Fact: The average high temperature in Washington in the summer months lurks in the upper 80s.
Fact: The average temperature in a Washington office is hypothermic tundra.
“I do two sweaters,” explains Sarah Clemons, an intern at a District public relations firm. “One for my shoulders, and one to drape over my knees,” especially when she’s wearing a skirt.
Dual sweaters. Her co-worker Paige Pescatore nods approvingly. The dual sweater strategy is a solution well-known to the women of the office environment — it’s a cousin of the pashmina-mummy strategy, one step away from the fingerless-gloves method, an unorthodox technique both beloved and reviled for its Dickensian overtones.
By the end of the week, Clemons has accumulated four or five sweaters at her office. Friday is duffel day, in which the accumulated sweaters of the office must be herded together for their reverse migratory journey back home.
Fact: It is possible to need more outerwear for a D.C. summer than it is for a D.C. winter, especially if you walk to work and employ the “changing of the cardigan” approach, once you have wiped the sweat-ice from the nape of your neck.
Sweat Ice [Swet Ahys] noun: The cold, filmy layer that appears on one’s skin when one lives in Logan Circle, walks to work near Metro Center and ascends to an environment whose thermometer is presided over by the White Witch from “The Chronicles of Narnia.” (Turkish Delight? None for you. Only numbness in your extremities).
A productivity boost
The blessing of modern air conditioning was bestowed upon us 110 years ago this summer by Willis Haviland Carrier, a young Buffalo native with a prominent nose on a handsome face. Carrier worked for a heating company in Upstate New York, and in 1902, was tasked with devising a solution for a printing company whose equipment was going haywire because of the summer humidity. His proposal involved fans, coils and coolants, and it worked.
His invention spread widely to movie theaters, but it took nearly half a century for air conditioning to reach workplaces. In pre-World War II architecture, buildings were designed so that every room got a window, air and light. This led to sprawling structures that took up a lot of land and cost a lot of money, which was impractical in urban areas like Washington. It would have been much more economical to put workers in giant block buildings, except, of course, that the buildings would be dark, sticky hellholes.
Enter air conditioning, says Gail Cooper, a Lehigh University historian who wrote “Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment.”
“Air conditioning and fluorescent lights made block buildings possible,” she says.
Really. You shouldn’t have.
What’s interesting about the introduction of air conditioning in the workspace, Cooper says, is that the development was tied as much to architectural design — making square, cheap buildings practical — as it was to climate. It was hard, at first, to sell employers on the notion that their workers deserved to be comfortable during the day, so air-conditioning companies tried to frame it as a productivity issue.
And productivity was an issue. As the implementers of incremental process, the federal government had contrived a mathematical formula to determine whether it was too hot for its employees to work. When the outside temperature plus 20 percent of the humidity reached 100, workers would be sent home — a sort of reverse snow day policy that could have drastic effects in a place like Washington. In 1953, the city slogged through a week-long heat wave that resulted in illnesses, heat stroke and at least 26,284 federal workers being sent home.
In 1956, the General Services Administration got a large appropriation to retrofit all federal buildings with air conditioning. A quarter of that went to buildings in Washington.
Salvation had come to the city.
‘A matter of poor science’
And then hell froze over.
“My colleague does the fingerless gloves,” says Elisa Ranck, who works in public health in the District. “She’s excited because now they’re easier to find” year-round, what with everyone’s fingers tapping on smartphones.
Her colleague is a woman. While it would be a stretch to say that all frozen office workers are women, please feel free to count how many of the summer cocoa-clutchers in your office are men. None. There will be exactly no men, swaddled as they are in the suits and the neckties and the socks. There will be at least two women, and one who keeps an electric kettle at her desk along with several packets of Earl Grey.
And yet, recommended office temperatures do not seem overly extreme. In 2009, the GSA came out with several recommendations for saving energy and boosting performance in office buildings. The GSA affirmed that the optimal temperature for office spaces in summer was between 74 and 78 degrees — but that 40 percent of the buildings surveyed were keeping their temperatures lower than that, leading to 61 percent of building users feeling too cold.
The reason for the overly cold offices?
“It’s really a matter of poor science,” says Alan Hedge. Hedge directs the Human Factors and Ergonomics teaching program at Cornell University, meaning that he spends a lot of time thinking about how humans are impacted by their work environments.
The trouble with the science, Hedge says, is that early studies of thermal comfort were based on absolute data: temperature, humidity and air flow. New models take into account more relative information, like the fact that your body is constantly recalibrating itself to what it expects the temperature will be.
It turns out that thermal comfort standards shift with context, which explains why, in the winter, 74 degrees would feel tropical, but in the summer it can feel downright nippy.
When Hedge and his colleagues have done studies, they have determined — not surprisingly — that people’s views of a comfortable temperature vary wildly. But in general, people tended to be more productive when it was a bit warmer — an average of 76 degrees.
If it’s much colder than that — well. Hedge remembers reading a study. It came out of Denver, he thinks. It was about the sales of space heaters. The peak time for space heater purchases came during the summer.
“I have a space heater,” says Maura James. James works for an international nonprofit in Washington. She was eating lunch in Farragut Square on a recent weekday afternoon and talking about cold offices with her friend Katelynd Mahoney. “Not in the winter. Just in the summer.” James didn’t always use a space heater; she used to come to work wearing thick tights — in August! — because it was the only way to protect herself from the dread goosebump legs. Then she mentioned the problem to another woman in her office.
“Some of us have space heaters,” the other woman revealed. “Talk to the supply guy.”
The space heater was a genius solution, tucked under her desk, keeping her warm.
It was not, however, as genius as the solution devised by the workers in Mahoney’s office: Snuggies
“It was gifted to me,” explains Mahoney, by a colleague who was leaving. A few of her coworkers have them; it’s an office bonding thing. “In our conference room this morning, we had to break out the Snuggies.”
What air conditioning has come to represent in modern society is our complete dominion over the natural world — our ability to laugh in the face of humidity, to settle previously uninhabitable lands, to be masters of our own universes. Air conditioning and the space program are perhaps humanity’s two greatest assertions that the laws of the natural world no longer apply to them.
Yet somehow we have still ended up sitting around a table wearing giant felt wizard costumes.
Japan went a different route, with its campaign called Cool Biz. Launched by the government in 2005, it pushes businesses to set thermostats to 82 degrees in the summer, and encourages employees to dress casually and coolly. It was very confusing for buttoned-up Japan, but summer necktie sales dropped by a third. South Korea and Great Britain have since launched their own campaigns.
The United States might get there, eventually. But for now we shall remain the land of the freezed and the home of the brave, perfectly comfy in six or seven layers.
Come on in. The weather’s fine.