Some like it hot, most don't

When home, school, and work are the same place, high indoor temperatures matter more than ever
Kevin Lockhart

Kevin Lockhart

Efficient Buildings Lead

August 7, 2020

Blogs | Buildings | News

  • It’s summer, and “thermal stress” in housing is increasing: this is an equity issue that touches different groups in different ways; working and learning from home can be exacerbating existing “temperature inequalities”
  • Our building, retrofit, and equipment standards and codes (and the implementation thereof) may offer some solutions for the worst-impacted
  • A recent UN and IEA report posits 460 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions – roughly the amount produced over an eight-year period – could be cut over the next four decades by making air conditioners twice as efficient as they are now

For those jobs where it is possible to do so, working from home has been a necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic, and is likely here to stay for many occupations. However, the comfort of working from home can vary vastly, depending on factors like age, race, sexual orientation, income and any of the other myriad other factors known to impact housing availability and quality. This summer, we have already experienced the usual heat waves that have already become a life-and-death impact of climate change in Canada: there has never been a better time to have a national conversation about building codes, retrofits, energy efficiency, and heat stress.

We Canadians spend nearly 90% of our time indoors, but only about half of all Canadians are estimated to have some form of air conditioning. That number, however, is rising rapidly. With physical distancing measures expected to remain in place in much of the country, and a limited number of areas to find respite from the heat, time spent indoors may increasingly be the only option available to a large portion of the population for the rest of this summer. 

Canadian workers were already missing air-conditioned offices in May, just as summer temperatures started climbing, and public health officials have sounded the alarm about the lack of air conditioning in long-term care homes. In the context of longer time horizons, extreme heat will become ever more challenging as climate change causes an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. Extreme weather events, combined with extended power outages resulting from heat waves, have the potential to make for dangerous conditions that expose vulnerable populations to prolonged and high levels of thermal stress.

Thermal comfort and the built environment in Canada: policy context

Our homes, which, for the coming months at least, have also become our makeshift offices and schools, are meant to offset the most extreme temperatures mother nature throws our way. This includes how we balance our “thermal comfort,” commonly defined as a person’s satisfaction with their indoor thermal environment. And, while thermal comfort is subjective, each individual copes with their temperature surroundings and fluctuations differently. Thermal comfort is a hugely important consideration in how we design and construct our buildings. 

Canada’s National Building Code (NBC) includes general health statements addressing inadequate thermal comfort, specifically air and surface temperatures in the appendix of the NBC. However, there is no defined minimum or maximum operating temperature nor any mechanism that addresses the elements necessary for human thermal comfort. The building code instead references ASHRAE Standard 55: Thermal Environmental Conditions for Human Occupancy, the standard determining acceptable thermal conditions in occupant-controlled naturally conditioned spaces. This standard has contributed to more sustainable building designs and has led to better operational practices that optimize both energy efficiency and thermal comfort. However, it should be noted that this standard only applies to new construction; there is no standard in place for existing buildings.

An increasing role for passive building design, and better active cooling technologies

Modern buildings rely on both active and passive measures to provide an acceptable range of thermal comfort. Active measures are those within the building, for example air conditioning systems, heat pumps or mechanical fans. Active systems are critical to a building’s performance. Energy efficient air conditioners, or heat pumps that provide both cooling and heating, have made great strides in recent years and can be found with an EnergyStar rating, an international symbol applied to equipment that achieves a premium level of energy efficiency. However, since they can become disabled during a power outage and/or increase your energy bills, active systems are best integrated with passive measures. Passive design measures include proper building orientation, higher levels of insulation, better-quality windows, and passive solar energy and shading. Many of these measures also help keep a home warm in winter.

Passive measures are an increasingly important consideration in building design, particularly when thermal resilience is considered, or where a particular building may serve as a community emergency hub or cooling centre. A building that is readily-available to serve an emergency function following a disaster is key to supporting the resilience of the community. Whether they are included as a measure to protect the building occupants in the event of a power outage or a prolonged extreme weather event, or as a part of a suite of tools to reduce energy waste, passive measures play an integral role in ensuring that a building is able to maintain an acceptable range of thermal comfort. Passive building design also provides the benefit of long-term resilience by mitigating fluctuations in energy pricing, thereby providing consumers and building owners greater long-term assurance of affordability.

