In the wake of the 2020 ASHRAE Winter Conference and AHR Expo, let us look forward to the next era of innovation in the HVAC industry. A high-level look at advancements in air conditioning and the underlying societal forces that motivated progress reveals much about humans. Initially, comfort drove change. The first intervention used fire for heat as well as cooking and protection. Next, fans were used to cool through convection and evaporation if humans were perspiring. 

The first mechanical air conditioner from the early 1900s sent air through water-cooled coils. This was not invented to provide human comfort. Rather, it was designed to control humidity around a printing press to improve the image quality. The same entrepreneurial engineer subsequently invented the centrifugal chiller, adding a central compressor to reduce a unit’s size. By the 1960s, air conditioning units were found in many homes. While several religious groups objected to this degree of comfort, protesting that it wasn’t “God-like,” the desire for comfort prevailed. 

As air conditioning use soared, the 1970s energy crisis hit. In response, the U.S. Department of Energy created a federal standard for air conditioner manufacturers. This definitively focused the HVAC industry on reducing energy consumption, a goal that continues to guide the management of indoor environments. Today, computerized building management systems that interface with occupancy presence sensors in order to reduce energy waste are high on the list of ASHRAE awards.


The Future of Air Conditioning

Since the 1970s, the overwhelming emphasis in building and mechanical system design and operation has been to keep carbon-based fuel consumption low. While this is critical, the goal of future innovations in HVAC engineering must be driven by another obvious yet largely invisible purpose of buildings. 

Buildings exist to shelter humans so that we can reside on earth. This means the truest innovations will advance this purpose. Even though we spend 90% of our time indoors, little is still understood about how indoor conditions and designs affect human physiological health. To date, health-related building management concentrates on eliminating dangerous gases and chemicals — a do-no-harm perspective. 

Yet, our indoor environments have the potential to do much more. They have the potential to be spaces that enable people to thrive, not just survive. To achieve this, we must first reveal the most important metrics in real time so that adjustments can be made when necessary. 


Wearable Biosensors for Physiology Monitoring

Wearable biosensors provide real-time physiological information measured noninvasively. Many of us already wear devices to track our heart rate, sleep patterns, and activity. We now also have devices that can monitor hormones, natural chemicals, and microbial products in sweat, tears, saliva, and other bodily fluids. 

This real-time physiological information can be interfaced with building data and inform us about the best way to manage our indoor environments. Ultimately, these wearable sensors will change the way in which our homes, offices, schools, and health care facilities are designed and managed. Just as precision medicine can bring the best treatment to each individual, personalized indoor environments can optimize the health and performance of everyone and reduce the hundreds of billions of dollars that are lost each year in the U.S. due to illnesses linked to the indoor environment. 

If you are forward-thinking, interested in new opportunities, and willing to deviate from existing paths, I advise you to become a data collector. Using wearable biosensors, keep a log of your own heart rate, sleep patterns, and illnesses over the next year. Meanwhile, track the temperature, humidity, particles, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon dioxide levels, and other variables in your home and office. Do you see trends or patterns? If so, how can you manage your building to optimize your own existence? And, of course, please email me with your findings.