Several news outlets ran stories explaining that the temperatures of office buildings, even in the summer, are designed for a man wearing a wool suit. The news articles are based on a study that investigated the differences between the thermal comfort of men and women. We get to read about women in too cold offices bringing in space heaters, wearing blankets, leggings and snuggies and cowering with cups of tea and coffee to keep warm during the summer months. The articles focus on the biological differences between men and women and hints at the idea that perhaps we could save some energy if we didn’t cool buildings quite so much.
While I’m glad to see the issue addressed, this is not news.
We can know that the formula for thermal comfort is based on a man’s body because any person in building science will tell you that this has been the standard for decades.
We can know that women and men’s bodies are thermally different not just because we have done studies but because people have been shivering in their offices, clinging to space heaters and trying to bake in the sun on their lunch break to warm up in the summer.
The reality is that we have not listened to women in the workplace when they say they’re uncomfortable. Instead, we watch them freeze and decide we need studies to prove that they’re uncomfortable. Then, while the jury is still out, we continue to design building upon building entirely around the comfort of a man in a suit (if you assume that men wearing a wool suit in the middle of the summer is comfortable – seems dubious to me).
This is a great example of a hidden gender inequality that preferences male bodies. But even more than that, it is a case where we have baked into the very standards about buildings certain expectations about who office buildings are for. Building designers design buildings given the specifications they are given. Really. That’s their job and they’re good at it. But we ask for air conditioned buildings to be cold, and they are designed to be cold. We have not asked for buildings to be based on a standard that includes women’s comfort, so buildings are not designed that way.
What’s the alternative? In my years of touring green buildings and talking to occupants, it was amazing how many people explained that they loved their green building because they could control the temperature in their workspace, or open a window if they wanted to get some fresh air. It seems so basic to want to control one’s own environment, and yet we create so many office spaces that fall back on the snuggie as a form of thermal control.
To be fair, doing this requires a rethinking of the way we heat and cool buildings. Windows create less central control which means some people might be a little bit too hot during the hottest part of the day or a little bit too cold. It’s less predictable, but most of the time, people like it more.
But what about buildings where individual control isn’t possible? What can be done? We could take a page from Japanese businessmen who have been encouraged to wear short sleeves shirts and no tie during the summer months. Who knows, it could be more comfortable for men in the workplace too.