Techne: Thinking Microclimates

Techne: Thinking Microclimates

Working in a large space, at work or at school, makes one extremely sensitive to the idea of microclimates. Whether there is a skylight or window that uncomfortably irradiates the immediately surrounding area, or if there is a thermostat that just can’t be set warm enough, everyone has experienced the discomfort of the unadjustable microclimate. It’s not unusual, though it might be a bit disturbing, to see a co-worker swathed in a blanket (I’m not making that up, unfortunately), or a foot-heater discreetly tucked under a desk. Or you might be one of the unlucky persons either stuck under the artful skylight or near a south-facing, floor-to-ceiling window. That’s because most office spaces are designed for a uniform, master-control HVAC system.

It’s important not to confuse the availability of different technologies with widespread, institutionalized use because to do so is to conflate two very different issues. So while this technology may have been around in bits and pieces, it has yet to be combined into comprehensive tools. And as for implementation, many in the architecture industry have experienced the resistance to both passive and advanced energy efficient technologies.

So for those at the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment, such issues have formed the cornerstone of their research. Basically, they are examining how to quantify energy efficiency (i.e. measure radiation and the like) in order to construct comprehensive efficiency approaches. So contrary to what might immediately come to mind, this isn’t just an investigation into flow, air or otherwise. Rather, what we are discussing are some comprehensive investigations and strategies to both monitoring and intervention involving advanced and low technologies.

In fact, much of the technology is front-loaded, meaning that they use all the technological advancements to analyze and evaluate. There are no high-tech devices to install. But it’s in the beginning, during the design phase, where it’s necessary to bring all these tools to bear, in order to analyze exactly what an individual’s microclimate is and what are the different factors that affect it, which includes even such things as breathing patterns. Interestingly, this approach is based upon the way auto manufacturers regulate the interior’s comfort for each passenger.

Because as everyone knows, though buildings are designed to encompass a uniform environment, the truth is, they are anything but uniform. What is needed is a way to measure, and then adjust the microclimates. By using the Advanced Thermal Comfort Model developed by the Building Sciences Group at Berkeley, anyone can analyze “human thermoregulation and comfort responses in non-uniform and transient conditions.” Towards that end, this tool includes basic models of “non-uniform properties” that incorporate specific data to determine such factors as convection, conduction, and radiation of the environment as it relates to individual occupants. The resultant graph maps such specificities as skin temperature to “overall comfort indices.” And the applications are numerous, from designing facades to interior configurations.

APECS or Advanced Personal Environmental Control System is the research project that uses analytical technology to implement low technology interventions to make individual microclimates more comfortable in large, amorphous office spaces. Rather like the research at Utah University’s ITAC, the approach is to “remove barriers to industry adoption of low-energy thermal ergonomics.” If it wasn’t clear before, the resistance on the client side is cost because they assume many of these technologies are too expensive. Resistance by architecture professionals is caused by scorn for low-tech approaches because the assumption is that technology that has been around for a long time is equivalent to technology that is being used (it isn’t) or is not “sexy” enough (this might be true).

So the researchers at Berkeley have adopted a simple, cost-effective approach that provides individuals with the ability to control their personal environment, allowing them “to remain comfortable over a wider range of ambient temperatures. Building simulations show that allowing the indoor ambient temperature to vary by even a few degrees can result in large energy savings because the building is conditioned less intensely and less often, and can more often use outside air for conditioning (economizer mode). While savings vary by climate, widening the dead-band by one degree Celsius can reduce building-energy consumption by 5-15%.” Sometimes, it is just easier to quote the real source than paraphrase.

What is surprising, and certainly counterintuitive for most people, including designers and clients, is that cooling the head and “breathing zone” combined with keeping feet warm are key to promoting individual comfort. Clearly, there is something to those discrete, beneath-the-desk heaters some people use. Installing discrete fans and heaters in the field have yielded quantitative analyses that will hopefully be incorporated into an industry standard, informing clients and professionals the best, most cost-efficient, as well as energy-efficient ways to improve individual ambient comfort.

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Cite: Sherin Wing. "Techne: Thinking Microclimates" 25 Jan 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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