Hot or Not
It is important to remember that no matter how responsive, well-planned and efficiently installed a workplace’s heating and ventilation system may be, designers, project managers and installers may still face difficulties when it comes to balancing the temperate preferences of the different people in situ whilst managing to adhere to the standards of best practice and sustainability.
Those of us that have ever worked in a large, open-plan environment such as a call centre or control room have probably observed or even participated in the following scenario at some point. Person A gets up and opens a window because they’re hot, and straight away person B complains that it’s too cold. It seems to be the case that for every person that is comfortable at their desk, there’s another person in the same office who is sat under a vent shivering.
Finding the balance to keep everyone as content as can be managed is a near impossible task for HVAC system designers, as different people have varying ranges of comfort when it comes to the temperature of their working environment.
Strangely, there is no actual statutory limit to the upper allowable temperature in workplaces. According to the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992: “During working hours, the temperature inside buildings should be reasonable”, but the guidelines from the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE), state that the maximum internal temperature of a workplace should not exceed 25?C for more than 5% of the period that the building is occupied, and shouldn’t rise above 28? for more than 1% of the time.
The trouble is, over 40% of workplaces now feature air conditioning (compared with just 10% in 1994), but many are still not adequately equipped to provide relief on the hottest days in the British summer, which have reached 32? in recent years.
This could account for the swing in HVAC system peak from usage primarily as heating systems to cooling systems. As if this wasn’t bad enough for many workers, the need for extra cooling of offices doesn’t marry too well with the current drive for less emissions and low energy usage in the workplace.
David Frise, Chairman of the Heating and Ventilation Contractors’ Association (HVCA), sustainability issues group, explained his expectations for the future of systems in buildings in the organisation’s latest newsletter: “The climate change levy is expected to rise, and ever more stringent waste, air pollution and water regulations will radicalise the current approach to building engineering design.”
Heating and ventilation systems account for up to 40% of all non-transport energy use in the UK, which is why there is continuing pressure for designers and contractors to incorporate sustainable, energy-conserving measures where possible. Constantly cranking the thermostat up and down is neither cost effective nor environmentally friendly, so what is the best way to achieve workplace thermal comfort without unnecessary outlay or emissions?
One measure that can be employed is ‘zoning’, whereby a heating or cooling system is split into separate zones to allow different parts of the same building to maintain different temperatures at certain times of day. But this isn’t really applicable in a large single-floor, open plan environment – in these instances, specialist consultation is really the only option, if only to provide proper instruction on the use of HVAC systems. In such places, without correct adjustment, thermal comfort can peak and dip throughout the day as uncomfortable workers adjust the temperature too far to achieve an instant result, which often provokes a negative response from other parties that proceed to adjust the temperature too far the other way, for similar reasons. This can only serve to create workplace disharmony and drain productivity levels, in addition to the problems outlined earlier.
In actual fact, there are certain design measures that, if effectively implemented during a design process that includes consultation with the client, should maximise the percentage of a workforce that are able to work in temperate comfort. It is of paramount importance that a workplace designer makes themselves aware of the functions and capabilities of premises and their occupants prior to constructing a design scheme. A clear design brief should be outlined by a client and refined via consultation process with input from all parties concerned, including client, architect, designer and engineer.
Only in this way can unnecessary problems relating to poor positioning of facilities be avoided. This is especially true of businesses that are relocating to new premises and looking to maintain the wellbeing and productivity of their staff. Any contractor charged with the installation of a new heating and ventilation system can vastly increase the potential working comfort of a building’s occupants by following such pointers.
If a common area is occupied by many people, such as a dealer floor, space planning must be incorporate HVAC as well as other services, such as mechanical and electrical, to avoid the problem of certain people being stationed in direct proximity to a vent and experiencing heightened levels of discomfort compared to the workers situated in the same office.
In instances of refurbishment to existing ducted systems as opposed to brand new installations, adjustments should be made in order to achieve a uniform air distribution throughout the open plan areas. Typically, the smaller and more numerous ventilation grilles are in an installation, the easier this is to achieve. As much of an influence as anything else on the positions of vents and cassette system design are the lighting and building services situated within the ceiling void.
It is an unfortunate fact that, at the moment, even though things are improving, there are still plenty of workplaces in the UK that are plagued by seasonal arguments based on lack of thermal comfort of their occupants. It’s unfortunate that such problems, whilst in certain cases unavoidable, can often be addressed by simply exercising more care over the selection of manufacturers and installers of heating and ventilation systems. Constant temperature adjustment is just as likely to impact on the finances of an organisation as on the environment.
However, this will continue, regardless of whether the external temperature rockets or plummets, until organisations realise that availing themselves of the correct advice and expertise is a necessity, not a luxury. Perhaps this is something that might catch on a bit quicker if a few of the people in charge of introducing such measures were required to share their own offices with several other workers, each with their own idea of ‘what’s hot and what’s not’.