Monday, August 10, 2015

The engineer's dilemma and 'sexist' air conditioning

David Frise, BESA Head of Sustainability

So the silly season is definitely in full swing: Newspaper journalists; bloggers and social media pundits have jumped on this year’s daftest headline, which branded office air conditioning as ‘sexist’.

Research from the University of Maastricht reveals that temperature settings in UK buildings tend to suit men and not women. Apparently, commissioning engineers still rely on guidance produced by ASHRAE back in the 1960s based on the resting metabolic rate of the typical 40-year-old man, which is around 30% faster than a woman’s.  As a result, while men might feel perfectly comfortable in the office, most women are freezing during the summer months and face a major clothing dilemma: Their summer attire is fine for commuting to work, but completely unsuitable for the office.

Dr Boris Kingma, who lead the Dutch research team at Maastricht University Medical Centre said they were not recommending “a specific range of room temperatures”, but simply wanted metabolic rate to be taken into account “when defining indoor climate standards”.

The problem is that very few employers measure temperature properly at all. Neither do they worry about indoor air quality or humidity or anything related to the air conditioning/ventilation.  The major preoccupation for commercial office users is location, transport links, nearby green spaces and the like.


The service our industry provides is completely taken for granted. If we succeed people are unaware of their environment; they are comfortable, they can’t see it, smell it or hear it and so don’t value it. Until it doesn’t work, that is.

This research also shows that different people want different conditions so how can you keep them all satisfied and how can you possibly measure success – other than on things not breaking down and people not complaining…all the time?

How do we get people to actually value what building engineering services firms provide?

We have strived to find the productivity link, but this has proved elusive. It may be obvious that people will perform better when comfortable, but it is not as simple as that.  The debate is morphing towards well-being, which is determined by a mixture of acoustics, colour, materials, ventilation, lighting and design – to mention a few. It is notable that just two elements of that mix are building services related. Add in all the highly unpredictable stuff, like what happened to you on the way to work; and you can see why it is almost impossible for us to claim better air conditioning and clean, fresh air as the ‘silver bullet’ for improved productivity. 

In a modern office, the internal conditions are a given. They are just 'pipes and wires'; so how are clients to value this?  They are more likely to value the smart reception area that gives a great first impression to their customers or top quality meeting rooms.  Often our services are valued after the fact; when clients realise something doesn’t work properly and by which time it is usually too late to do anything about it as the infrastructure is already installed.

That is the dilemma of the building services’ engineer: If you get it right nobody notices, silly season or not.

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