Changing notions of comfort

I am so thankful I don’t have to work all the time in an air-conditioned office building. Especially since Covid-19, our entire Close Comfort team works part of the time at home. We’re happier and feel healthier too.
Of course, I have a Close Comfort personal air conditioner with me. Our team members each have at least one at home as well.
Lee Kuan Yew, honoured as Singapore’s founding father, loved to tell everyone how air conditioning enabled today’s Singapore by providing a comfortable working and sleeping environment. However, there’s a dark side that comes with 20th-century air conditioning systems.
It is well established that people who live most of the time in constant temperature air-conditioned buildings lose their natural thermal acclimatization. As a result, they only feel comfortable at about 23 °C.
Recently I hailed a Singapore cab and climbed into the shiny black refrigerator on wheels, feeling so glad I remembered to bring a cardigan tied around my shoulders. The driver exclaimed, “Ah, it’s so hot today, la!”
“What’s the temperature?” I asked.
“33, it’s really hot, la”.
“But, yesterday it was 32”.
“Yeah, 33, it’s so hot today, la!”
Studies on thermal comfort in naturally ventilated buildings reveal that people adapt to local temperature, for example, by wearing appropriate clothing. Most people living in these buildings feel comfortable in a wide range of indoor temperatures, from as low as 10 °C to 33 °C. A recent study in China provides a good example: people acclimatized to hot and humid conditions felt comfortable at 33 °C and 70% humidity, and only mildly uncomfortable at 37 °C.
However, people who live in mechanical ventilated buildings soon lose their natural adaptation and prefer a constant temperature, all year round.
Now we know the consequences only too well: the sick building syndrome is no joke. Many people experience acute discomfort with headaches; eye, nose, or throat irritation; dry cough; dry or itchy skin; dizziness and nausea; difficulty in concentrating; and fatigue, according to the US Environmental Protection Authority.
Worse, the advent of mechanical heating and air conditioning has enormously increased the construction and running costs of modern buildings and now accounts for a huge proportion of energy consumption.
How did we get to this point?
Well, it turns out that air conditioning, even for engineers, is never simple.
I should know. I have been developing Close Comfort personal air conditioners for 14 years. From time to time I would think of improvements, only to find from experiments that they made the performance worse. I have learned that air conditioning technology is often counter-intuitive. For example, one of my students thought we needed to replace a cross-flow fan drawing a gentle stream of air through a heat exchanger. He set up four powerful computer ventilation fans blowing air directly onto the heat exchanger, thinking this would improve the performance. Instead, measurements showed a 20% reduction in performance!
To help make air conditioning practical, engineering specialists formed the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers, ASHRAE. Through the society publications, they shared knowledge in the form of standards to help engineers design reliable air conditioning systems more easily, reducing the cost. Unfortunately, ASHRAE based their standards on American 1960s business executives’ notions of comfort while wearing suits. By the 1970’s, the air conditioning industry was positioning ‘comfort’ as a product to be provided by their machines, regardless of building design. Architects, freed from the constraints to design buildings that were naturally comfortable, created concrete and glass towers that relied on air conditioning to be habitable.
In the early 2000s, ASHRAE committees started to recognise the global influence of their institution and revised their standards to allow for climatic differences. A new edition of their standard, ASHRAE 55, recommended slightly warmer temperature settings for buildings in hot climates. However, the Singapore air conditioning standard still advocates only a slightly warmer fixed indoor temperature range 23 – 25 °C with a maximum of 65% relative humidity. American businessmen wearing shirts rather than suits!
With the benefit of research, we now know that a more appropriate Singaporean setting would be higher. People who allow themselves to adapt naturally to the local environment feel comfortable at 26 – 28 °C, even higher during the day.
However, many Singaporeans live cocooned in air-conditioned homes, cars, trains, buses, shopping malls and offices, and so have lost their natural acclimatization to heat. Building air conditioning systems are tricky enough to fine-tune to their designed temperature setting: changing the temperature is an expensive and risky undertaking. In addition, everyone has their personal preference, especially women who seem to have more variation in comfort perception than men. Also, air emerging from supply ducts in the building has to be colder than the desired temperature so if you’re sitting in the inlet air stream you will likely feel too cold.
The new Design and Environment building at the National University of Singapore demonstrates a new design paradigm for large public buildings in tropical climates. The air conditioning system delivers warmer air than prescribed by the local standard and uses overhead ceiling fans to create enough comfort, even for chill-adapted Singaporeans. This saves 30-40% of the cooling energy requirement, enabling roof-top solar electricity to provide more than enough energy to run the building, with large running cost savings. However, a different approach is needed for residential apartment buildings with relatively small roofs.
Fortunately, for homes, there is a new idea enabling us to take more control over our environment, health, and the household budget: personal air conditioning.
I originally developed Close Comfort as a cost-effective way to keep cool in Pakistan and other countries. The summer heat there is far fiercer than Singapore. My bedroom where I stay in Islamabad remains at about 40 °C indoors, day and night, for months at a time through the summer. Electric power is often unreliable or intermittent, so I designed Close Comfort to run on battery backup power when needed.
A personal air conditioner is extremely simple: a tiny fridge with a fan that blows cool air at one or more people nearby. The idea is to cool people, not buildings. Bricks and concrete don’t need cooling: only people (and perhaps pets). 300 Watts is enough to keep two or three people cool as cucumbers, especially at night with a spacious bed tent that also keeps out mosquitos.
Now the personal air conditioner is emerging as a far more affordable, comfortable, convenient and healthy alternative to traditional building air conditioning.
Traditional building air conditioning requires everyone to put up with having to live with the same temperature. Doors and windows to be closed so stale room air is constantly recycled, especially with split air conditioners.
With a personal air conditioner, it’s possible to enjoy living in healthy fresh air with a cool micro-climate to suit our individual preferences.
It is the cooling equivalent of a camp fire: move it closer to feel cooler.
One advantage of personal air conditioning is that people are exposed to warmer air when they move from time to time. This may be promoting natural physiological adaptation to heat.
Already some of our users are reporting that they feel less discomfort with heat than before. They seem to be rebuilding their natural adaptation so they need less air conditioning to keep cool. Other people have told us how their eye and throat irritations, itchy skin conditions and fatigue they felt with traditional room air conditioners has faded or disappeared with their personal air conditioner. We don’t yet have the kind of research budget that would enable us to conduct systematic trials, but these observations fit in with the available science. For example, physiological research on heat acclimatization is showing significant health benefits from moderate heat exposure, improving cardio-vascular health.
While there is still debate among the scientific community, we have seen how traditional air conditioning can promote the spread of Covid-19 in buildings. Airborne virus transmission is now thought to be a major infection risk. Fresh air living is back in fashion, and is healthier for everyone.
Developing Close Comfort has been a fascinating journey for me, personally. Apart from cooling technology, I have had to extend my learning into psychology, physiology, architecture, marketing and online commerce. Every time I write articles like this, I find I have to learn a little more, and understand new aspects of the ways that people experience life and happiness. Reading enthusiastic product reviews brings a smile to my face, however witnessing the smiling faces of grateful users brings the greatest satisfaction.
I had little idea when I first created Close Comfort what the future might hold. Whatever the differences in the ways that individuals perceive comfort and their ability to adapt naturally, we know that human mortality increases exponentially above about 35 °C. I learned recently that many cities are warming at up to three times the rate of climate change, thanks in part to proliferation of traditional room air conditioners. Personal air conditioners might just be one of the solutions that enables people to be healthy and comfortable while helping to keep our growing cities cooler.

