photo from a recent fire-scene in Chicago

This is a really fascinating story about changing norms of “comfort” around the world:

Along with air-conditioning, globalization has also helped popularize something called Ashrae 55: a building code created by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, to determine the ideal temperature for large buildings. The standard, which has set thermostats across the globe, is hardly culture-free. It’s based on Fanger’s Comfort Equation, a mathematical model developed in Denmark and the United States in the 1960s and ’70s, which seeks to make a very specific worker comfortable: a man wearing a full business suit.

Consider the impact on office workers in hotter countries, where a thobe or a dashiki might be perfectly acceptable business attire. They might start dressing differently, which makes them less comfortable outside and at home, which in turn makes them more likely to seek out air-conditioning. It also affects women. “In spring, it’s socially expected that women will wear thinner blouses, skirts, open-toed shoes,” Mazur-Stommen says. “But the building temperature is set for men, who are assumed to be wearing long-sleeved shirts and closed-toed shoes year-round. If everyone just dressed appropriately for the weather, we wouldn’t have to heat or cool the building as much.”

Maybe this explains why my office is cold year-round, and why I am particularly aware of that fact in warm weather, when I’m likely to be in shirt sleeves. I’ve been in that office for more than a dozen years now, and from very early on I have kept a sweater to wear all year round: even when it’s 95 degrees outside, my office is likely to be chilly. (Sometimes in lieu of the sweater I open a window and let the hot air in.)

There are several interesting points to note about this story. The first is that the most technologically advanced societies — the ones whose technologies then get sold to or adopted by the rest of the world — are the ones who set the standards that everyone else is supposed to live by. (More particularly, a certain rather small group of people within those societies make the decisions for everyone else.)

The second is that there is a “standard”: that “comfortable temperature” is not to be established by the preferences of the people who have to work in any given building, but by people who may live thousands of miles away, and who may have lived decades in the past. I can’t do anything to affect the temperature in my office, even though I am its only occupant and have been so for years.

The third is that the forcible implementation of such a standard around the world may well increase rather than lower costs. No doubt all such bureaucratized, rationalized rules are inevitably implemented in the name of “efficiency.” But names can be misleading, that one more than most.