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Global warming means that heatwaves are becoming ever-more frequent. Now, we are in a global race against the clock to reduce the energy use and carbon footprint of buildings by 2050. This has highlighted the importance of making the thermal comfort of buildings a strategic and economic priority, the EPFL writes. Personalized thermal air conditioning is the focus of Dolaana Khovalyg’s research. She is a tenure track assistant professor at EPFL’s School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC) and head of the Laboratory of Integrated Comfort Engineering (ICE).

Khovalyg highlights the advantages of providing personalized thermal air conditioning and heating for each office desk, as opposed to maintaining a standard temperature throughout an open space. Her team came to this conclusion after the human thermo-physiological data that they collected showed that individuals display very different levels of thermal comfort under normal office conditions. The researchers took a cross-disciplinary approach. They combined applied engineering know-how and knowledge of human physiology in the study of the interaction between humans and buildings.

Major variations in energy expenditure

The researchers analyzed the energy expenditure of six individuals, comprising a non-biased sample of ordinary people that could be sharing the same office space. Over three months, this group participated in a series of experiments in a special climate-controlled chamber at ICE’s lab in Fribourg in Switzerland. They carried out everyday activities such as sitting, standing and eating meals.

Studies that measure people’s energy expenditure tend to usually focus on extreme situations; they look at athletes and military staff, for instance. The energy expenditure of the average office worker is rarely studied. The researchers found significant differences between individuals, including between two men of similar build doing exactly the same office tasks.

An ethical challenge

The ability to accurately measure an individual’s energy expenditure paves the way for a new type of technology. The collected data are fed into the central heating and cooling systems. This enables them to adjust the temperature in a given area in real-time, and to optimize a building’s power consumption. For now, heated and cooled office setups usually have a limited range of temperature settings. But this technology will make it possible to customize the temperature for each office worker.

Ethics is amongst the main challenges with this kind of research, and issues – such as how to handle personal data – still need to be resolved. One option currently is to use non-invasive measuring devices that do not actually store any personal data.

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