Although indoor environmental quality experts have found ways to vastly improve the quality of individual closed office spaces, balancing indoor environmental interactions in open office space or semi-open cubicles remains an engineering challenge.
“It’s very easy to provide individualized environmental control when everyone is in a private office. It’s a big, huge engineering challenge to try to do the same thing when you’ve got a number of open work stations in the same room,” says H. Ezzat Khalifa, founding director of the multi-institutional STAR Center for Environmental Quality Systems led by Syracuse University, where he is also the NYSTAR Distinguished Professor of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering.
Finding solutions to this challenge was the impetus behind the STAR Center’s funding and support of the Willis H. Carrier Total Indoor Environmental Control (TIEQ) Lab at SyracuseCoE headquarters. The Carrier TIEQ Lab consists of two identical office spaces, each outfitted with 12 open cubicle-style workstations. In one room, there are Personalized Environmental Control Systems (PECS) in each cubicle that allow occupants to control the conditions in their own cubicle—including temperature, percentage of fresh air circulated, humidity and lighting. In the other room those factors are regulated by a central control.
“Research demonstrates that when people have the ability to control their own environment, they’re more comfortable and thus, more productive,” says Khalifa. Most of those studies, however, examine only one factor at a time, such as temperature, ventilation, or lighting. The Carrier TIEQ Lab is a one-of-a-kind research facility that allows Khalifa and other researchers to study numerous indoor environmental control parameters—and their interactions—at once.
Most office buildings are controlled in a one-size-fits-all-fashion from a central control, Khalifa explains. However, individuals have varying sensitivities to temperature. Allowing individuals to control the temperature of their own environment may provide them with greater comfort, but typically results in higher energy costs, particularly when spaces with different environmental demands are adjacent.
Khalifa, along with Alan Hedge, professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University, is studying how to provide individual environmental control to improve worker productivity without increasing energy consumption, and preferably, while decreasing it. “We are looking to see if people change their selections if they know the cost associated with the adjustments they make,” he says.
While the Carrier TIEQ Lab provides a wonderful controlled environment for scientific research, Khalifa is also studying how PECS stimulate productivity in a real office environment, using King + King Architects in Syracuse as a “living lab.”
“Their employees work in a large, open space, so it is a perfect environment to study to understand energy consumption and individual comfort in a real-world setting,” Khalifa says.
The firm’s renovated offices transformed a 100-year-old industrial building into an energy-efficient workspace, earning a LEED® Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.
With funding from SyracuseCoE, Khalifa and visiting professor Arsen Melikov, a leading researcher from the International Centre for Indoor Environment and Energy in Denmark, installed PECS identical to those in the Carrier TIEQ Lab at 38 workstations at King + King and are monitoring worker satisfaction over an extended period of time.