Glazing Plays a Major Role in Keeping Occupants Comfortable

By Ellen Rogers

No matter how beautiful the façade, buildings aren’t made to be empty. They’re meant for people to live, work and interact with others. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, humans spend most of their time indoors—about 90%. And since we’re spending so much time inside, it makes sense for us to be comfortable. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Anyone who has ever worked inside with others has probably heard more than once, “I’m too hot” or “I’m too cold.”

Designing with occupant comfort in mind is becoming a priority for many new construction and renovation projects. But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to achieving optimal occupant comfort.

“Thermal comfort is a personal metric,” says Heather Payson, a senior associate with SOCOTEC (formerly Vidaris), a building and façade consulting firm based in New York.

Fortunately, some solutions can help contribute to a pleasant work environment. And a well-designed building envelope has a big part to play in that.

Comfort and Well-being

In its “Framework for Design Excellence,” the American Institute of Architects (AIA) says that “good design supports health and well-being for all people, considering physical, mental, and emotional effects on building occupants and the surrounding community.” Focus areas such as daylighting, thermal comfort and indoor air quality, among others, all play a part in creating a pleasant work environment.

“We live in a world where well-being and wellness are important topics. People are not motivated anymore just by material and monetary incentives,” says Attila Arian, president of Schüco USA in Newington, Conn. “The quality of life is at the forefront of all considerations. Occupants of residential buildings pick their places to live based on the lifestyle and quality of life that it offers to them. In the office environment, ergonomics and employee well-being, in light of labor shortages, are front and center.”

Bruce Sohn, CEO of Halio Inc., based in Hayward, Calif., agrees. He cites several reasons for the increasing focus on occupant comfort, including workforce competition.

“There’s a lot of demand for good quality people and there’s not always a lot that can distinguish one company from another. We’re in a situation where people have been home working and they’ve had a relaxing and comfortable place,” he says. “COVID has amplified that effect because if people come back to the office, their expectations are pretty high after working at home. Certain tasks are better face-to-face, so coming back to the office and being as comfortable there as they were in their home is important.”

According to Payson, the conversation around occupant comfort isn’t new. Now, research increasingly supports the understanding that occupant comfort can afford a growing number of benefits. That can translate into employees taking fewer sick days and greater retention rates for companies.

“In addition to keeping employees comfortable, there is a clear bottom-line element,” she says.

Addressing Concerns

Glazing can pose some concerns for those working inside. Thermal discomfort, in particular, can significantly impact productivity. The AIA says thermal comfort is the perception of an individual’s satisfaction with their thermal environment. “A lack of thermal satisfaction has been proven to negatively impact productivity and health in various user groups, indicating that designing for thermal comfort is not a subjective experiment and yields multiple benefits for occupants,” reads the AIA report.

According to an article written for USGlass magazine by Technoform’s Helen Sanders and Mark Silverberg (see page 10 in the March 2018 issue) “studies show that there is about a 1% drop in productivity for every 1º F deviation from the optimum temperature of 71-72º F (either higher or lower). When occupants are thermally uncomfortable, their dissatisfaction with other aspects of indoor environmental quality also increases.”

Sohn points out, “Glass is an interesting material. It’s a wall you can see through, and people want to see what’s on the other side. People buy a window because they want to see what’s on the other side or bring light in.”

He continues, “It’s interesting because the first thing people do is find a way to cover it up—blinds, shades, curtains, louvers, shading on the outside. They do things to counter the benefits that everyone wants from the window in the first place.”

Products such as dynamic glazing, he says, help bring that value back to the occupant and owner and “create the sensation everyone wants when they put in a window—maximum natural light and a space where they feel like they are a participant in what’s happening on the outside of the building.”

However, Payson adds that the façade significantly complicates thermal comfort matters. Solar exposure is one example.

“[People are] either too hot or they can be too cold depending on factors such as the age of the building and its design, which can have filtration concerns,” she says. “And when designing for seasonal differences, you have to account for those components that change throughout the year.”

To help keep those inside comfortable, she says it’s important to think about issues such as thermal comfort early in the design process. She points out that ASHRAE 55 Thermal Environmental Conditions for Human Occupancy says the interior is sufficiently comfortable if at least 80% of occupants don’t object to the conditions. “But that means 20% are uncomfortable … When designing, we should consider these elements, such as solar, early in the process and not just when the building is operating.”

As she pointed out, thermal comfort is a personal metric, so giving occupants the means to control their thermal and lighting systems is essential. This is a practice she says her firm has been introducing in their designs, giving occupants that control.

Glass as a Solution

Fortunately, the glass industry has developed many resources and solutions that can help create a comfortable interior space. According to Sohn, dynamic glass, for example, provides a means to tap into the advantages of glass without having to cover it up.

“With dynamic glass, you can always see through the window and what’s on the outside,” he says. “A good quality dynamic glass knows when to tint so it’s not overly bright.” He explains that occupants have control over the system to optimize the situation for their best results.

Speaking of his company’s electrochromic glass, he says it “brings a product that performs, looks good and has the features that contribute to [having a] building where people want to work and live.

“In a clear state, the window should be clear, and when tinted, it should have a neutral/natural tone. The glass also needs to switch between the two easily to respond to changing conditions. That makes a big difference to the comfort level.”

Fresh air and natural ventilation also contribute to interior well-being, and the use of operable windows can be a solution. Arian says while the glass industry has come a long way, with many viable options to reduce the solar heat gain, the fresh air supply through the curtainwall or window system has a lot of room to grow.

“We do see a lot of new projects that require automated parallel opening windows, which connect to the building management system,” he says. “They ensure that the window systems open automatically and provide the right amount of fresh air supply. They are also used in certain climate zones, such as California, to cool the building off at night using the temperature differential between day and night. This reduces the energy consumption of the mechanical systems.”

Looking Ahead

Productivity thrives in a comfortable space, from the right amount of daylight to the perfect temperature. As the architecture and construction industry brings to life the next generation of workspaces, it’s critical to think about what the building looks like on the outside and the people inside. The glass and façade industry has the opportunity to lead the change.

Ellen Rogers is the editor of USGlass magazine. Follow her on Twitter @USGlass and like USGlass on Facebook to receive updates.

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