Over-Cooling Could Be Undermining Your Green Office Efforts

Amber Plante for Zondits, August 9, 2015. Image credit: tpsdave

Your office could be steadfast in its recycling efforts, stringent against paper-wasting printing practices, and diligent about its daylighting efforts – but if yours is one of the many workplaces suffering from seemingly subzero temperatures despite the hot summer sun, all these environmentally conscious efforts could be for naught.

According to a recent study  in the journal “Nature and Climate Change,” about 30% of an office building’s total carbon emissions are predicated on the energy consumption of the building. And, when 80% of this energy usage is determined by occupant behavior – i.e., how low internal office thermostats are set – your office could be wasting therms and, more importantly, money by overcooling its space.

The article, published earlier this week, suggests that the current algorithm used to determine the appropriate temperature setpoints for office spaces is based on models created in the 1960s when men made up more than 71% of the American workforce. As such, the temperatures were created to account for the comfort of a 40-year-old man who weighed 154 lbs, wearing long-sleeved shirts, suit jackets, pants, and ties, even in the middle of July. This is why modern working women – who have smaller bodies, higher fat percentages, and lower natural metabolisms than their male office counterparts – are often leading the line of complaints about freezing office temperatures. And, the antiquated design is being further pushed into irrelevance with millennials of both genders adjusting the omnipresent “office casual” attire to include short sleeves, jeans, cotton, shorts, and sandals.

The study concludes that simply raising the space temperature by a few degrees could decrease your building’s energy usage and even combat global warming. Other experts agree it could further affect office life as follows:

  • Employees work harder and are less prone to mistakes in temperate office conditions, and their work quality deteriorates as the indoor temperature falls.
  • The psychology of temperature suggests that employees are not nearly as friendly, communicative, or trusting under uncomfortably cold office conditions than they are under warmer ones.

So why can’t we all agree to turn the temperature up a few degrees and ditch the cardigans on the backs of our chairs, fingerless gloves in our drawers, and blankets on our coat hooks? It’s a bit more complicated than that.

According to The New York Times in a recent article entitled “Enduring Summer’s Deep Freeze,” the prestige and power that come from being able to circumvent nature and offer frigid temperatures despite the oppressive summer heat is a huge selling point for real estate developers. The more powerful you want to seem, the colder your office space will be.

“Commercial real estate brokers and building managers say sophisticated tenants specify so-called chilling capacity in their lease agreements so they are guaranteed cold cachet,” the article reads.

But it’s not just a money issue: Green building efforts could also be causing the summer deep-freeze. When buildings are sealed to increase efficiency, air conditioning is often the building manager’s go-to answer to eliminate excess carbon dioxide and mold to maintain air quality standards. Another big factor is the original building engineers’ overestimation of the equipment needed to keep the occupants comfortable.

“Air-conditioning systems are also usually designed for worst-case scenarios — full occupancy of a space on the hottest day of the year,” according to the article. “And, engineers say, they might add a 20 percent upward correction, just to be on the safe side. A result is systems with ridiculous overcapacity that don’t run well on low settings.”

As with more situations, overcoming these cold conditions will most likely come down to compromise between the effects of cold on employees and the necessity of air conditioning in the modern world – but if keeping your office green is a top concern, consider raising the temperature a few degrees and, even more simply, opening a window.