Thermal comfort, or satisfaction with the thermal environment, is significantly influenced by expectations and behaviour and not solely by the extent of exposure to heat or cold. Personal preferences and beliefs, diurnal and seasonal characteristics, as well as building design, have a significant impact on how people ‘feel’. The decreasing acceptance of, and tolerance to heat, has been partially fuelled by decades of aspirational marketing by the heating, ventilation, and air- conditioning (HVAC) industry. Temperature-controlled environments have transformed how various societies perceive and describe what they have always known and loved, and what makes life possible – heat.
Malayalam has many words that convey a person’s sensitivity to environmental stimuli. Acclimatization is suggested by local cultural linguistics. People living in Kerala’s coastal regions are, understandably, more tolerant of higher temperatures than those residing in the state’s highlands. The phrase transliterated in English as ‘Choodu edukunnu’ (taking heat), has a positive connotation, with the verb ‘take’ conveying acceptance of heat. On the other hand, ‘thannuppu adikkunnu’ (cold is hitting/beating) has a negative connotation, as it conveys agony. ‘Mazha/ mannj/ veyil kondu’ – Rain, mist, and sunlight are said to ‘poke’ a person. Poking, a sensation that can turn negative with greater frequency or intensity, accurately characterizes how the inhabitants of coastal Kerala feel when exposed to these natural elements for a longer duration.
A change in thermal culture as a result of rapid urbanization can translate to greater adoption of non-native architectural and clothing styles that are climatically inappropriate. Societal norms that call for multi-layered clothing in warm and humid regions, and corporate culture which prioritizes its ‘dress code’ over common sense further reduce thermal comfort.
People’s ability to control building envelope devices such as doors and windows has a significant impact on energy flows and air change rates. Their adaptation mechanisms to indoor environments have a long-term impact on building energy performance and environmental quality. Restriction of this freedom, however, would be counter-productive because people who control their indoor environment, generally experience far fewer symptoms of sick building syndrome (SBS), such as migraines and respiratory issues, caused by poor lighting and inadequate ventilation.
Building information that can encourage positive environmental behaviour can be communicated passively, by design, or actively, by the user interface or signage. Automated control systems, along with a high level of occupant engagement and responsibility can successfully reduce the building’s overall environmental footprint, but it is crucial to decide to what extent and where the control resides – with automated systems or people.
Socio-technological improvements, such as the use of demand-side control technologies, along with positive behavioural change and feedback are necessary for sustained change. Positive behavioural changes can be fostered by instilling more realistic expectations of a comfortable temperature range that aligns with the local environment. Even in sustainable and high-efficiency buildings, timely feedback that can be addressed with practical responses can help to boost energy efficiency gains. Only by integrating the physical and social sciences and conducting both an objective and subjective analysis of occupant behaviour can the potential for energy efficiency at the individual and community level be understood.
(Ann Rochyne Thomas is a bio-climatic spatial planner and founder of the Centre for Climate Resilience – a sustainability and climate change advisory.)