13. June 2023

“Personal comfort systems” – the all-round solution for office air conditioning?

It’s nothing new that the automotive industry is well ahead of the construction industry when it comes to innovation. So why not look beyond your own horizons, see what the innovation pioneers are up to and then secretly learn a little something from them?! – The only thing to keep in mind is not to make the same mistakes, such as the practice of generating falsified emission figures 😜.

Personal comfort systems are not a new idea in the real estate sector either, at least in the research community. Internationally, several research institutions have been pursuing the idea of “Personal Comfort Systems” (PCS) for years, if not decades. Core elements of PCS include seat heating and cooling through light air movement. In Germany, for example, Sumee Park at the Fraunhofer Institute is working intensively on evaluating thermal comfort (again, primarily in automobiles). The initial findings make the heart of every building owner beat faster: reduced energy consumption with increased comfort is possible! According to initial calculations by the SBIF, investment costs could even be reduced for office buildings.

For all those who are now puzzled and wondering why one should react so enthusiastically, here is some background:

Energy conservation hasn’t just been “cool” since ESG became trendy – nor has it only just become essential to staying financially solvent since energy prices exploded in 2022; incidentally, it helps us quite a bit in protecting the planet from overheating #GlobalWarming (Duh!)*.
*The PCS concept is, mind you, only a small step towards using less energy and thus should be considered “less bad” rather than “environmentally friendly” or even “climate saving”.

But why is increased individual comfort now so great for the office world as well? Currently, temperature zones are only permitted for closed or large spaces for reasons of energy efficiency. In open-plan offices, this often means that colleague A opens the window while colleague B turns up the heating to compensate. From an energy perspective, this is a mortal sin that deserves draconian measures 😜. It would therefore be advantageous if everybody could control their own temperature without influencing the temperature of their colleagues.

In order to implement this with the current technological principles, temperature zones based on workstation size would be necessary and a colossal amount of supply equipment would have to be installed in the office. Implementing this would in turn drive up investment costs and, as a result, subsequent rental costs.

According to a study* by Barkeley University, heating PCS devices could save up to 20% heating energy (costs) by lowering the room temperature across the board and keeping it stable, while at the same time providing the last degrees of comfort individually for each workstation. Cooling PCS systems could save up to 30% cooling energy (costs). This would be achieved by using seat heaters & coolers, foot and hand warmers, and desk fans that use radiant heat and evaporative cooling to change the perceived temperature. [*Berkeley Studie]

Adapted to Central European climates, theoretical savings of about 15% heating and 30% cooling energy result, according to SBIF calculations.

Currently, this technology has only been tested and proven in the automotive industry. In everyday office life, practical investigations are still needed in this field. This is precisely what the Smart Building Innovation Foundation (SBIF) and its members have set out to do. A “proof of concept prototype” is to be created and tested with real people in the office. The benefits are too tempting to disappear unnoticed in some drawer.

Thank you Thomas Kirmayr at Fraunhofer Institute for connecting us with Sumee Park, Robin Meier at UBM for your proactive role in prototype development, and to Sumee Park for her great input and helpful guidance.