Productivity isn’t everything, but…

No wonder Trump can easily still command rustbelt supporters. Stagnation in the US manufacturing industry is killing prospects for wage rises. Bureau of Labor Statistics data released two weeks ago shows that while productivity increased by about 3% annually from the 1980s till 2007, annual growth since has been only 0.4%. Most of that, and more, is needed for sustainability improvements like changing to clean energy.

Labor productivity depends on engineered tools, machines and materials, so engineers are the key people to restart productivity growth. While economics and labor saving solutions were the priority for engineers in the 1950s, as evidenced by the ASEE Grinter report, now that seems to have been forgotten. Our research is revealing that today’s engineers have limited understanding on how to generate commercial value.

Students need to learn the fundamental purpose of engineering. Distilled from our research on hundreds of engineers in several countries, that purpose is to enable people to be more productive.

“Engineers are people with technical knowledge and foresight who conceive, plan and organise delivery, operation and sustainment of artificial objects, processes and systems. These enable productivity improvements so people can do more with less effort, time, materials, energy, uncertainty, health risk and environmental disturbances.”

Sustainability depends on similar improvements.

As Paul Krugman wrote more than 30 years ago,

“Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything. A country’s ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker.”

Economists are hoping that the digital economy will restore productivity growth. It might. But in a world where information supply is exponentially increasing, its value must be exponentially decreasing.

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LifeBridge Institute

We need your help

With the pandemic and economic disruption, we have a couple of thousand students in Perth who have completed their degree studies but are waiting to graduate because they cannot get appropriate internships to complete their course requirements. We also have many mid-career engineers laid off from projects and even major companies. LifeBridge is a voluntary, non-profit organisation I helped set up to bring these people together with smaller businesses interested in helping out. The idea is to build on engineering practice research at UWA to give the students a head start in their careers. We will use this research to rapidly develop their professional skills and employability under the guidance of volunteer mid-career engineers. The aim is to get as many as possible working in small project teams, developing ideas for local companies in Perth. I need help from engineer volunteers (employed, looking for work themselves, or retired and willing to help). In the process they will acquire new professional capabilities that will make them more attractive for companies hiring them as project opportunities emerge. We at LifeBridge also need your help to pass the word out to students and graduates looking for paid engineering work, particularly international students who have a tough time finding internships. Click or tap here for more details and prospectus. Click or tap here to register your interest today.

