Australian office air conditioning – addiction or worker affliction?

Air conditioning addiction – it’s a growing pandemic. But have Australians been spared? And if so, is our immunity soon to wear off?

Research tells us that industrialised nations are increasingly reliant on and expecting the comforts of air conditioning. It’s become a vicious cycle, where exposure reduces tolerance to temperature variation, and reduced tolerance increases demand. This cycle of demand will only escalate under climate change as weather becomes more variable. So, one might ask: ‘is our compulsion for comfort leading to our demise?’ Human demise, maybe. Environmental demise – certainly.

Air conditioners are one of our greatest energy guzzling inventions. While on a mission to reduce carbon emissions, we continue to enclose ourselves within air tight climate controlled work spaces. But are we all subscribing to this notion of ‘necessity’ and becoming overly sensitive?

The more specific question here is: ‘have Aussies been spared’? Perhaps – well, at least my research suggests so. But, maybe not for long. Conducting seasonal interviews between 2010 and 2011 with Melbourne office workers, I realised that ideas of ‘comfort’ and ‘air conditioning’ were not connected, at least not consistently. Extreme summer and winter weather proved the exception. In contrast to the uncomfortable weather outside, the indoor temperatures that were relatively warmer in winter and cooler in summer were tolerable, even pleasurable. But for most of the year air conditioning caused discomfort, to some degree, primarily from seasonal and hour-to-hour temperature variation. Mittens and coats seemed to resolve seasonal changes, but hour-to-hour fluctuations proved most bothersome. These often convulsive changes were products of system malfunctions (surprisingly frequent), automated interval regulations, manual adjustments (as occupants’ ‘comfort’ ideas competed), heat penetrating walls (i.e. direct sunlight), air flow, and systems that adjusted to outside temperatures. Interestingly, all participants responded by adjusting their clothing. We once adjusted our clothing for weather; we now find ourselves adjusting for air conditioning.

For some, clothing adjustments or other forms of adaptation – hot drinks, heat packs, and physical movement – were taken in their stride. For others, indoor climate change was too disruptive:

What’s the air conditioning been like?

Oh, it’s so horrible. . . . Like, today I was getting really hot and then the air conditioning must have come on and then suddenly, a blast of cold air. . . .  It’s such an unnatural environment to be in.  It’s annoying. . . . Like, every 20 minutes or so I’m taking something off or putting something on. . . . If I start to feel uncomfortable, I definitely find it harder to concentrate.  It irritates me. . . . It’s very disruptive.

Further into our conversation, this twenty-something female office worker suggested that such temperature changes wouldn’t be so disruptive had they come from an opened window, where variations could be justified and hence go unnoticed. Interestingly, in her workplace there was only one openable window – this window had been allocated to the CEO. Like fattened bodies in times of famine, openable windows are the new status symbol. This participant’s struggle with the indoor environment was not an uncommon experience. With temperature variation resulting in discomfort and lost productivity, ‘I’d rather work outside half the time’ was a familiar refrain.

Temperature variation wasn’t the only issue. Recycled, stable and stagnant air also stirred participants. A female health worker in her late 30s told me:

It feels draining.  It feels like you’ve been locked in a cupboard . . . it’s just refreshing to walk out . . even though it’s cold still, I would open all the windows in my car just to get the full effect. . . .

If you did have the choice, would that be your preference?

Definitely [natural ventilation]. . . . It will just make it more inviting. Not so claustrophobic . . .

Do you think that having such a stable indoor environment keeps your concentration?

No, because I think you go a little bit insane and your mood swings change.  There’s nothing really prompting you to change your mood swing from a negative to a positive, there’s no real attraction, other than food – junk food . . .

This brings me to the question: ‘if workers aren’t ecstatic about energy guzzling, controlled envelopes of air – why shove them in cupboards?’

For workers in naturally ventilated buildings, personal adaptations were adopted without fuss, making work conditions comfortable for most of the year. Only in extreme heat were air conditioners desired. With adjusted clothing, water breaks, opened windows, slowed tasks and the right infrastructure (fans, shade cloths, insulation etc.), work did continue sustainably – economically, socially and environmentally. It appears that Australians may still be robust enough to resist air conditioning – even enjoy weather’s variation. But for how long will our immunity hold? If workers continue to spend their working hours within thermally regulated buildings, I worry that we too will eventually become addicted.

So what’s the solution? How do we remain tolerant to weather variations, act sustainably, while staying comfortable, especially with the prospects of increasing weather extremes? For the glass city boxes running on air conditioners, options do exist. Take the example of Japan’s ‘CoolBiz’. In 2006, by raising summer thermostats from 22°C to 28°C and relaxing business attire, 1.14 million tonnes of CO2 was saved – equivalent to 2.5 million households’ emissions over a month.  After the Fukushima disaster, when power supply was severely compromised, ‘Super CoolBiz’ encouraged earlier starts, a restriction on overtime, and two week summer breaks. Such measures are globally applicable. For naturally ventilated and hybrid buildings, options are endless. By continuing to identify practices that are sustainable and assist with comfort, we are better placed to reduce our ever increasing reliance on non-renewable resources.


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