There are opportunities for changeBut the processes we just outlined also offer easy opportunities for improvement. Change the default so that engineers and architects are offered a more responsible choice.We thought about this when we saw the major climate policy initiative announced by President Obama on Monday, August 3. The president’s Clean Power Plan rule for the first time puts federal limits on the amount of carbon that power plants can dump into the air. States get a lot of flexibility to consider and adopt a variety of approaches and measures that work best under their individual circumstances. The plan encourages invention.We expect the best minds among us to take up this challenge. Likely their first thoughts will be to ramp up and improve alternative energy. We will see technological advances — more efficient appliances, for example, and rapidly improving battery storage for those sunless and windless days.But what about some of the obvious energy efficiency treasures hiding in plain sight? ASHRAE 55-2010 is exhibit #1. We have several suggestions.First, what if the design community or municipal building codes got rid of ASHRAE 55-2010? What if they adopted a much more efficient and demographically up-to-date standard as the default standard for designers and builders? Move away from an outdated default that makes wrong assumptions about the composition of the workforce, how it dresses (it’s not Mad Men sharkskin suits anymore) and energy costs.Builders could always decide not to use the new standard, but solid research tells us that they are more likely to go with the new suggestion.In fact, what if we collectively took a look at the entire process for designing and building infrastructure and elevated the most efficient choices to be the first or default choices? That brings us to our second point.A nudge in the right direction can go a long way in an industry overloaded with product and design choices. Simply moving the most efficient products to the top of the list could have dramatic results and is relatively easy to do. RELATED ARTICLESWhat is Comfort?Nuggets From the 2015 Westford Symposium [Editor’s note: In response to a variety of articles on this topic, ASHRAE issued a statement that said in part, “Earlier this week, research that looks at the method used to determine thermal comfort in Standard 55 was published via an article, ‘Energy Consumption in Buildings and Female Thermal Demand,’ in Nature Climate Change. The research looks at the method used to determine thermal comfort in ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 55. ‘The interpretation of the authors regarding the basis for Standard 55 is not correct,’ Bjarne Olesen, Ph.D., a member of the ASHRAE Board of Directors, internationally renowned thermal comfort research and former chair of the Standard 55 committee, said. ‘The part of the standard they are referring to is the use of the PMV/PPD index. This method is taken from an ISO/EN standard 7730, which has existed since 1982. The basic research for establishing comfort criteria for the indoor environment was made with more than 1,000 subjects with equal amount of women and men. In the main studies, where they did the same sedentary work and wore the same type of clothing, there were no differences between the preferred temperature for men and women.’”] A behavioral scientist, or anyone who has keeps a wool jacket at work in the middle of summer to counter an incredibly cold office, can tell you that the power of this recommendation is huge.The ASHRAE recommendation is a massive nudge in the wrong direction — not good for energy efficiency and perpetuates an outdated work environment. Just change the default settingsWe could build these techniques right into the computer aided design tools every engineer and architect uses. A collective look at the entire process for designing and building infrastructure reveals opportunities at each phase.Thinking about building design and efficiency in comparison to the highest performance or current industry standards, rather than just the average, could elevate new standards. The goal is that when quick decisions are made, those decisions tip toward a more efficient outcome — and fewer wool jackets in the summer.Sorting out the mystery of over-cooled American offices is not just a curiosity. Behavioral approaches, of which this is one, are appropriate tools recognized by the Clean Power Rule. If we think about how ASHRAE 55-2010 became the building standard, we have the tools for doing better in the future. Using established recommendations reduces stressUnfortunately, recommendations like ASHRAE’s are not unique. Designing a building is a complex process that requires hundreds if not thousands of decisions. The very nature of so many decisions coordinated between a team of professionals creates uncertainties in the design process.Standardized recommendations, from a respected source like ASHRAE, make designers’ choices much less stressful. Using those recommendations is easier than deeply considering, much less arguing out, the implications of each decision along the way. As a result, such recommendations are rarely scrutinized.The process is reinforced by our brains which tell us more is better — so over-designing HVAC systems seems like a perfectly rational choice.The unfortunate consequence is not only an unpleasant work environment but also frustration and bad outcomes for the fight against climate change. Defaults such as these make future efficiency improvements harder to achieve because once a building is built, we are stuck with the design for decades, at least. Last Monday, scientists in the journal Nature Climate Change answered a nagging concern of practically everyone we know: why are offices and buildings so ridiculously over-air conditioned? The article reports the design of office buildings incorporates a decades-old formula, a significant part of which is based on the metabolic rates of the average man.In other words, buildings are constructed so that a man weighing about 154 pounds feels comfortable while he is doing a desk job. This goes far beyond setting thermostats — that would make it easy to fix.It does involve permanent building choices such as equipment much bigger than needed. As the study’s authors point out, over-designed systems lead to the very noticeable over-cooled result.To be fair, if you read the references to the article, the guiding standard, ASHRAE 55-2010, (ASHRAE: American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers) does not force anyone to plug a certain metabolic rate into the equation. It simply recommends values. It became the default standard for construction. Ruth Greenspan is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a research associate at the Columbia Business School. Tripp Shealy is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. This blog was originally posted at The Daily Climate.