New book “Learning Engineering Practice”

If you are a member of Engineers Australia you can order with a 30% discount here. If you’re not a member of Engineers Australia, email me for a discount voucher.

Why buy this book?

Cover design for Learning Engineering Practice

If you’re a student or recent graduate, the book will help you get ahead in the search for paid employment, and the more you work at it, the more attractive you will be for employers.

If you’re an early career engineer, this book will help you navigate the complexities and frustrations of engineering workplaces, and get your career advancing more rapidly. You will soon be far more valuable for your enterprise. As one recent reader wrote “if only I had access to this book earlier in my career I could have avoided so many difficulties”.

Lots of companies struggle with on-boarding graduate and early career engineers – this book will help them and their supervisors. They may not hit the ground running, but they soon will be, and generating greater value for their employers.

Want to know more?

Here is the contents summary.

How is the book different from “The Making of an Expert Engineer”?

a) About one fifth the price (paperback), and one third the length;

b) Short, easy to read chapters for students and early-career engineers;

c) Includes guidance on commercial and social value generation that came from more recent research;

d) Includes a detailed curriculum and performance checklist for early career workplace learning;

e) Updated material on sustainability and work in low-income countries.

Naturally, as an introductory book, there are many references to “The Making of an Expert Engineer” for a more advanced treatment of topics such as engineering financial decision-making.

Invisible engineers … again!

This week televised ceremonies announced the Australian Engineering Excellence Award winners.  Once again, the engineers and engineering were invisible. Just like the tunnel photograph. Tunnels are invisible from the outside, and we pass through them in darkness.

Here is the Create Magazine article that announced the winners. I read it and immediately noticed that both the engineers and the engineering were absent from the stories and photographs. None of the photographs of the winning achievements show any people, let alone the engineers whose efforts we are supposed to celebrate. There is little about the value generated by these achievements. None of the descriptions tell us inspiring inside stories from the inside. Other than the implication that these were recently completed projects, there is not even much we can discern about the reasons these achievements were chosen ahead of others.

These awards could be such an amazing opportunity to engage with our community, especially the opportunity to inspire school children thinking about engineering as a career. Naturally, with some achievements representing combined efforts by perhaps hundreds or thousands of engineers, it’s not possible to tell the full story in a series of online articles for short attention spans.

Most of the real challenges in these achievements were just as much about people and relationships as finding technical solutions, the stuff of fascinating human stories. Stories waiting to be told.

Think of the money spent on video presentations for every division, and how much more benefit we as a profession could have gained if only we had seized the opportunity to inspire a new generation of young Australian engineers. Well, there’s always next year….

Image Credit: Ricard Gomez Angel –

Has Engineering Divorced?

I came across this report on the economic contributions of engineering prepared by PWC for Engineering New Zealand. In preparing the report, PWC and Engineering New Zealand assembled about 20 senior engineers from a representative sample of industries and asked them to write a brief description of engineering.


Here’s a word cloud summarising the result.

Now, what’s gone missing?

Remember that this was an exercise in assessing the economic significance of engineering in New Zealand…

Still wondering?

Read more to see what I think is missing

Blinded by Tech?

These days, apparently, “tech” is ubiquitous.

Technology will save us?

Yet technology, the word, now means much less than it used to: it has been slimmed down to mean mobile phones, apps and gadgets. I asked a few friends: they said tech means an electrical gadget like a phone. Is an electric toaster technology? Oh no, they said, it’s too simple, too ancient. So “tech” has to be complex? “Ah, yes!”

Read to learn more

Can Indian engineering regain its former shine?

India has produced some of the world’s greatest engineers and scientists and graduates hundreds of thousands of engineers annually. Mughal Indian civil engineering led the world 500 years ago. Therefore, today’s relatively slow progress towards a modern, sustainable, industrialized society is puzzling. India’s national productivity, along with many other low-income countries, lags advanced economies like USA, Japan, and Europe by a factor of about 5, a gap that has hardly changed in many decades.

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Engineering graduates will need help very soon

The most critical issue for engineering right now is a collapse in short and medium term employment opportunities for engineering graduates.

27th July 2020: Since this post went up, I learned something. The only response came from an engineer who regularly writes on LinkedIn, suggesting that this problem was caused by universities who graduate too many engineering students. I learned that readers of this forum and my posts exhibit a disappointing lack of empathy for others less fortunate. I am unsure why. If you have suggestions on how to evoke a more positive response, please let me know. My suggestion was declined by Engineers Australia on the grounds that they do not have resources…. even though the hard work would be done by volunteers.

It’s not just the Corona Virus. Mobility restrictions and the oil price collapse are stopping engineering projects around the world.

Project cancellations and a loss of investor confidence will force engineering firms and suppliers to curtail hiring and many will close or stand down existing employees.

What can we, as a global community of engineers, do to help the next few cohorts of engineering graduates, many of whom will find it nearly impossible to find paid engineering work? If we don’t find ways to support these people, we risk losing a generation of engineers and stifling an economic recovery with critical engineering skill shortages.

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