Thermal Comfort

Nowadays, you can see sustainable buildings and green design solutions everywhere. But what does it actually mean?  Is a so called sustainable home automatically environmentally friendly?  How to distinguish between real sustainable design and one that claims to be?


What IsThermal Comfort And Why Is It So Important For The Well-Being?

What is thermal comfort?

Human thermal comfort describes the state of mind that expresses satisfaction with the surrounding environment and refers to several conditions in which the majority of people feel comfortable. The human body produces heat depending on the level of activity, and expels heat according to the surrounding environmental conditions.

The body loses heat in three main ways:  radiation, convection and evaporation. An unpleasant sensation of being too hot or too cold (thermal discomfort) can distract people from their activities and disturb their well being. This may reduce the ability to concentrate and decrease motivation to work. Thermal comfort is affected by six variable factors which are needed to maintain a healthy balance in order to sustain satisfaction with the surrounding environment.

1) Air Temperature is the most common measure of thermal comfort and can easily be influenced with passive and mechanical heating and cooling.

2) Mean Radiant Temperature is the weighted average temperature of all exposed surfaces in a room. The greater the difference between air temperature and exposed surfaces, the greater the Relative Air Velocity.

3) Relative Air Velocity (‘wind chill factor’) is the apparent temperature felt on exposed skin due to wind.  For example, if cold air is leaking in from a window, the air temperature feels lower than the actual air temperature, hence the increased likelihood of feeling cold, even when the heater is on.

4) Humidity or relative humidity is the moisture content of the air. If the humidity is above 70% or below 30% it may cause discomfort.

5) Activity Levels can reduce the heating needs, as lower air temperature is acceptable when occupants have higher activity levels.

6) Thermal Resistance of clothing or warm blankets in a bedroom can reduce the need of heating.

Building design is affected by the first four of these thermal comfort variables. The last two depend on the action and behaviour of the occupants.

What factors are influencing  thermal comfort ?
If the insulation applied is faulty or insufficient, the exposed surfaces in a room will stay significantly colder in winter or hotter in summer than the room temperature. Although the heater pumps hot air into a room, or the air-conditioning blows cool air, the thermal radiation will affect the equilibrium. The Mean Radiant Temperature is affected negatively and the occupants won’t feel comfortable.

  • The ceiling isn’t insulated or the insulation is penetrated for example because of the installation of down light. As warm air is always moving upwards, heat is lost to the cooler air in the roof space.
  • Air leakage around doors, windows, down lights, pipes, and other wall penetrations are exceeding the acceptable Relative Air Velocity.
  • Wrong application of thermal mass can influence the Mean Radiant Temperature and can therefore increase the need of mechanic heating and cooling.
  • Under- performing windows and doors (when air is able to leak in/out of poor fitting doors and windows) are also influencing the Mean Radiant Temperature and the Relative Air Velocity.

When it comes to comfort, the perception of temperature is more important than the temperature itself. For a person to feel comfortable, the difference of temperature between the head and the feet should not exceed 2.5 degrees. This demonstrates the importance of floor insulation and this explains why we usually feel more comfortable standing barefoot on carpet than on tiles.

Energy Ratings In Australia And Overseas
In Australia, energy rating assessments are done pre-construction, assuming competent application of all insulation and building materials. However, common construction practices often demonstrate misapplications and air leakages. In Europe, energy efficiency is most often assessed or checked post construction, with special attention to the prevention of thermal bridges. Some countries require airtight buildings, and amongst other things, double glazing, solar energy for hot water and heating systems, the usage of storm water, greywater recycling, recycled materials and product life cycle considerations to minimise energy demand and carbon footprint.

Well performing insulation and building materials is not a guarantee for well performing homes. The building envelope needs to be treated as a delicate continuous shell. Each small gap and leakage will impair the energy efficiency and the well being of the occupants. It is essential to consider the end product in order to determine how energy efficient a building really is.

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