Everybody happy: personal control over the indoor work environment

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  • 15 Oct 2018
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Perceived comfort of the indoor environment is very subjective – depending on age, physiology or gender – or simply because you just rode your bike to work. We sat down with TNO research scientist Linda Hoes-van Oeffelen and Sodexo consultant Linde van den Brink to hear about the groundbreaking personal comfort system, set to launch by year’s end.

Can you tell us about how the project began and when Sodexo got involved?

Linda Hoes-van Oeffelen: The idea behind the project is that comfort problems are a major issue in office environments, especially in open plan offices as many people share the same space. Without individual controls, employees tend to be uncomfortable and complain about being too hot or too cold or having not enough light. At the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), we began researching personal comfort systems about 8 or 9 years ago. We conducted experiments, mainly in climate chambers, to test different configurations and the more we researched, the more potential we saw, in terms of comfort, but also energy savings. Once the market bounced back after the 2008 crisis, several different parties started to show interest in getting the project off the ground.

Linde van den Brink: At Sodexo, facilities management is a big part of our business and in my experience as a consultant, I have seen that there is a great need for this type of technology. Many offices have central climate systems that are managed at building level. If you’re lucky, you have a thermostat on your floor and you can raise or lower the temperature by maximum 3 degrees. But even in that case, you’re changing the temperature of the entire office space, meaning you need to reach a consensus with your colleagues.

What is so unique about the personal comfort system and how does it change the daily lives of employees?

Linda Hoes-van Oeffelen: With this system office employees will be able to control the temperature and lighting to their own preferences. Therefore heating, cooling and lighting are integrated in the desk. The surface of the desk is slightly heated, keeping hands and arms warm, and below, a panel radiates heat onto the user’s legs. In summertime, the cooling aspect relies on circulated air. Instead of using a cooling system – which consumes a lot of energy – our system blows air at fluctuating speeds towards the upper part of the body and below the desk, which triggers the thermal receptors in the skin and makes users feel cooler. With the integrated lighting system employees are able to adjust the level and the color temperature of the lighting. Currently, we’re still fine-tuning the prototype of the system. One of the research topics for the upcoming year is the development of self-learning control algorithms. Based on the comfort preferences of an individual user, these control algorithms will automatically adjust the settings of the system to obtain an optimal climate for the user. Of course the user will still stay in control to overrule the settings if necessary.

Also from an energy point of view, the personal comfort system is promising. When employees can control their own temperature and lighting level, other surrounding areas can be climatized at a much lower level. The system also presents a great economic solution for older buildings, because this plug and play system can improve personal comfort without the need of major renovations.

Linde van den Brink: Over the past year we have really focused on orienting our services around enhancing employee quality of life because we have seen that it contributes to increased company performance. When I heard about TNO’s project, I thought: this is a concrete example that shows that quality of life is important to us.

I also really liked the scientific aspect of the project. Almost everyday you see news items about things that will improve productivity or health and well-being in the workplace, but it’s not really proven. This project incorporates years of research in order to create an effective technical solution. Every aspect is thoroughly and scientifically proven and that is important to us.

On top of improving the personal comfort of workers, does this invention make any other claims?

Linda Hoes-van Oeffelen: Of course we expect that productivity levels and employee well-being will improve but due to the small scale of our study, these aspects will be difficult to quantify. Our pilot phase will focus specifically on comfort and satisfaction as well as energy consumption.

Linde van den Brink: Although this project won’t measure well-being or productivity, we know that health and well-being are related to the comfort level in an office. In a previous interview, I mentioned that proper indoor climate – especially when compared to a poor indoor climate – can increase productivity, so we expect that productivity will rise once these desks are in place.

What are the future plans for the personal comfort system over the next several years?

Linda Hoes-van Oeffelen: The pilot at Sodexo and ING will launch in November or December 2016 and last 1.5 to 2 years. Ideally, it will prove that using this system in practice boosts comfort levels and energy savings. Once we have enough evidence to convince FM managers and other decision makers in the building process that this system will improve the work environment for employees while saving energy, we’ll be able to take it to a higher level so people all over the world can use this system.

Linde van den Brink: I am particularly looking forward to the launch phase. There is already so much curiosity and interest building up at the Sodexo pilot office. I have never seen so much enthusiasm about a project before!