What's the Perfect Temperature? - The Politics of Indoor Air Temperature Control
October 24, 2015
“Can someone increase the temperature of the AC? It’s too cold!”
“What?! I’m practically sweating here! Don’t change the temperature.”
I have this conversation practically every day. When I’m cold, someone else is inevitably feeling hot; when the temperature is just right for me, it isn’t right for many others. The topic of thermal comfort and indoor air temperature control has been fiercely debated. Earlier this year, The New York Times published an article on how a male-biased algorithm was to blame for the heightened thermal discomfort that women face in office environments. It also included several anecdotes and stories of how working women coped with their discomfort by altering their behaviour - such as wearing more layers of clothing or using space heaters to warm up. (Belluck, 2015) The article was strongly debated by its readers, and there was a wide range of opinions. While some women vehemently agreed, some men responded that the standard office attire for a man inherently included more pieces of clothing than a woman’s - leading to women feeling colder easily. There were several exceptions, however. One comment read - “I am a woman who loves air conditioning. Put a sweater on.” (Moore, 2015)
The basis for The New York Times article is a paper titled “Energy Consumption in Buildings and Female Thermal Demand” that was published in Nature: Climate Change in August this year. The paper claims that Indoor Climate Regulations are based on a thermal comfort model that was developed in the 1960’s. Metabolic rate, one of the primary variables, is conventionally calculated for a 70 kg, 40 year old male. The article also says that thermal balance within the body is affected by a person’s adipose tissue - the major storage of fat in the human body. This means that those who are lean feel colder easily as compared to those who are obese. (Klingma & Lichtenbelt, 2015)
Alan Hedge, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell University, shares a similar view. In an interview for National Public Radio (a network of public radio stations in the United States), he says - “Men have more muscle mass. Muscles contribute to heat generation. Men have hairier skin than women. And hair traps air over the skin and air acts as an insulator. So biologically they generate more heat.” (Greene, 2015)
He makes another interesting observation. In an office environment, the temperature is usually set by the CEO or the facility manager or the mechanical engineer who is responsible for maintaining the system. And they are typically men. (Greene, 2015) He also argues that people feel distracted by the cold, which leads to a decrease in productivity in the workplace. In a study of 19 employees performing computer work in an office, there was an association between air temperature and the correct keystroke rate - the correct keystroke rate was higher at warmer temperatures. (Hedge & Gaygen, 2011)
So, are women the sole disadvantaged group when it comes to biased standards in indoor air temperature control? Thermal comfort is influenced by a variety of factors such muscle mass, hairiness of the skin and whether a person is lean or obese, among other factors. As Langdon Winner would say -
“… the technological deck has been stacked in advance to favour certain social interests and that some people were bound to receive a better hand than others.” (Winner, 1980)
People who do not ‘receive a better hand’ cope by altering their behaviour - by throwing on a sweater, or, if they belonged to the other extreme, by rolling up their sleeves. On the other hand, if the person in question had some mechanism of accessing the thermostat of the air conditioner, they have with them the power to influence the thermal comfort of everyone else using the same system. Thus, it would be fair to say that the air conditioner, at least in office environments, is a political artifact.
Air conditioners were designed with the primary intention of making people more comfortable. While it seems to be too sweeping a generalization to say that standards for indoor climate regulation are biased against women and women only, they should be made flexible enough to accommodate the thermal demands of subpopulations as well as individuals.
Belluck, P. (2015, August 3). Chilly at Work? Office Formula Was Devised for Men. (The New York Times) Retrieved October 17, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/04/science/chilly-at-work-a-decades-old-formula-may-be-to-blame.html
Greene, D. (2015, August 5). New Study Says Chilly Offices Hurt Women Workers’ Productivity, Health. (National Public Radio) Retrieved October 17, 2015, from http://www.npr.org/2015/08/05/429597180/new-study-says-chilly-offices-hurt-women-workers-productivity-health
Hedge, A., & Gaygen, D. (2011, February 22). Indoor Environment Conditions and Computer Work in an Office. HVAC&R Research, pp. 123-138.
Klingma, B., & Lichtenbelt, W. v. (2015, August 3). Energy consumption in buildings and female thermal demand. Retrieved October 17, 2015, from Nature: Climate Change: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2741
Moore, L. (2015, August 4). Blame a Male Biased Algorithm for the Temperature in your Office? Readers Respond. (The New York Times) Retrieved October 17, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/05/science/blame-a-male-biased-algorithm-for-the-temperature-in-your-office-readers-respond.html
Winner, L. (1980). Do Artifacts Have Politics? Modern Technology: Problem or Opportunity? , 121-136.