Last month, we stopped in to check on the state of office thermostat wars, including an interesting study documenting how errors in certain work tasks jumped precipitously as the temperature dropped. I said I’d come back this month with a look at a few 21st-century tools for grappling with this issue, so here I am and here we go.
COPING VS CONTROLLING
It will surprise no one that the smartphone app sector has taken a few shots at this problem. The Goldilocks app from NBBJ uses a proprietary sensor technology seemingly tailor-made for (and perhaps somewhat restricted to) the open office layouts that have become more popular.
NBBJ’s New York headquarters acts as a working example, with 50 sensors placed around the space to track not only temperature but sound, light, humidity, and motion. The individual then fires up the app whenever a better combination of those ambient variables sounds appealing, and the app points the user toward a new perch that will hopefully be “juuuuuust right.”
I could see the usefulness in a larger space where the sun’s movement changes things over the course of the day, etc., but this app is interesting in the sense that (as far as I can tell) it’s passive: It doesn’t let the user influence the office’s actual HVAC approach. It just helps users try to adapt to existing conditions.
Next up, the Comfy app (which received $12 million in venture funding last year, according to the Miami Herald). Unlike Goldilocks, Comfy gathers user preferences and other typical environmental data, then it adjusts the HVAC in each specified zone to better suit the people who usually work in that zone. The owner also tracks the who and the where associated with recent requests to heat up or cool down, along with the reports that everything feels just fine.
Then there’s the “thermal bubble” strategy used by Carlo Ratti Associati, an Italian firm based in Turin. Here’s how the firm describes the process once the cadre of sensors is in place.
“Once building occupants set their preferred temperature via the smartphone app, a thermal bubble follows them throughout the building, as the fan coil units, situated in the false ceilings, are activated by human presence. When an occupant leaves a given space, the room returns naturally to ‘standby mode’ and saves energy – just like a computer does.”
However, as people collaborate and have meetings and just generally share spaces for minutes or hours, the system responds by averaging out the assorted user preferences. Which makes sense, but it bursts the thermal bubble buzz a little bit if things too often devolve into a sort of preference mush, doesn’t it?
With that in mind, temperature grief may make another argument for employers getting as many employees to work from home as is practical. Then, of course, workers not only get to set the space conditions to suit themselves, but they get to pay for the privilege.
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