These Companies Claim They Can End Office Air-Conditioning Wars

A comfortable cubicle of one's own may soon become a reality

Photograph: Getty Images

It's one of those summer days when the air feels like water and smells like garbage and the commute to-and-from work requires an additional shower. Sure, the misery of a hot summer day can't be completely eliminated, but what if office temperature wasn't an additional concern? What if your eight hours working inside were perfectly temperate, neither an over-air-conditioned tundra nor a sweaty reminder of the hellscape that awaits outside

That's the utopic reality for the 700 people who work in AppNexus's New York City offices. The startup uses Comfy, an app that lets the people, rather than the maintenance crew, dictate office climate. Comfy's software connects to an office's existing heating and cooling systems, allowing people to control ambient temperature while learning the habits and preferences of users to regulate the climate of a given space. Workers using Comfy have three options: warm my space, cool my space, or I’m comfy. If they opt for cooling, they get 10 minutes of air conditioning. Those after a heat boost get 10 minutes of warmer air. Preliminary data from one study of an office building using Comfy found that 83 percent of the app's users were "more" to "much more" satisfied than before. 

Comfy is one of several new apps and products designed to provide greater personalization of the office climate, letting hot people keep it breezy and cold people keep the air to a minimum.

When air conditioning first arrived in offices in the early 20th century, it enhanced productivity and transformed the U.S. economy. Now accustomed to comfortable temperatures year-round, office workers bicker over a few degrees: Temperature is among the most contentious issues in the modern workplace, according to a survey by the International Facility Management Association. "The thermal environment is frequently the biggest problem in office buildings," says Judith Heerwagen, an environmental psychologist at the U.S. General Services Administration. "The comfort wars go on and on." Formerly a researcher at the University of Washington, Heerwagen has conducted various comfort studies in office spaces. According to her research, only about half the people in a given office are happy with the air (or lack thereof) at any given time. 

The factors at play are too numerous, and often too contradictory, to reconcile. Some people run hot and others cold; some areas of the office heat up faster than others; some jobs require more physical movement; some people are masochists who (wrongly) think that cold temperatures enhance productivity. A thermostat that blankets the office in a single temperature can appeal to only so many. An office manager can't or won't adjust the temperature to every single person's whims. 

In the mid-1990s, researchers at Berkeley created a temperature control utopia when they tested one of their inventions, designed as a cure for office climate debates. The team installed a device called the Personal Environment Module (PEM) at 42 desks in the Bank of America offices in San Francisco. Manufactured by Johnson Controls, the PEM connected to air ducts and turned every desk into its own micro-climate. Using a control panel, desk workers could adjust the heat or air in their cube via fans and heat panels. "It worked quite well," says Edward Arens, the director of the Center for Environmental Design Research at Berkeley. But the PEM was impractical, because every station had to physically hook up to the heating and cooling systems. "It never really took off," says Arens. "It was seen as to be too expensive." 

Personal Environment Module
Personal Environment Module
Source: Center for the Built Environment

But now the promise of PEM has become an affordable reality. Before AppNexus adopted Comfy this April, Cadi Thomas, who works on the company facilities team, fielded constant requests about too-icy or too-balmy areas. "People started writing these Dickensian e-mails about how cold they were and that they were working with gloves on," she says. "There were a lot of desperate pleas." Thomas would set the thermostat somewhere in the middle, leaving a chunk of her colleagues unhappy. 

In a post-Comfy world, Thomas no longer gets complaints. And it's not just about the temperature settings. It's about control. "It seems to work as a placebo effect," Thomas says, "because it gives people the power" to feel a sense of control over their environment.

Honeywell this fall will release a similar app that relies on votes among employees to set the temperature. "It’s the ability for the building to communicate back," says John Rajchert, the president of building solutions at Honeywell. Honeywell has its systems, which include heating, cooling, lighting, and automation, installed in 10 million nonresidential buildings around the world, 25,000 of which have the capability to integrate with the app (if building managers opt to pay for it). Rajchert says the app will rely on majority rules, with "software algorithms ... continuously working to maximize the number of satisfied users."

Connecting to a thermostat is just the start. A company called View makes Dynamic Glass, window panes that the company's chief executive officer, Rao Mulpuri, describes as "on-demand sunglasses for buildings." Each window has its own IP address and can change tint based on various factors, including the location of the sun and personal preferences. The windows minimize hot or cold spots in an office, which can contribute to the air-conditioning wars. Say the thermostat is set at 68, but the person in the corner office—surrounded by windows—feels as if it's 80 degrees. He might ask for cooler air, freezing everyone who doesn't have the luxury of a window seat. Or he suffers and sweats.

"We fix that problem," says Mulpuri. "Even though you’re using a thermostat to control temp, if you take instantaneous temperature readings in different spots, that’s a huge range. We help moderate that by solving the heat problem at the point of entry."

Hardware solutions are also being devised to personalize workplace temperature even more. Arens and his colleagues at Berkeley have invented a chair, currently manufactured by Personal Comfort Systems, that strategically cools and heats certain parts of the body. Studies have found that cooling the head and warming the feet are two of the most effective ways to provide individualized thermal comfort. "If you can keep the feet warm, you can actually have a building down in the 60s and people will not complain," explains Arens. 

Or you can just buy a fan. "If you’re hot, turn on the fan for 5 minutes," says Arens's colleague, David Lehrer, also a researcher at Berkeley. "See if that’s enough." 

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