Why are offices so cold? (Or hot!)

Companies are seeking technology solutions for thermal discomfort at work.

February 16, 2023

Most office workers are well acquainted with the feeling that the temperature is never quite right. But imagine being able to regulate the temperature of any individual workspace, to personalise it like the height of a chair. For some this is already a reality, companies are testing ways to mitigate thermal discomfort, whether it is with proprietary technology for individual controls or through the creation of hot and cold zones within the office.

But what benefits does a comfortable temperature bring? “Occupant thermal comfort is vital to create a healthy and productive work environment and there is also a part to play in achieving net zero carbon goals. To achieve these goals, as occupants, we need to change our expectations of the temperature of indoor spaces in Hong Kong. The emerging technologies give us the ability to provide the control to occupants, but we also need the mind shift to achieve real reductions.”, says Helen Amos, Head of Sustainability at JLL HK.

What is causing the issue and how can we fix it?

In general, the dominant weather condition would often shape the optimal indoor temperatures. This means that during summer, the comfortable temperature would increase and decrease in winter – for reference, the comfort temperature range in summer is around 1.5 °C higher than in winter. But throughout Asia, indoor temperatures in offices during summer have shown to be lower.

Such overcooling practices are often caused by two issues. First, being office spaces with suboptimal heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) designs and controls. The other reason is that the predicted mean vote (PMV) model, the most popular one for designing HVAC systems, often overestimate discomfort in warmer temperatures.

High-tech solutions that allow for personalization exist, but they are not widespread or easily replicable. One tech company has a prototype of an air duct system that allows each employee to control airflow is employing an air diffuser into each desk.

For example, at Deloitte’s headquarters in Amsterdam, workers set their temperatures and lighting preferences in an app. When they adjust the temperature, it adjusts the valves in the pipes above their head. Each valve controls the temperature of roughly four desks, however, so it requires some communication so as not to reignite the thermostat wars all over again. Despite the challenges, it is likely that more individualized cooling technology will progress in coming years and become more readily available.

“The approach by which people are addressing individual air quality is developing quickly because of the pandemic,” says Hugh Creasy, Global Product Performance Manager, JLL. “We’re seeing products that sit on individual’s desks to both scrub the air and modify air flow to prevent dirty air from entering your sphere. There’s a fascinating opportunity to advance these products for personal temperature control, too.”

Looking for more insights? Never miss an update.

The latest news, insights and opportunities from global commercial real estate markets straight to your inbox.