The average commercial office building maintains a fixed temperature based on old data and outdated workplace practices. It’s time for change, says the Better Building Partnership’s Esther Bailey.
“The offices we sit in today aren’t the same spaces they were 20 years ago. They are flexible and adaptable, and the way we respond to people’s needs in these spaces continues to evolve. And yet we stick rigidly to a fixed temperature of 22°C,” Bailey says.
This “magic number” of 22°C is specified on most commercial leases and is based on 1950s American data on the comfort levels of an average sized, middle aged man wearing a suit.
But thermal comfort depends on a host of factors: gender, age, weight and height, health and fitness levels, our ethnicity, clothing choices and the work we are undertaking.
“By changing the temperature set point by just 1°C, building owners can reduce the amount of energy that an HVAC system consumes in summer by between six and 10 per cent,” she says.
Bailey (pictured left) is office sector engagement lead for the City of Sydney and CitySwitch national project leader. She is currently championing the ‘Expand the Band’ campaign on behalf of the BBP, a collaboration of building owners with more than 2.7 million sqm of space in Sydney’s CBD.
“We see this as an opportunity for the whole office sector to drive down emissions and energy costs,” Bailey explains.
Most heating, ventilation and airconditioning systems operate on a very narrow ‘deadband’ or range in which neither heating or cooling is required. Bailey says expanding this deadband by 3°C can cut energy costs by up to 30 per cent.
“Temperature is just one of seven measures of occupant comfort. We need a more nuanced view of indoor environment quality, rather than rigidly clinging to one indicator when we have the technology and scientific insight to understand that it is far more subtle,” Bailey adds.
Bring your best self
Dr Christhina Candido, a senior lecturer at Sydney School of Architecture at the University of Sydney, agrees.
She leads the SHE – Sustainable and Healthy Environments – platform and says “there will always be a percentage of people who are dissatisfied with the thermal comfort in their office”. One of the best ways to improve satisfaction is to “give people more personal control opportunities over their workspaces”.
Charter Hall, for example, was an early adopter of an app called Comfy to allow building users to personalise workspace heating and cooling. Around 65 per cent of those with the app at their fingertips wanted warmer temperatures – an indicator that spaces were being overcooled. Charter Hall has reported a 10 per cent saving on HVAC energy as a result of the app.
With support from a City of Sydney Innovation grant, Candido led Australia’s first large study into flexible offices which looked into occupant comfort in corporate workplaces and says “the data points to higher satisfaction levels with the thermal comfort in both summer and winter when people are working in flexible environments”.
There are simple things that any business can do: relaxing the office dress code or giving them the freedom to work in a variety of settings depending on the task are the easiest.
Or, as Bailey says, “bring your best self to work”.
“Dress for the conditions sit in spaces that suit the task,” Bailey adds.
Lowest of the low hanging fruit
What’s holding the industry back from expanding the band?
“The lease,” Bailey says. Most commercial leases specify that an office temperature must be between set bands, which means building managers or landlords who expand the band may risk breaching leases and incurring penalties.
“We threw that number of 22 in there when we didn’t know any better. But now we do. Tenants are demanding occupant comfort, not a particular temperature. So, if the lease is holding you back from change, then the lease is not fit for purpose,” she says.
The Better Buildings Partnership has developed a best practice lease standard and template clauses to solve this problem. According to Bailey, “ninety-three per cent of industry is using these already for new leases, but it needs to wash through the existing ones.”
Bailey says the City of Sydney is involved because the campaign “suits collective action”.
“This is the golden low hanging fruit – and there are not many opportunities left that cost nothing to achieve and deliver a substantial collective saving.”
Candido is confident that the campaign will resonate. “Every time we engage with industry, and get new evidence from collaborative research, people do listen in Australia.”
Bailey’s message for building owners and managers is clear.
“Speak to your technicians. Work out what your leases say. Use the BBP’s resources to engage your tenants. Make a plan. And then, as soon as the summer gets hot, we can all move together.”
Expand the Band will run from January to March 2019. Download resources and fact sheets online.