This is why your office feels too cold

There is no single definition of comfort. My newest column for The New York Times Magazine explores the different cultural definitions of pleasant living, how those traditions affect energy use in different countries, and how globalization changes both the culture and the fossil fuel consumption. Fun fact: Engineers have a unit of measurement that helps them account for clothing when they're trying to figure out what temperature an office building should be. It's called the Clo, and 1 Clo is equivalent to one full business suit. As I discovered, that fact has a big impact on women, business people in the tropics, and basically anybody who doesn't wear a suit to work.


  1. Having worked in buildings where all areas on the sides facing the sun would be broiling hot while areas closer to the interior of the building were freezing cold, I’d say that absolutely idiotic building and ventilation design plays a role, too.

      1. That was probably the least of their problems.  The last big office building I worked in had everything wrong with it when it came to heating/cooling.  First of all, the sun-facing sides of the building were identical to non-Sun facing sides.  This is in California.  It gets sunny.  That’s bad design.  Even in the winter, even when it was cold outside, the south-facing offices needed the air conditioning on.  In the open spaces, the cubicles near the south side simply got really hot.  In the summer, the air conditioning vents for those offices became useless, as they apparently ran along the (poorly insulated) walls.  So they’d always spit out hot air in the summer.  Given where the thermostats were on the floor and how the vents were set up, it was impossible to get a consistent temperature in the building.  Even when everyone on the floor was relocated so we were crammed into one small fraction of the floor, we still had huge temperature variations in that one area.  When that building was constructed (and I don’t know when that was, but it was relatively new), clearly those issues were not high priorities.  Although that was the worst offender in that regard of offices I’ve worked in, most of the others haven’t been all that much better.

  2. Engineers do not use Clo when designing systems although I are sometimes used after the fact when doing LEED documentation to “prove” occupant comfort. Interior heating/cooling set points are given to us by the Owner. Oftentimes, larger Owners such as government agencies have standard temperature set points that engineers design to.

  3. I worked one place where the top dog wore 3-piece wool suits all year long.  We women kept multiple layers at work, especially during the summer.  Oh, and we were required to wear skirts or dresses as part of our business attire….the temperature protection difference between lined trousers and knit socks vs. nylons is quite substantial.

  4. Don’t forget all the space heaters that people use… which make the thermostat think it’s warmer than it is… which puts more cool air into the room… which makes people turn on space heaters…which make the thermostat think it’s warmer than it is… which puts more cool air into the room… which makes people turn on space heaters…which make the thermostat think it’s warmer than it is… which puts more cool air into the room… which makes people turn on space heaters…which make the thermostat think it’s warmer than it is… which puts more cool air into the room… which makes people turn on space heaters…which make the thermostat think it’s warmer than it is… which puts more cool air into the room… which makes people turn on space heaters…

    1. Surely the space heaters will only incorrectly-influence the thermostat if they are pointed right at the thermostat… If a thermostat is influenced by a space heater across the room, then it’s because the heater really has made the room that hot.

      1. If the thermostat is set to 68F, and the employees want 70F and turn on space heaters until it gets there…

    2. I worked in one place that had the HVAC set up so that you couldn’t ever get it to go off. It was a nightmare. It was the weirdest set of controls that I’ve ever seen. You had to set parameters for both heating and cooling, and it took them VERY SERIOUSLY.

    3. Once you realize this is happening, why not just artificially cool the area with a sensor rather than pointing a space heater at it?

  5. My office is cold because we’re a LEED Platinum building and there’s no airflow *at all* to interior offices. They only heat/cool the window offices. So if you close your interior office door at night it gets freezing cold and you have to wait all day for enough warm air to recirculate into the office to warm it up.



  6. Hmm… here I was thinking my office (lobby technically) was cold because the people I work for are too cheap to fix our forced heater and would prefer we use a space heater! Thanks for the insight.

