Thermal Comfort: Can Buildings Please Everyone?

It Can Be Difficult To Control

When do buildings feel just right?

As your occupants live, work and play within your designed spaces, thermal comfort becomes an important quality that can make or break an environment quickly. Often, building designers strive to keep room temperatures comfortable throughout the building — but all too often, room temperatures fluctuate uncontrollably from room to room.

Perhaps you may have experienced working in an office that is too cold, only to discover that your colleague’s office is warmer. Then, there is the problem concerning seasons. In the winter your office is too hot, while in the summer it is too cold. As a workaround, many building occupants are forced to keep sweaters in their offices during the summer and wear layers which they can shed during the winter months.

So, why is coordinating a comfortable room temperature throughout a building so difficult?

Thermal Comfort Gets More Complex

There are so many factors that must come together to get the perfect temperature just right in all rooms throughout a building, regardless of location. The Center for the Built Environment even is working on a project researching the links between ventilation and productivity. In fact, their findings indicate that “there is some evidence that high temperature (> 25.4 C) is associated with lower work performance”. (1)

But can thermal comfort be that generalized?

Numerous factors contribute to the need for a building’s air systems needing to adapt. For instance, a room’s functional needs, air quality shifts, exterior temperature swings and occupant loads may all need to fluctuate at some point(s) during a given 24 hour period. Also, occupant’s personal comfort levels are different. Some occupants prefer slightly cooler temperatures while others prefer slightly warmer ones.

Fluctuating Preferences

Did you know that at the National Institute of Building Sciences, research is underway on the “Advanced Human Thermal Comfort Model”? This research focuses on using computer models to help designers visualize and make better decisions about things like HVAC, building and façade designs. (2)

With such models it will become possible to visualize specific thermal qualities of a space. In addition, designers can even model information on how that space’s thermal qualities affect certain areas of an occupant’s body within it. (2) With these types of technologies developing, it should be possible to better target personalized thermal preference through your designs.

Your designs will be not only more comfortable, but also healthier.

A Vision For The Future

I can now begin to imagine a time when there might be clothing worn by occupants that could collaborate with the surrounding environment to help the building’s air system coordinate the best air quality. The clothes could send sensed data about an occupant’s temperature, activity and so on. The building could synchronize individual occupant data with more general building information —- transient behaviors of façade materials, interactive building elements combined with how many occupants are in a room and what functions are going on there.

It will not be completely without challenges, but increased building flexibility should help designers tailor to the few and the masses.


(1) Federspiel, C., et. al., 2002. Worker Performance and Ventilation: Analyses of Individual Data for Call-Center Workers. Proceedings, Indoor Air 2002, Monterey, CA, June.

(2) Advanced Human Thermal Comfort Model. Center for the Build Environment. UC Berkeley (Accessed July 31, 2014)

Image Credit: © Robert Hyrons | Dreamstime




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