Thursday, August 5, 2010

Culture and Thermal Comfort

Our built environments have both physical and social aspects to it. An occupant’s perception of the physical will affect his or her perception of the social, and vice versa. And that perception is strongly influenced by the occupant’s social/cultural background, as well as the physiological and psychological constraints placed on our species as a result of evolving in an exterior environment as hunter/gatherers - a much different daily context than our current interior environments where we spend more than 90% of our time. As I discussed in my previous post, the social/cultural norms we learn as we grow up within a given intellectual tradition overlay these physiological and psychological factors, affecting how our brains are wired at an early age. They provide a lens through which we view and interpret the world around us, essentially generating our specific experience within any given situation or environment.

In my last post I discussed how social/cultural differences can impact the commissioning of a lighting control system. Here I will discuss culture’s influence on thermal comfort - that state of mind resulting from our ability to maintain thermal equilibrium with the surrounding environment. Thermal comfort is dependent primarily on the following six factors:
  • air temperature,
  • mean radiant temperature,
  • air movement/velocity,
  • relative humidity,
  • activity levels,
  • and the insulative properties of clothing.
The socially/culturally acceptable clothing styles that we grow up with, which are part of the norms we learn from our family, peers, schooling, company policies, and the mass media, and which vary by activity/task/job description, gender, age, class, and culture, are part of what generate the experience of being thermally comfortable in a given situation. The perception of thermal comfort is therefore tied not only to our physiological and psychological reactions to the above six factors, but also to our ideas of “social comfort” related to conforming to one's social/cultural clothing norms. This creates many potential settings for thermal comfort conflicts among different demographic groups possessing different clothing norms (and therefore different insulative values of dress) — including the classic modern conflict between male and female office workers.

And thermal comfort conflicts, through their negative impacts on performance and productivity, can be very costly. In a Brooklyn, NY office building housing approximately 550 occupants, experiencing a large number of thermal comfort issues and conflicts, the firm I work for conservatively estimated (in 2009) that they were losing almost $70,000 per year due to thermal comfort conflicts. This assumes:
  1. that 10% of the occupants experienced thermal comfort conflicts to a degree that it impacts their performance, 
  2. that their productivity is conservatively reduced by 50% for 10 minutes/day, and
  3. an annual salary proxy of $120,000 that includes base salary, benefits, and training (from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).
This monetary estimate only includes lost productivity as a result of discussing or thinking about the dispute, and does not include other related costs such as work quality problems, delayed/missed deadlines, reduced collaboration, etc. In actuality, the productivity dollar value lost as a result of thermal comfort conflicts is likely quite a bit more.


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