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The changing context of comfort in an unpredictable world

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Network for Comfort and Energy Use in Buildings' Windsor 2012 conference at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park, England. Every two years the conference pulls together the literati of the thermal comfort in buildings world for three days and nights of lively discussion and debate. Eighty people from 19 countries gave papers – most of which can be accessed free of charge from the NCEUB website. Our accommodation featured in the movie 'The Kings Speech' … it is a hotly sought-after ticket!

The meeting kicked off with an account by Professor Shin-ichi Tanabe of Japan's Waseda University of the impact of last year's earthquake on the supply of electricity in Japan. Only one of 54 commercial nuclear reactors is still running, and that is due to shut down in May. There is a strong likelihood that none will return to service. Prior to the earthquake one third of Japan's energy supply was nuclear so the implications are profound, of course. Energy supplies in Japan are scarce and demand for imported fossil fuel has increased dramatically. Big companies are being forced to run factories at night and at weekends in order to meet the government's demand that they cut their electricity consumption by 15%. Professor Tanabe's paper documents how a vast majority of people accepted decreased comfort, in light of the disaster, and how they self-reported impacts to their productivity in the changed conditions.

For me, that set the scene for the remainder of the conference. We talk a fair bit about thermal comfort here at Green Buildings Alive because heating and air-conditioning use the greatest portion of power under the control of building managers.

Is it sensible, or realistic, to push air conditioning systems ever further in the pursuit of greater thermal comfort, and at what cost? If we succeed, will it make us happier? Another very interesting paper by Jungsoo Kim of Australia's Sydney University led me to doubt it. I'm not doing his full paper justice here, but in short: can you remember how you felt when you first experienced the luxury of air-conditioning while sitting in a car? What about the last time you sat in a car? If you're like me, the only time you notice the AC nowadays is when it's not working properly. Luxuries like air conditioning move from the 'bonus' to the 'basic' category very quickly and we struggle to retain the initial levels of delight by deploying ever-increasingly sophisticated technologies and using more and more energy.

Shin-ichi's and Jungsoo's presentations were followed by many excellent papers exploring ingenious ways to make people feel more comfortable, more of the time. We learned about the latest developments in thermal physiology and of techniques to measure and manage comfort in different environments, and most papers are now publicly available (thankyou organisers!). But I confess, to me, the tension between trying to make people feel more comfortable in buildings while at the same time saving energy seems as far from resolved as it ever was. Perhaps that's because the comfort goalposts keep moving?

I know some of what we're doing here through Green Buildings Alive is cause for optimism so maybe, as good researchers always say: more research is required!