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Freezing at Work? Office Thermostat Formula is Designed for Male Workers

Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 2.04.22 PMOffice temps are set to a formula from the 1960s based on metabolic rates of men. New studies urge buildings to reduce “gender-discriminating bias in thermal comfort” — and combat global warming — by turning the thermostat up by 5 degrees F.

It happens every summer: offices crank up the air-conditioning, and female workers shiver at their desks, wrapping themselves in wool cardigans and oversized sweatshirts tucked away in file drawers,

Molly Mahannah, a graphic designed in Omaha (where outdoor temps in the summer commonly reach over 100 degrees), commented on the phenomenon for a New York Times story on the “Big Chill” in modern offices, explaining: “I have a huge blanket at my desk that I’ve got myself wrapped in like a burrito.” Recently, “I was so cold, I was like ‘I’m just going to sit in my car in like 100-degree heat for like five minutes, and bake.’” She even posted on Twitter that at work she felt like an icy White Walker from “Game of Thrones.”

Glancing around the office, the Times reporter noted that female co-workers were also bundled up. Oddly, however, the men were all sitting around in shorts.

Everyone who’s worked in an office has probably noticed this phenomenon, and now finally, a pair of scientists (both men, for the record) are calling for an end to the “Great Arctic Office Conspiracy.” A few months back they published a study in the journal Nature Climate Change, showing that the majority of office buildings calibrate temperatures using a formula from the 1960s based on metabolic rates of men. The study urges buildings to “reduce gender-discriminating bias in thermal comfort” not only because it has long favored men at the expense of women, but also because maintaining a slightly warmer building can help reduce carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

Boris Kingma, author of the study and biophysicist at Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands, pointed out that many office buildings have significantly higher energy consumption because the standard is calibrated for men’s body heat production. As he explained, “if you have a more accurate view of the thermal demand of the people inside, then you can design the building so that you are wasting a lot less energy, and that means the carbon dioxide emission is less.”

The study shows that most office thermostats follow a “thermal comfort model that was developed in the 1960s,” which is based on factors including air temperature, air speed, vapor pressure and clothing insulation, using a version of Fanger’s thermal comfort equation.

PMV = [0.303e-0.036M + 0.028]{(M W) – 3.96E-8ƒcl[(tcl + 273)4 – (tr + 273)4] – ƒclhc(tcl – ta) – 3.05[5.73 – 0.007(M – W) – pa] – 0.42[(M – W) – 58.15] – 0.0173M(5.87 – pa) – 0.0014M(34 – ta)}

But Dr. Kingma and his colleague, Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt, point out that one variable in the formula – resting metabolic rate (how fast a person generates heat) – is based on a 40-year-old man weighing about 160 pounds.

Once upon a time, that “every man” may have been the norm in an office setting. But women now make up more than half of the work force, and typically have slower metabolic rates than their male counterparts, generally because they are smaller and have more body fat. Fat has lower metabolic rates than muscle (thus generating less heat). In fact, the study notes, the present model “may overestimate resting heat production of women by up to 35 percent.”

New research shows the women’s average metabolic rate is 20 to 35% lower than rates indicated on the standard metric used to set building temperature. So advocates of gender equality and energy conservation have proposed a new model that takes into account the actual metabolic rates of women and men, as well as factors like body tissue insulation, not just clothing. For example, larger people more get hot more easily, and the elderly have slower metabolic rates.

A recalibration of office temperature would vary across places of work (as well as region, type of activity in an office, and time of year); but as a general rule of thumb, the study notes that there is a 5 degree difference in women and men’s preferences. Dr. Kingma said the average woman might prefer a 75 degree room, while men typically prefer about 70 degrees (one of the most standard office temperatures today).

“If women have lower need for cooling it actually means you can save energy, because right now we’re just cooling for this male population,” said Joost van Hoof, a building physicist at Fontys University in the Netherlands. “Many men think that women are just nagging,” he said. “But it’s because of their physiology.”

Well, not just physiology, but also clothing. The study also points out that the thermostat formula is not calibrated correctly for women’s summer wardrobes, when many men still wear suits and ties but women commonly change into skirts, sandals and other lighter clothes.

So for the planet’s sake, men should “stop complaining,” Dr. Kingma said. But some experts – especially in the United States, are skeptical that the new proposals would be adopted in a widespread manner.

Khee Poh Lam, an architecture professor at Carnegie Mellon, said even if the industry accepted a change to the longstanding model, buildings often house different businesses or “squeeze more people in” than they were designed for and partition offices so thermostats and vents are in different rooms. Given these improvisations, he added, “whether this actually affects energy, I think that’s a big leap.”

Individualized temperature controls are the eventual answer, said Dr. Lam, who helped design a “personal environmental module” in the 1990s that was deemed too expensive for commercial development. Now others are developing systems to let workers make their cubicles warmer or cooler.

Kimberly Mark, 31, would appreciate that. This summer, at a software company in Natick, Mass., she and female colleagues are using space heaters. The thermostat is in the office of “the guy next to me,” she said, “and I’m the only woman in the offices that he controls.”

Could the office temperature controversy be a new frontier in the larger battle against gender bias and employment discrimination? Employment attorneys and workers compensation lawyers think it’s unlikely that the issue will eclipse larger struggles over wages, parental leave policies, occupational illness or workers compensation. But for women frozen into a state of icy paralysis during those chilly working hours, perhaps all of these issues are somehow related!

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