Many offices, including those of The New York Times, set their thermostats to 74 to 76 degrees, which you would think would feel balmy (imagine a thermostat set to that temperature during winter). Yet the other day, my colleagues — probably about 20 percent of them — were shivering in sweatshirts and sweaters. (Patrick Whelan, facilities director at The Times, blamed those in the Page One meeting room, who wanted that space to be cooler.)
The Times has a nearly-even gender split; 51 percent of its employees are female. But what of 100 percent female operations? How do they handle their thermostats? At all eight locations of the Wing, the co-working space designed for women, the seating has been fabricated to accommodate a 5-foot-4 woman — the average female height — in soft fabrics, like velvet, anticipating users with bare legs.
In the summer months, temperature is similarly considered: The thermostats are set to 72 to 74 degrees, said Zara Rahim, senior director of communications, a number gleaned from reading studies that suggested men were happier at 70 degrees, and women at temperatures 2.5 degrees higher.
If members are still chilly, there are baskets of knitted cotton blankets placed strategically throughout the club. On a recent visit to the Wing Soho, the place looked like a college dorm during exam week, with some members sitting cross-legged in arm chairs, laptops open, their laps swaddled in blankets.
In 2015, Kieran Timberlake, an architectural firm with more than 100 employees in Philadelphia, tried to work without any air-conditioning at all. The firm renovated a former bottling plant — a concrete and steel warehouse built in 1945 — with many, many design flourishes and technologies, but without modern AC.
Passive and active features provided the cooling, like mechanical and natural ventilation (fans and windows that opened); automated shades; insulation, including a concrete slab floor; and dehumidifiers. The design thinking behind these contemporary refinements has worked for millenniums — imagine an adobe house, or a Roman villa, sealed and shaded against the day’s heat, and opened up at night.
That first summer, however, staffers found themselves increasingly hot, limp and damp, their experience captured by daily surveys that included this plaintive report from one suffering soul: “I am physically melting.”
More fans were brought in, employees were encouraged to work early in the morning — before the day got too hot — and the dress code was relaxed. Clients who visited, including State Department officials (at the time, the firm was working on an American embassy in London) were forewarned. Witold Rybczynski, writing of the experiment in Architect magazine, imagined a scene from a P.G. Wodehouse novel: diplomats in short pants!
It was a grand experiment, and not exactly a failure, since the building, which is now cooled by what’s known as mixed mode operation — that is, using a bit of conventional air-conditioning when needed — is still a model of energy efficiency. Switching to mixed-mode has added only 1 or 2 percent to the building’s total energy load, according to Roderick Bates, a Kieran Timberlake principal.
Mr. Bates said that one of the reasons natural cooling wasn’t fully successful was that Philadelphia’s nighttime temperatures during the peak summer months weren’t low enough to allow natural ventilation to cool the place down. Passive house systems work really well in climates with big diurnal temperature swings, like the desert.
A byproduct of the experiment was the evolution of the survey process, now a cloud-based app called Roast, that revealed something rather illuminating: While there were slightly more survey responses from female staff, the differences in thermal comfort between sexes were insignificant. (Are women just more inclined to participate in surveys?)
It turns out gender is less a predictor of thermal comfort than other factors, like age, activity level or, tellingly, the relative wealth of the society surveyed, according to studies conducted by researchers at the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California, Berkeley.
People in countries with lower G.D.P.s, said David Lehrer, the communications director and a researcher there, are more comfortable with a wider range of temperatures. It appears that first world discomfort is a learned behavior.