Shine On

Our offices are freezing because men wear suits

It is no accident that frigid office buildings are the norm in North America. (Thinkstock)Have you ever put together a fabulously sleek and professional outfit for Monday morning at the office, only to take off your coat and realize that, “Hey, it’s frickin’ freezing in here!”

If you work in an office building, it’s likely that you’ve complained at one time or another about the chilly temperature. In the winter, we can whinge that whoever is managing the building is too cheap to crank the heat, but that explanation cannot be applied in the summer, when the air conditioning makes your cubicle feel like the inside of a fridge.

So why are our office buildings so frigid?

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A recent article in the New York Times suggest that, once again, science is to blame for our woes.

Good old gender-biased science. Apparently back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Danish and American scientists came up with a mathematical equation to predict optimal indoor comfort levels. It is a formula, not so much a specific temperature. The so-called Fanger Comfort Equation was based on making one type of worker comfortable: a man wearing a full business suit.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers adopted the Fanger Comfort Equation as their gospel in the seminal ASHRAE Standard 55, a document that defines indoor comfort, and now much of the world’s buildings are designed to keep Don Draper feeling fabulous.

While there are women out there who favour three piece suits at the office and are perfectly comfortable with the results of Fanger’s disco era mathematics, there are likely far more women (and men without suits) who wouldn’t mind rocking their favourite outfits at the office without having to bring a parka to work.

The reality is today's corporate and government offices are not as dominated by men as they once were in the 60s and 70s. Moreover, formal office environments requiring suits are far less prevalent today. So why haven't we evolved with the times?

It's a question that continues to confound many, and hopefully one that will eventually be addressed as new policies replace outdated ones. Not to mention, in a time of corporate environmental responsibility, should we not reconsider our excessive use of air conditioning in the summer?

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To add insult to injury, fashion magazines happily encourage ladies to wear summery dresses and open-toed shoes to work, without considering that chilly Mr. Fanger and the Standard 55 are lurking in the boardroom and cubicle.

Susan Mazur-Stommen of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy explains how these decades-old standards affect women.

“In spring, it’s socially expected that women will wear thinner blouses, skirts, open-toed shoes…but the building temperature is set for men, who are assumed to be wearing long-sleeved shirts and closed-toed shoes year-round. If everyone just dressed appropriately for the weather, we wouldn’t have to heat or cool the building as much,” she writes for TIME.

Since banning wool suits is a bit of an unrealistic solution, perhaps Mazur-Stommen’s suggestion to dress appropriately for the weather is a good one. Ladies can bundle up more in winter, and the fellas can rock their khaki shorts in the summer.

But even better would be changing the standards of building heating and cooling to account for the fact that today in Canada, women make up more than 47 per cent of the workforce. 

Watch the video below about national sweater day on February 7. Put on that sweater and turn down the heat!    

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