanical systems—can provide some free (yes, that’s right, free) operating benefits. Stack effects, trombe walls, double skins with screened elements, courtyards, elevated towers to capture and harness prevailing breezes, and more—sometimes creating buildings which breathe can be far more advantageous than those sealed up against the world outside.
Evaluate a wider variety of mechanical comfort strategies.
It’s quite common to see overhead delivery of forced air—but these systems are not the only ones available. Consider leveraging mean radiant temperature through the introduction of hydronic or electric radiant heating systems. Trade the idea of, or an existing, overhead forced air system with an underfloor air or low side wall displacement ventilation system. If in a large volume space, consider using fans to create air movement—and utilizing both their clockwise and counterclockwise modes to modify thermal stratification effects, depending on the season. Additionally, make sure you consider systems that will allow for modification of humidity levels—a major thermal comfort “lever” which is oft left unaddressed.
Survey and communicate directly with occupants.
Once you’ve designed a system which provides the ability to adjust the thermal environment, take the opportunity to learn more about where you can improve occupant satisfaction. Occupant responses can provide the keys to find where the original design missed the mark or equipment is malfunctioning. Because our personal set-points are so widely varied, and so sensitive—even a difference of one degree at times can swing a individual vote from “too hot” to “too cold”—communicating survey responses provide a great opportunity to reinforce the variety of ways thermal comfort can be nuanced through individual choices such as location in the building and dress.
You may not be able to take advantage of all these tips. But it’s quite likely you can put at least a few in action. Because so many factors affect our coziness, it’s also possible you can make a measurable difference quite soon. Since we all find just a bit of a different twist on each comfort factor to be the best, these approaches will likely always be helpful to some degree. Take advantage of your improved knowledge of thermal comfort to turn intention into action, and boost your satisfaction with your environment.