American office buildings have a reputation for being astonishingly cold. The reason for this might be because male employees often wear non-breathable suits at the office and are therefore perfectly happy to have the A/C unit blasting. In addition to the problem of comfort, this incessant need for chilly air results in high cooling bills and a huge waste of energy.
Shockingly, buildings like offices consume 40% of the world’s energy. Half of that 40% is attributed to heating and cooling. Although this largely western problem could be helped by switching to a high-efficiency air conditioner in your office or home (which can reduce energy use for cooling by 20-50%), making that change isn’t always an option — and even if it is, there’s a need for more to be done.
That’s why researchers are now starting to study how the use of non-western clothing can help to reduce the need for excessive cooling. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers already sets insulation standards for articles of clothing often worn here. But ASHRAE had an idea that non-western clothing might help office buildings save money and energy. Environmental ergonomist George Havenith was charged with assigning values of insulation (and therefore, energy efficiency) to pieces of clothing not commonly worn in offices here in the U.S., like saris and hijabs.
The regional clothing articles studied included pieces from Africa, India, Pakistan, China, and Indonesia. Researchers used special thermal mannequins to measure the amount of insulation the clothing provided. One of the key indicators of temperature consistency and breathability was how well sweat evaporated off of the clothing. The less insulation the clothes provided, the more energy the people wearing them would need to use in order to maintain a certain temperature.
The researchers found the insulation values for 52 different outfits. The outfits ranged from typical business casual to silk gowns more suited to dressy events. Although some would not be appropriate for an American office environment, this experiment has led to a much-needed look at the developing world for further insulation research.
It may take a miracle for western businessmen to abandon their three-piece suits for loose-fitting Indonesian clothing, but the study does offer hope that we can offset an energy crisis with a little creative thinking — and a change of clothes.