Navigant Research Blog

Ending the Office Climate Wars

Noah Goldstein — July 17, 2014

For some commercial building tenants, interacting with the heating, cooling, and lighting of their offices has been a challenge.  There are the dummy thermostats, the inoperable windows, the buildings that are running heating and cooling at the same time, and the hot and cold calls from the corner office.

Many cubicle dwellers use space heaters in summer to keep their overly cooled selves from shivering, while others need fans to mitigate afternoon sun – even in the winter.

Improved automated buildings controls, networked light sensors, occupancy sensors, and re-commissioning have all helped office workers be more comfortable in their workplaces.  Yet, the overarching problem remains.  This is due in part to the challenge of keeping old and complex systems running optimally.  The other challenge gets back to the dummy thermostat: you can’t keep all people happy (or warm or well-lit) all of the time.  It’s no simple matter to gain an understanding of people’s comfort levels and equip a building to serve those different and diverse needs.

My Chair, My Climate

The University of California Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment (CBE) has led a number of research efforts that try to determine how comfortable we are when sitting at our desks.  CBE has developed prototypes of office chairs that incorporate user-controlled fans and thermometers.  These climate-controlled chairs, known as Personal Comfort Systems, aim to take some of the balancing load off the HVAC system.  A 1-degree expansion of a building’s deadband (the temperature range where HVAC systems do not have to heat or cool) can result in energy savings reductions of 5% to 15%.

CBE also conducts regular occupant surveys in buildings of all kinds.  One recently found that occupants of LEED-certified buildings feel no more comfortable than those in buildings that lack the LEED plaque.  An interesting observation is that, over time, LEED-occupied people report less and less comfort.  Perhaps there’s a honeymoon period for green buildings when people seem to feel more comfortable.

The Goldilocks Strategy

For some occupants, the proximity to windows is an attractor, while others find the glare and the heat disruptive.  The smart glass company View has created a mobile application that enables users to remotely control their windows’ opacity from their desks.  The app allows a user to schedule tinting depending on personal need – for instance, when it’s time to wake from an afternoon nap.  For more on smart glass, see Navigant Research’s report, Smart Glass.

Meanwhile, a startup called Building Robotics is attempting to solve the collective comfort puzzle using an algorithmic technique.  Its innovative occupant comfort product, called Comfy, asks users to rate their comfort simply: too hot, too cold, or just right.  Comfy then tunes a building’s HVAC system to deliver maximal comfort based on occupant feedback instead of predetermined setpoints.  Using machine-learning algorithms and facility management guides, it can create user-focused HVAC schedules based on what feels good to most users, not what temperature air is being delivered.

Comfy will likely prove to be a disruptive technology, reducing the engineering focus on setpoints and increasing the striving for customer satisfaction (i.e., comfort).  As these types of technologies spread, office workers will be more comfortable.  And in serving them, buildings will use less energy.

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