Three Questions With an Expert: Thermal Comfort

It’s not uncommon for Americans to knock their thermostats down to 65 degrees in hot weather and back up to near 80 in the winter. Currently, August brings some of the most hot and humid weather of the year in North America and with it a surge in energy consumption from air conditioning units. A major selling point of a Passive House is the ability to stay comfortable year-round through careful regard to thermal comfort. Dr. Andres Pinzon of the PHIUS certification staff wrote his dissertation on thermal comfort in Bogota-Colombia, and answered a few questions on the uniqueness of comfort and the culture behind it.


“For me, it’s most exciting to see the possibilities of a building and what it can become for the people who live there.”


PHIUS: What is the biggest myth out there when it comes to passive building and comfort?

Dr. Pinzon:  Comfort is related to climate. The more the outdoor climate separates from the desired indoor thermal conditions, the more energy is used to restore a comfortable thermal environment. Some climates are not that extreme, and I worked studying comfort in a mild climate Bogota-Colombia (4° N of latitude and 8,660 ft of elevation). In that location there were no preconceived notions of what housing was, or what comfort in your house would look like. In general, buildings have been naturally ventilated but in the last years some mechanic controls such as heaters are becoming more common in residential units.

Image Thermal Comfort Study in Bogota

 

PHIUS: Is our view of thermal comfort skewed? Is there an ideal temperature?

Dr. Pinzon: We need to have a broader opinion when it comes to comfort. For example, in the location I studied, there’s no ideal temperature because there are so many factors that go into comfort. It really depends on the climatic conditions, altitude, sun intensity, wind, etc., but also on the thermal adaptiveness through your clothing, how often you’re in your home, or what do you do in it, etc. I believe we need to deepen into the study of the behavior of residents during mild climatic conditions, their outdoor exposition, and their thermal sensation. It will enhance the use of passive strategies without disturb comfort standards.

 

PHIUS: What is the most crucial element when it comes to thermal comfort? Filter, pump, heater?

Dr. Pinzon: The most critical element when it came to thermal comfort that I saw in my dissertation wasn’t an appliance or a feature, it was design. Most of the multifamily homes I saw were considered more comfortable by occupants if they were designed around a courtyard, which I think is very telling because this element has been used in this location to intensify daylight and lessen convection, allowing people to use more efficiently energy from nature.

 

Healthy Buildings, Part 2: The PHIUS Phive

Earlier in the week, we discussed the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health’s 9 Foundations for a Healthy Building.

When building to minimum building code standards, these items do not seem connected because the building is not designed as a system as much as it is designed as a collection of parts. Building codes are minimum standards that aim to ensure health and safety concerns are less of a concern for consumers. In high-performance building, such as passive building, a lot of these items piggy-back on each other. For example, proper ventilation and thermal control tend to improve air quality while reducing moisture, dust mites, and pests. Thermal control also generally improves acoustical comfort. PHIUS+ certification specifies continuous insulation, airtight construction, and proper ventilation using small and quiet mechanical systems and great windows. Other aspects on the list of nine—which affect indoor environmental quality, but which are not required for PHIUS+ certification (daylighting, acoustical comfort)—are often part of the PHIUS+ package because that is just good design, and PHIUS buildings are designed by people who give a damn.
5-Passive-Building-Design-Principles

The five PHIUS+ principles:

1/ Continuous insulation

By completely wrapping a building with insulation, heat can no longer sneak out through framing, which has a lower R-value than the surrounding insulation. The simplest way to fix all of those energy sieves is to avoid building them in the first place. Continuous, thick, insulation on the outside of a building keeps heat flow to a minimum.

 

2/ Airtight construction

While thick, continuous insulation can stop a significant amount of heat loss through conduction, plugging air leaks can slow heat flow, too. Because temperature drives air movement—think about convection loops—the air moving through buildings usually carries a lot of heat with it. So here’s the rub: Warm air can hold more moisture than cold air. So when warm air leaks through electrical outlets into exterior walls, it dumps moisture into wall cavities when the moist air hits the cold wall sheathing. It happens in winter and summer, only in reverse.

