03 May 2014

The New York Times: “What Does It Mean to Be Comfortable?”

Along with air-conditioning, globalization has also helped popularize something called Ashrae 55: a building code created by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, to determine the ideal temperature for large buildings. The standard, which has set thermostats across the globe, is hardly culture-free. It’s based on Fanger’s Comfort Equation, a mathematical model developed in Denmark and the United States in the 1960s and ‘70s, which seeks to make a very specific worker comfortable: a man wearing a full business suit.

Consider the impact on office workers in hotter countries, where a thobe or a dashiki might be perfectly acceptable business attire. They might start dressing differently, which makes them less comfortable outside and at home, which in turn makes them more likely to seek out air-conditioning. It also affects women. In spring, it’s socially expected that women will wear thinner blouses, skirts, open-toed shoes, Mazur-Stommen says. But the building temperature is set for men, who are assumed to be wearing long-sleeved shirts and closed-toed shoes year-round. If everyone just dressed appropriately for the weather, we wouldn’t have to heat or cool the building as much.

Maggie Koerth-Baker

The ambient temperature is a source of constant bickering in my office as well. It’s too hot for some, too cold for others and the rest want fresh air. While a more flexible dress code would certainly help, I think the solution lies in better design for office buildings and spaces, including moving away from the cheap ‘open space’ solution.

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