If you work in a modern office building, you’re probably familiar with this scenario: It’s a hot summer day outside, but as soon as you come in and sit at your desk, you’re freezing. In the winter, overactive heaters keep you too hot. The HVAC system is designed to do nothing but keep you comfortable, but it isn’t that great at doing its job, and manages to waste massive amounts of energy in the process.
An app called Comfy is trying to put temperature control back in the hands of employees. Tell the app that you’re too warm or cold, and it automatically sends a blast of air directly to your part of the office. Over time, the system learns what temperature a group of coworkers likes at a certain time of day, and it automatically adjusts.
"'I’m too hot' and 'I’m too cold' are the No. 1 and No. 2 complaints that people have about office space," says Lindsay Baker, vice president of research for Building Robotics, the Oakland-based startup making the new app. "It’s just one of those funny things. For all of the emphasis on productivity, it’s an enormously important part of keeping people comfortable at work."
As the startup has met with local tech companies that are obsessed with keeping workers happy at their desks, they've heard how temperature has been an elusive problem to solve. "They tell us they give people perks like snacks, and shuttle people back and forth, and then they walk through the office and see people huddled over their desk in fingerless gloves, wearing a blanket," Baker says.
Of course, it’s not just tech companies with the problem—for the last 50 years or so, it’s been common for office buildings to use central temperature controls, partly as an attempt at energy efficiency. If offices have thermostats, they’re often fake, so people don’t end up fighting with each other over the right setting or accidentally leaving the system on too long.
Though the new app might seem at first like it would use more energy, since any employee can trigger it to work at will, it actually can end up shaving as much as 15% to 20% off a building’s HVAC bill. That’s because the system quickly learns when people aren’t in a particular part of the building.
"If you look at a typical office building, you’ll probably find 40% to 50% empty space at any time," Baker says. "Maybe someone’s in a meeting and their office is empty, or a conference room isn’t being used, or a lobby space is empty. By conditioning those spaces less, we’re saving an enormous amount of energy."
As someone uses the app, they can also see what preferences their coworkers have. In some cases, it's helped people compromise. One man saw that a coworker had voted to make the office cooler, even though he personally thought the building was always cold. "He never thought that anyone would possibly disagree with him," Baker explains. "He realized in that moment that it might be him, it might be personal preference and not some eternal truth about the building. He started bringing in a sweater."
Over the next year or so, as Apple's new iBeacon technology makes it easier to pinpoint a person at an exact location inside the building, the app will add more features. "We’ll be able to do things with the platform—it starts to get fun and futuristic," Baker says. "You walk into an office building and your desk starts to cool down for you, your light adjusts to the level that you want it. All of that can start to happen because our phones help us keep a record of what we like."