If you have worked in an office for any period of your life, you have likely said to yourself, “Why is it so damn cold in here?!” The temperature of a workplace is a constant source of annoyance for workers and fodder from a lot of the banal small talk that offices are known for. But for the people who manage those offices, it is much more than annoying. Hot and cold calls are a constant time suck. In fact, I have talked to a number of property managers who have told me that hot and cold calls are one of, if not THE, most time-consuming parts of their jobs. When you think about how much office managers and maintenance staff get paid just to walk around a building trying to dial in the temperature so everyone can feel comfortable in every building in the world, it really puts the scale of the issue into perspective.
The next question that most people utter after complaining about the temperature in an office is likely, “Can it really be that hard to keep an office at a comfortable temperature?” The short answer is yes. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (or ASHRAE) suggests that inside temperatures be kept at 68°F to 74°F with a relative humidity of 30 to 60 percent. But even within that temperature range, our idea of comfort varies a lot. Much of it comes down to biology; some people run warmer than others, so they prefer a colder environment. For example, women generally prefer a warmer room than men. It can also depend a bit on other factors like the clothing people choose to wear (or not wear), the outside air temperature, and the room temperatures that we are conditioned to.
The fickle and finicky human perception of temperature isn’t the only thing that makes regulating a building’s temperature difficult. The way that buildings change temperature throughout the day is incredibly complicated. The sun heats buildings differently every day depending on the time of the year and the weather conditions that day. Also, materials like metal and glass retain heat at vastly different rates.
To combat these fluctuations, buildings have heating and cooling systems, but they are far from perfect. “Most buildings have their vent systems designed before the interior walls are even built,” said Tony Liou, President at Partner Energy, an engineering firm that specializes in fine tuning HVAC systems in a process known as conditioning. Since there is usually one duct system for entire floors of buildings, thermostats are connected to “air dampeners” that open or close vents to help evenly distribute the heated or cooled air. But this system is far from perfect. “We have seen thermostats buried inside walls and air dampeners with broken sensors that tell the building control system that they are open when they are actually closed,” Liou added. All of these problems that can befall an HVAC system, along with the layout changes that offices undergo every time a new tenant moves in, can make offices consume much more energy than they should. This is why studies have shown that commissioning a building can save 10-30 percent on its energy expenses.
With office temperature being as big of a problem as it is for building managers it is no wonder that there are so many companies designing solutions. Siemens is one of the companies that already provides a lot of the HVAC infrastructure. They have building management systems, thermostats, sensors, and all types of air flow controls that can be deployed to help offices better suit the temperature needs of occupants. But the physical and digital HVAC infrastructure is just the beginning of Siemens’ strategy. Enlighted is a Siemens company acquired in 2019 with an app called Temperature Control that allows people to adjust the temperature of their office to their liking. They see the integrated building system, consumer facing apps, and AI as a way to help buildings predict the best temperature for people in the building before they even have time to complain.
“We will eventually get to the point where buildings can know what your preferences are so if you book a space, it can start adjusting the temperature before you even get there,” said Stefan Schwab, CEO of Enlighted, a Siemens company. He sees HVAC as just one of the components of the building’s automation, things like lighting and sound can be adapted to people’s personal preferences. All of this can add up to a lot in energy and labor cost savings but can also be the “wow” factor many companies are looking for from their workspaces.
But even AI can not change the ducting and air vents that buildings rely on for heating and cooling. A smart controller might be able to know what temperature you like but it might not be able to adjust to your preference without heating or cooling the entire room. Plus you get inevitable conflicts when two people don’t agree on the “right” temperature. That is what a product called Numa is designed to avoid. By designing a small vent much like what is used in airplanes that can be popped into a duct above each workstation everyone can have their own personalized airflow. “We use a Bluetooth connection so it can only be controlled by someone nearby,” said Gabriel Peschiera, Numa’s founder. “It has an infrared sensor so it can turn off if no one is underneath it.”
These types of smaller, controllable vents can allow buildings to heat and cool on a much more granular level, rather than just having to change the temperature of entire rooms. For landlords, this means more comfortable tenants can go hand in hand with less energy consumption, and ultimately less time spent by operators dealing with nuisance too hot/too cold complaints. “We give control to the individual occupant, and ultimately that’s good news for the landlord and the tenant,” Peschiera said.
There is no one technology that is going to make us stop complaining about temperature in offices. It is only through good building design, smart control systems, and regular recalibration can help buildings meet our tough personal comfort requirements. We live in a world where energy is getting more expensive, and reducing carbon emissions is paramount to keeping our climate from changing beyond repair. But even still, people don’t want to be uncomfortable. One day, we all might find ways to deal with temperatures that we don’t find pleasing, but until then, it is up to technology to help buildings save energy while keeping us from shivering or sweating.