Thermal Comfort in Your Office and Home

By Marie Barron, Designer, The Kastrop Group, Inc., Architects

Last week we finally got some rain, and the weather’s finally cooling from the summer months to remind us that winter is approaching.  With this transition, I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect a bit on the effect the summer weather had on our indoor comfort in the office, and touch up on some sustainable practices that might be helpful and of interest to any of you that felt too hot in your homes or offices during the summer.

Temperatures can have quite substantial variances indoors.  Our office space is a prime example of this, largely due to its 18 foot high ceilings drawing hot air up in some places and the solar heat gain spilling in through floor-to-ceiling windows in others.  One of my coworkers has a full wall of tall, south-facing windows in his office, letting in lots of nice views and natural daylight, but also lots of unwanted heat.  Unbearable, we’d turn up the AC, bringing in drafts of air that cooled his space, but also the whole office along with it.  Meanwhile, another coworker would be freezing in his windowless, enclosed office.  Just stepping through his doorway, I’d feel the temperature drop what felt like 10 degrees at the very least, all fed in by the AC and trapped by his low ceiling.

Now, imagine a building with the perfect envelope, keeping a steady, comfortable temperature across its whole interior, and maintaining it.  What is it that deems it “comfortable” though?  This varies, sometimes greatly, from person to person.  Ideally, we’d each have our own personal bubble, following us wherever we go, always staying at a constant temperature that is specifically “comfortable” to us, as an individual.  We’re not quite there yet in standard heating and cooling products, but until then, there are a few simple strategies we can take to boost our indoor comfort level.

2000px-Solar_altitude.svg

The variation of the sun’s height through the year in our northern hemisphere.

If the space you’re dealing with is too hot at the expense of a lot of window surface area, find ways to lower the amount of heat radiating through those windows.  Exterior shading devices are more effective than internal ones since they prevent the sun’s direct rays from hitting the glass’s surface altogether, thus reducing the amount of heat that is bouncing within that panel of glass that is ultimately emitted into the room.  This website details the sun’s path and rays, and various shading devices (ranging from louvers to outdoor trees) and how they work for or against it to the benefit of the building’s occupants: http://www.wbdg.org/resources/suncontrol.php.

In addition, different and pricier glass products have been designed to be more effective at insulating unwanted heat. This article explains how heat-reflecting glasses work, and the difference between light and heat as they pass through a pane of glass: http://www.explainthatstuff.com/how-low-e-heat-reflective-windows-work.html. As a cheaper alternative, adhesive products are available that add an additional layer of insulation as well, such as Energy Film (http://www.energy-film.com).

Portable fans can help greatly as well.  We have a couple that float around the office and they achieve a comfortable level much more quickly than the AC, which would end up overcooling places elsewhere as well in the process. These are especially ideal if you work in an open-office environment around lots of other people that disagree with what levels the thermostat should be set at. Similarly, for those that are too cold, space heaters are a possibility.  I was given one at my desk last winter and used it daily for a good stretch of time.  By having a portable space heater right at my desk, the heat would effectively reach me before dissipating up to the ceiling. For our large office space with high ceilings that draw up all the desired heat given from our central heating system, space heaters can be more cost-effective than cranking up the thermostat to a level much too high in order to compensate for all that heat pulled upwards and unreachable. However, depending on the type of space being heated, there may also be a risk of instead increasing your heating bill with a space heater. As this article explains, space heaters are meant to heat a smaller area, not functioning as a central heating system: http://www.mnenergysmart.com/when-space-heaters-make-cents-and-when-they-dont/.

Underfloor_heating_pipes

Water is heated or cooled in these tubes within the floor of a radiant heating or cooling system.

Aside from switching out glass, adding shading devices, and looking to smaller heating and cooling devices, there are also more involved techniques that your architect or contractor can help with. Checking for infiltration – holes that are leaking air of favorable/unfavorable temperatures out/in of the building, sometimes along the edges of its windows and doors – is the cheapest, least intrusive step you can take. More involved techniques that get into the building’s construction include improving the insulation values of the walls in the area of concern, and adding radiant floor cooling and heating systems built into the floor that radiate and instigate convection of the interior air to achieve favorable temperatures. Window placement and room organization in relation to the sun’s path around the building, recognizing the added heat loads along south-facing walls and possible lack elsewhere, is something we always consider as well when designing a home or larger public building.

Whether you’re too hot or too cold, in your office or in your home, there are various steps you can take to improve your indoor thermal comfort. Easing those otherwise unneeded nerves and improving your productivity, thermal comfort can go a long way in boosting your quality of life.

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