 

Sound waves also travel on air currents and through framing members, so these first two principles have the added effect of better sound control.

 

3/ Optimized windows

The appropriate window depends on your climate zone; cold climates need well-insulated windows because the temperature extremes are significant. Hot-climate windows typically have strong radiant-heat blockage because the sun is intense in hot climates. Another aspect of windows is shading, which can reduce glare and overheating, and is often cheaper that additional window technology. Regardless of climate or wall elevation, very good double-pane and triple-pane windows which are designed to be airtight are great from an acoustical perspective, they tend to be super quiet.

 

4/ Balanced ventilation

Air-tightening means that dirty, moist air isn’t leaking into the living space from basements and loading docks, which is good. It also means that stale indoor air is not leaking out, which is bad, so air changes must be controlled with some sort of high-tech fan. With balanced ventilation and a tight envelope, a constant flow of fresh air flushes the living space and conditions it to be perfect for human comfort.

 

Ventilator filter required min Merv 7, highly recommended to be MERV 13

 

5/ Minimal mechanical system

Because the building is super-tight, super insulated, and has super windows, a super-size heating and cooling system is unnecessary. A great side effect of minimal mechanical systems is that they are much more quiet.

 

When these five principles are applied to buildings, you get predictable performance, unmatched comfort, superb air quality, and resiliency in the face of power outages due to winter storms or summer blackouts. We can say that PHIUS+ is the most cost-effective path to the Harvard list of healthy building foundations because the core objectives of PHIUS+ address the concerns of healthy building. Healthy buildings are a byproduct of PHIUS+ certification.

 

Best of all, because PHIUS+ buildings consume so little energy, zero energy is easily within reach.

 

Healthy Buildings, Part 1: 9 Principles

An article in ArchDaily details the nine aspects of a building that, according to the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, make that building a healthy place for people to be. The ArchDaily article summarizes a 36-page report called The 9 Foundations Of A Healthy Building. It is not a surprise to PHIUS what the nine items are, or that PHIUS+ certification is the most cost-effective way to get there (more on that later).

9_Foundations_Healthy

A summary of Harvard’s Nine Foundations of a Healthy Building:

Ventilation — Replace stale indoor air with filtered outdoor air. Test, maintain and monitor equipment regularly.

Air Quality — Eliminate items that offgas, remove legacy pollutants (lead, asbestos, PCBs), limit moisture intrusion. Relative humidity should be kept between 30% and 60% to reduce mold and mildew odors.

Thermal Health — Control humidity and temperature striations. If occupants need control of the thermostat, make that easy. Also, stick to a regular maintenance schedule to make sure equipment is running efficiently.

Moisture — Roofs and walls should not leak, plumbing and HVAC equipment should not condense or leak, and condensation spots (cold spots that become mold spots) should be eliminated or monitored (this is done with continuous insulation, as explained later).

Dust & Pests — Surfaces should be clean, and vacuum filters should be high efficiency because dust is a reservoir for allergens and chemicals. Generally, the focus is on preventing problems (more about solutions below). Airtight construction, described below, also keeps pests out (including bed bugs in apartment buildings, through compartmentalization).

Safety & Security — the items outlined in this section are required by building codes, including fire and carbon monoxide detectors, lighting in stairwells, egress, entry, and parking areas.

Water Quality — beyond a city water supply that meets water quality standards, consider water purifiers and microbial control. Plumbing layouts should be designed to minimize stagnation in pipes.

Noise — beyond outside noise, indoor noise should be controlled. Background noise should be limited to 35db with a maximum reverberation time of 0.7 seconds.

Lighting & Views — Daylighting should be abundant in natural blue light, evening lighting should be devoid of it. Views to the outside and outside-inspired interior themes connect people to nature which can significantly improve recovery from stress and mental fatigue while boosting their cognitive performance.

While nine items is a little more than most people can recall quickly, the point of the Harvard exercise was not to make a snappy list that people could quickly remember but to make a list that accurately reflects healthful buildings. Fortunately for high-performance builders and designers, PHIUS can shorten the list.

Check back later this week to see how the Harvard Healthy Nine translates to the PHIUS Phive!