Like well-tailored gray power suits, matte red lipstick and generous pours of whiskey in between meetings, office climate standards are a throwback to the 1960s “Mad Men” era when males ruled the workplace.
Temperatures are set based on formulas that aimed to optimize employees’ thermal comfort, a neutral condition of the body when it doesn’t have to shiver to produce heat because it’s too cold or sweat because it’s too hot. It’s based on four environmental factors: air temperature, radiant temperature, air velocity and humidity. And two personal factors: clothing and metabolic rate, the amount of energy required by the body to function.
The problem, according to a study in Nature Climate Change on Monday, is that metabolic rates can vary widely across humans based on a number of factors — size, weight, age, fitness level and the type of work being done — and today’s standards are based on the assumption that every worker is, you guessed it, a man.
Or if you want to be really specific, a 40-year-old, 154-pound man.
Any female worker who spends time sitting at a desk can tell you that that makes for a wretched day, especially in the summer when air conditioners are on high, and they have to wear wool clothes and run space heaters even when it’s 90 degrees outside. Previous studies have shown that women prefer higher room temperatures by as much as 5.5 degrees, but they haven’t had a lot of physiological data to back up their misery — until now.
To try to quantify how big the difference is between the optimal temperature for men vs. women, researchers from Maastrict University in the Netherlands recruited 16 women to sit inside a temperature chamber set at 75.2 degrees Fahrenheit (or 24 degrees Celsius), on the warmer end of a typical setting for an office.
The women, who were an average age of 23 and weight of 144 pounds, wore the equivalent of summer clothing — underwear, socks, a cotton T-shirt and cotton/polyester sweatpants — and simulated light office work by sending e-mail or reading a book while sitting at a table.
The current standards for office settings assume a metabolic rate that produces a resting heat of 60 to 70 watts per square meter. The researchers estimated that this model overestimated the heat production of women by up to 35 percent.
Translation: The women were freezing their collective behinds off.
Boris Kingma, a researcher in human biology at Maastricht and the lead author of the study, said it’s time that government officials and building engineers reconsider how they calculate ideal temperatures. Kingma, who studies the impact of indoor environments on a person’s health, said previous studies have shown that when the environment is out of balance with the temperature your body needs, your productivity goes down.
“If you want to describe the thermal demand of a population, then it should be representative of that population,” Kingma said in an interview.
The impact of setting the thermostats too low is not only an issue of individual comfort but one that has major implications for energy usage and the environment. Kingma explained that the problem impacts construction of offices from the design phase. It can dictate where vents are put in, how much insulation is used, how powerful the heater and air conditioners need to be, and how companies estimate their energy bills.
“Because you’re taking a value that only applies to a male, you’ve already made a huge assumption that is a mistake,” he said.
“[C]urrent indoor climate standards may intrinsically misrepresent thermal demand of the female,” Kingma and his co-author Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt wrote.
“Ultimately,” they added, “an accurate representation of thermal demand of all occupants leads to actual energy consumption predictions and real energy savings of buildings.”
Kingma and van Marken Lictenbelt’s work builds on research out of Japan which found that the neutral temperature for Japanese women was 77.36 degrees while it was 71.78 for European and North American males.
Two separate studies have shown that women tend to be more sensitive to temperature and report feeling more uncomfortably hot or uncomfortably cold than men at particular temperatures.
In an opinion piece accompanying the study, researcher Joost van Hoof said the current comfort models for office environments “add bias to predictions of the energy consumption of buildings.”
Van Hoof, who researches technology and health at the Fontys University of Applied Sciences, calls for a “large-scale re-evaluation in field studies” to address the issue.
“The effects on energy consumption of increasing the design indoor temperature will become greater over time as climate change leads to increased outdoor temperatures,” he wrote.
What about those males who might be uncomfortably hot if the thermostat ticks up a few degrees? One possible solution van Hoof raises has my vote: individualized micro-climatization systems.