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Nov 28

Keeping Cool (or Warm) on Your Own Terms

This article was originally published in Blueprint, presented by CBRE.

Some like it hot. But others don’t. And therein lies the problem.

Managing the thermostat for a single household—balancing the needs of a family’s various members—is tricky enough. Now, imagine you’re fielding temperature requests from not just a handful of people, but an entire building full of them. That’s a lot of people to tell to go put on a sweater, so to speak.

Oakland, Calif.-based Comfy aims, instead, to give individual workers control over their environments. The company’s technology interfaces with existing building management systems, allowing people to control the temperature in their particular work area via a web browser or a smartphone app.

Modern office buildings are typically split into “zones” for purposes of climate control, with each zone distinguished by its various features—sun exposure, for instance, or whether it is a conference room or common space, an open office or private office. The heating and cooling of these zones can be controlled separately, letting people, in theory, customize conditions to their comfort. In reality, however, says Erica Eaton, Comfy’s director of business development, changes must typically go through the building manager, which makes such tweaks a bit unrealistic.

Maintaining the office climate is a mix of HVAC controls, insulation, sun conditions, window treatments and more.

“Although building managers want to uphold occupant satisfaction and make their buildings comfortable for all, they also need to spend time just keeping the building running. Their teams are often under-resourced and under-appreciated, which means that they don’t have time to optimize the building for every person’s preferences. They only respond when the temperature becomes unbearable,” says Eaton.

Imagine that you have a 50-story building, and there are [a certain] number of zones on each floor,” she adds. “The building manager can’t go around fine tuning every single zone. They have more important things to do.”

Giving control to workers, on the other hand, makes for a responsive, convenient and highly customizable system.

Comfy allows people to control the temperature in their work area via web browser or smartphone app.

In addition to enabling easier, more precise control over building heating and cooling, Comfy collects data on user behavior, which it then analyzes with machine learning algorithms to identify worker patterns and preferences and automatically tune building zones with those settings in mind.

"Giving control to workers, on the other hand, makes for a responsive, convenient and highly customizable system."

Rather than permanently set building temperatures, the system works by providing short bursts of warm or cool air on demand. This is based on a recognition, Eaton says, that no one temperature will work for everyone at all times.

“Buildings are typically set to between 72 and 74 degrees,” Eaton says. “And there is an assumption that at least 80 percent of the population is going to find that acceptable.”

However, studies, including research by Comfy’s president Lindsay Baker, suggest otherwise, Eaton says.

“The reality is that the way we experience temperature is impacted by a lot of factors, not just the air temperature, but also the sun exposure, air speed, what we are wearing, personal metabolic rates,” Baker says. “So it doesn’t make much sense to use this one arbitrary air temperature setting for all spaces at all times. Most people will be unhappy.”

Instead, she says, “let’s recognize that we are going to need adjustments throughout the day and let people make those adjustments immediately when they need it and where they need it.”

People seem to like the idea. According to numbers from Comfy, the company’s app has an 80 percent adoption rate and users have reported an 83 percent increase in workplace satisfaction. The company also drew investment from CBRE in its recent $12 million Series B funding round and is piloting its product in a number of CBRE properties.

It’s good for building management as well. A study conducted by the U.S. General Services Administration’s Green Proving Ground program projects Comfy lowering energy costs by an average of 20 percent for cooling and 47 percent for heating.

And climate control is just the beginning. Baker notes that Comfy is developing capabilities to similarly personalize a variety of building features.

“We’re starting with [heating and cooling], but we have a much bigger vision to better connect people to their workplaces,” she says.

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