Passive measures, however, won’t get us all of the way there, especially as Canada changes from an environment where we spend most of our time heating buildings, to one where we spend most of our time cooling them. Our urban landscape is increasingly a jungle of glass and steel skyscrapers that heat up like a greenhouse in summer and require significant amounts of energy to cool. A recent UN and IEA report posits 460 billion tonnes of global greenhouse gas emissions – roughly the amount produced over an eight-year period – could be cut over the next four decades by making air conditioners twice as efficient as they are now

If we are going to meet our goals for climate mitigation and prepare to adapt to new temperature norms in a way that protects people and planet, efficient air conditioning and standards for such will be a big part of the solution, even in a “cold” country like Canada.

The big picture

Buildings should be comfortable spaces that provide a refuge away from the extremes of our notoriously fickle and challenging Canadian climate, but right now it takes a lot of energy to make them that way. There are a number of innovations that can make this situation better as we prepare for a warmer future: from modernizing our policy and standards landscape to address current and future gaps, to sustained investments in retrofitting our built environment, to better passive design of buildings and higher standards for air conditioning equipment.


What do you think? Share your thoughts on thermal comfort in Canada in our LinkedIn and Facebook communities for energy efficiency professionals.

Two perspectives on thermal stress and working from home, from the Efficiency Canada team

Lynsey, 30, Montreal

Having both a cat and a dog in the middle of a housing crisis in Montreal — where very few landlords will entertain an applicant with a pet — I’ve cobbled together seven different short-term rentals in 2019-2020 in order to stay sheltered. In that time, I’ve had nine full days where the city turned off my water without warning, a broken faucet that flooded a unit while I was outside of the province, countless neighbourhood-wide power outages, a natural gas leak outside of one place, and two incidents where a building-wide fire alarm had to be turned off by the fire department. In my current apartment, the temperature earlier this summer approached 37 ˚C indoors. I finally cracked and purchased a portable air conditioner. 

My situation is not atypical for Millennials and Gen Z workers: I share a bachelor apartment that is under 500 sq. ft. with my partner, who also works from home as a journalist: one of us gets the kitchen table, and one of us gets the desk, but everything is in the same room. Sometimes, working on energy efficiency feels very abstract for me as a renter, because I have very little control over the places that I live, and it feels like asking for improvements on things like temperature is a surefire way to end up without housing, or in a hostile relationship with a landlord. If I can’t hang pictures up on the wall, I probably can’t start a conversation about thermal comfort.

As a tenant, I would be very interested in standards for maximum temperatures in the space in which I live and work.

Kevin, 44, Toronto

Like many parents during the pandemic, finding a “new normal” has been an adventure to say the least. My partner and I share a Toronto semi with our four kids between the ages of 7 and 13. While we were both accustomed to working from home before COVID-19 arrived, our home offices were relatively quiet while the kids were in school. Even though we both had small dedicated offices we enjoyed moving to different locations in the house to find the most comfortable area for a given task.

Now, the kitchen table, which had been an invigorating sun-filled corner of the house for morning work-tasks, has been converted to a classroom and we find ourselves retreating to the bedroom or basement in the hopes of finding a quiet space for an afternoon call. And, of course the new normal requires keeping a careful eye on notepads and printed documents lest they become a paper airplane or origami.

With the arrival of hot summer days, working in energy efficiency with four kids in the house can feel a bit paradoxical at times. As in most houses like ours, it’s not uncommon to find the lights left on in an empty room or windows open when the air conditioning is on. While I’m not sure I’ll ever stop saying, “did you turn off the lights?” I have noticed less debate now about how hot it has to be till the air conditioning is turned on and more about how we can use passive measures such as opening the windows for natural ventilation to help to avoid the constant thrum of the air conditioner. 


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