Breaking News: There’s More to Life Than Energy Costs

Why just talk about energy when what people really need is comfort?

For example, when researching Reinventing Fire we spoke with a regional insulation installer who says he never needs to bring up energy to make a sale. He walks into a potential customer’s house, finds an overly chilly (often north facing) room and says, “Is this space uncomfortable? I bet you don’t use this room much.”

Why might selling space usability and comfort—as opposed to selling energy savings—work as a go-to-market model?

Because people get really engaged about comfort and not always excited about energy efficiency (confusion or…snore).

At home, at work, and even in our cars, comfort influences not only our happiness and well-being, but also our effectiveness and productivity. Studies show increased productivity and decreased absenteeism is directly tied to comfort; even a tiny increase in productivity has huge financial ramifications.

But it’s more than productivity. In many places (think Singapore or Houston) moving between high heat and humidity and freezing air-conditioned cabs and buildings feels as it if it is not very healthy. People certainly complain about it and blame summer colds on it!

Not only is cranked-up AC—or even a little bit of cold air near the door—potentially unhealthy, it can lead to Junk Under Your Desk Syndrome (JUYDS). If you need a heater or a fan in your personal workspace, you have this affliction. Or, rather, your building has this affliction—and it pays the price.

(If this blog were about energy, like many of our other blogs, we would mention that JUYDS can be death to plug loads, which make designing really good buildings very challenging these days, because they are so difficult to predict upfront—and increasingly, so large.

We spend thousands of dollars on Herman Miller chairs for people’s ergonomic comfort in our office buildings, but put little thought into their thermal comfort.

The good news today is we know much more about comfort and controls than we used to. First, well-designed, highly efficient buildings are also much more comfortable because they are usually meant to keep temperature stable—no freezing or broiling first thing in the morning, then the opposite later.

Second, advanced buildings like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Research Support Facility (RSF) can take into consideration the idea that comfort is relative. Setting a thermostat at 70F in Singapore will make a person cold because of the drastic change from outdoor to indoor temperature. The RSF has a high degree of comfort because controls set indoor temperature relative to outdoor temperature.

Third, we now understand that giving people some control over their environment, such as access to operable windows and lighting controls they can understand, affects the perception of comfort as well as actual comfort. Natural light and views are part of comfort as well; NREL workstations are complete with daylighting and views of the outdoors and are equipped with task lighting controlled by the occupant. All this contributes to more comfortable and more productive workers.

Driving home from work is often another story of discomfort. Until recently the significant body of knowledge around comfort was not applied to cars. Now, at least we have individual controls for seats and air. More attention to good design in thermal controls for autos is coming, in part driven by the electrification of cars.

Once the car is parked in the driveway, more thermal discomfort can ensue in the home since many people don’t even know how to properly adjust their thermostats. But new, user-friendly devices are entering the market and some will hopefully catch on.

There’s immense value in comfort. It’s possible to do much better for humans in offices, cars and homes. Let’s take a lesson from NREL and other leaders and demand more—for less (energy).


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