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.


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