      1. One office I worked in had a problem with the AC, and the company managers/owners were being slow about fixing it.  We were dripping sweat in the afternoons in our south-facing upstairs offices.  One of the people in the hot zone decided the best way to make a point was to go shirtless, an obvious violation of the norms for that office, until it was fixed.  We had clients in-office all the time.  He looked like and was someone who had spent the previous decade mastering computer internals and not much else, i.e., not a pretty sight.  It got us the attention we needed.

  7. Our library is too cold in some places, too warm in others, and there is a perceptual discrepancy between staff who work inside all the time and patrons coming in from the street.  The temperature also depends on whether it is a sunny or overcast day.  Temperature control appears to be close to black magic.

    1. Restaurants are notorious because the wait staff is running around drenched in sweat while the diners are freezing at their tables.

  8. Better that it be too cold than too hot. If you’re cold, you can always put on a sweater, where as there’s probably nothing you can do about it being too hot.

    1. If you’re cold, you can always put on a sweater

      For the millions of us with sinus-type problems, putting on a sweater doesn’t do anything. The problem is breathing cold air.

  9. I live in Arizona, and in the summer I swear some corporate office in northern Alaska or something is declaring what the temperature must be in restaurants and stores and offices. You’re outside, wearing as little clothing as you can get away with, and then you step into a restaurant that’s 70 degrees. I have actually left restaurants because I was shivering. A church I attend is so cold in summer, I have to bring a sweater, and we have lap blankets available for those who get really cold. It seems like such a waste to crank down the AC that much.

    1. This drives me crazy about living in Miami. I never get to wear shorts or cute skirts or dresses because everywhere I go is cold enough that I’m in pants and often bring a jacket. It feels like a total waste of living in the tropics to spend so much time freezing. One thing I like about being a lawyer: wearing wool suits –> I always have an excuse to wear a jacket.

      It’s 95 outside and muggy, walking into an 80 degree building would feel like heaven by comparison. So why are all the buildings cooled like they could serve as emergency housing for penguins?

  10. Interesting article, but the above lead-in does not really reflect what the article is about. I have a background in this subject as an ASHRAE member and HVAC design engineer. That being said, I have never heard anyone reference a “Clo”. I have never seen anyone base their system around men in three piece suits.Maybe in the 50’s things were done differently, but when was the last time you saw a worker in a three piece suit. That was 60 years ago. So we try to take steps to avoid any complaints. Granted people still work in buildings that were designed many years ago.

    Requirements for space temperature vary by building type and use. Setpoints in the control systems that maintain these temperatures are typically determined by the building owners and the engineers that the owner hires. These setpoints are always adjustable by the owner and some times by the building occupants.One of the biggest challenges in the industry is just what this article is really about – it is impossible choose a space temperature setpoint that everyone considers comfortable. In any indoor space we hope that most of the occupants are comfortable. Unfortunately, some percentage will always be cold and some other percentage will always be hot. Our perception of what is comfortable varies by age, gender, cultural background, but also the temperature of the environment we most recently left, what we had for breakfast, how active we are, and a lot of other factors. Most building systems are designed to make most people comfortable, there really is no other way to do it.The most universally “comfortable” systems are those that give the occupants some level of individual control of their space temperature and airflow. These systems are also the most expensive type of system. It’s not that the engineers don’t know how or that they have some misguided view of comfort. Unfortunately, most of the people that pay to build building can’t or don’t pay to put in that level of control.

  11. Also comfort is dependent on temperature, humidity, and movement. It is not just about the temperature.

  12. “Historically, she says, societies developed methods of dealing with their local climates, and those tools and behaviors became ingrained cultural customs.”

    And sometimes i wonder how similar the root of various religious practices are.

  13. Feels odd to see that Norwegian word in there. Can’t put my finger on why, but it seems to be misused in some way.

  14. People in window offices with drafts and radiant heat loss feel cold and turn up the thermostat to fry the people in the cubicles at the center of the building.

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