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Turning down the heat but keeping warm

29 March 2012 Inderscience

Despite the rising global average temperatures that climate change is bringing, there is still a need to keep warm in our homes especially when it's cold outside. However, even highly efficient domestic heating systems use large amounts of energy and unless generated through carbon-neutral means will add to the ongoing outpouring of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Improved insulation can only provide so much resilience against the cold; in the end we still need fresh air.

Writing in the Journal of Design Research, a team at Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands, suggests that now is the hour to exploit good design to explore new avenues by taking into account cultural and social differences with regard to what is considered warm.

By taking a different view on comfort, the team hopes to step away from the conventional paradigm of technologically improving energy efficiency or moderating consumer behaviour through the standard "turn down the thermostat" type pleas commonly seen in public service efforts and government initiatives.

Lenneke Kuijer and Annelise de Jong suggest that if you can stand the heat, then a holistic social practice approach is what is needed rather than isolated technology or behaviour changes  . Drawing on earlier work in sociology and building science, they argue that the concept of comfort can roughly be approached in two ways: as a universal physiological construct or as a negotiable socio-cultural one.

The latter perspective allows "comfort" to become something that can be achieved by people individually rather than offered by buildings. The latter is assumed in the decades old, but still widely used, predicted mean vote (PMV) model of comfort that uses mean temperatures, air movement and humidity, to help determine building design for decades.In that model, people are considered as more or less passive receptors of this comfort, the team explains. More worryingly, the PMV model proclaims that people are comfortable at a temperature of 20 to 23 Celsius, whereas in studies around the world people have reported to be comfortable at temperatures ranging from 6 to 40 Celsius. "People feel comfortable within a much wider range of climate conditions than the models predict," the team says.

However, despite the wide range of temperatures that people might perceive as comfortable, central heating, air conditioning and humidity control have narrowed the expectations for huge numbers of people. The acceptable range of conditions has been squashed to the detriment of energy efficiency as those systems work against the natural conditions to maintain the "comfort" levels within those narrow boundaries.

And, therein lies the potential for energy saving; to loosen the strings on indoor climate control and at the same time offer people a wider range of opportunities to make themselves comfortable, according to their own personal wishes.

In search of such opportunities, the researchers have compared domestic heating arrangements in family homes in Japan and The Netherlands and traced how domestic heating practices have evolved over the last fifty years leading to the central heating systems now common in many homes.

The details of their findings offer several new avenues of thought for designers. The research could expandthe ways in which we achieve comfort in the area of ‘person heating’ to complement the increasingly dominant paradigms of space heating. Having more quick and local ways of getting warm at our disposal, the researchers argue could allow us to turn down the heat and still keep ourselves comfortable.  As a side effect, such arrangements can expand the boundaries of acceptable comfort levels with the end point of reducing our reliance on narrowly controlled climate conditions.

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