Thomas Parkinson

Interview with Thomas Parkinson: Getting Comfortable at Berkeley

This spring CBE’s research team was joined by post-doctoral researcher Thomas Parkinson, a leading expert on thermal perception in dynamic environments. Thomas earned his Ph.D. at the University of Sydney where he studied with long-standing CBE research collaborator Prof. Richard de Dear. He later became a lecturer there until his journey east to UC Berkeley. In this post we learn about Thomas’ plans and experiences so far with CBE. 

Why should people care about thermal comfort?

I take the approach that people don’t have to care about thermal comfort. If everything is fine, most people will not think about it much. But in our current practice of conditioning buildings there are connections to larger issues, such as energy and climate change, that perhaps many people don’t think about.

How did you get into this field?

My undergraduate studies were in environmental science, and I came out of that feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges of climate change. It’s a global issue and very complex, with many players involved. Building energy use is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas, and the provision of thermal comfort is one of the largest end uses of energy consumption in the built environment. This was a way for me to slice up the problem of climate change into something I could take on and contribute to. But I should add that I am also interested in the fundamentals of comfort phenomenology, and understanding the affective component of thermal comfort and architecture.

What drew you to CBE?

Really for two main reasons. First, to spend time overseas, but mainly because this research group has an incredible history of contributions to the research field, and the overall ethos aligns with my own. There are certain groups in the field that push a particular idea or concept, and I felt intellectually and philosophically closest to this group. Also I had heard from my supervisor, Richard de Dear, that the workplace culture here is very collegial and supportive, and one I could learn from.

What is this philosophical concept that is close to you?

There are two main camps in this field. One is the ‘PMV’ deterministic engineering approach to understanding thermal comfort. The other camp is more humanistic, concerned with the phenomenologies and the architectural aspects as well as the engineering. I just think there is more for me on that side, which is closer to the CBE approach.

What are your goals for working with this group?

When I interviewed for my position I asked whether there was a current project I would work on. The answer was no, which appealed to me. This group is so active and dynamic, so my short term goal was to just be integrated into the work and see what projects I could contribute to. There is no shortage of good ideas on offer here. This was a chance for me to get plugged into the ideas and projects floating around.

This is a fairly technical topic, how to explain to people what you do?

Unless people are proficient in engineering, they don’t care about the technicalities of it. I take a humanistic approach, I talk about what I do in a way they can understand. This is the fantastic thing about what we do, we experience these things every day. Some people are more attuned than others, but generally people understand thermal comfort and how architecture can impact that.

Who are the intended recipients of this research?

I hope the recipients are spread equally between engineers and architects, but this is not necessarily the case. When I speak to architects about it they immediately understand what I say and get the ideas being presented. What I’m presenting isn’t necessarily novel, this is what architecture has aimed to do for thousands of years. Architects have an innate understanding of these principles, but maybe they do not have the empirical evidence for it. But as scientists, we have to work on how we communicate. I approach my work from a technical angle, and architects are interested but it’s not what their core focus is.

What steps do we need to take to have a positive impact?

Again, it comes down to communication. This is not confined to our field, but to science as a whole. So much great work is being done, but scientists are not always great at communicating to people outside their community. For example, coming back to the environment, the scientific community has known for decades of the issues of climate change and other environmental issues, but it takes someone like Rachel Carson with her book Silent Spring to make people care about something. So I think that science as a whole could improve on communicating this excellent work more broadly.

Now that you have been in California for some time, what are your impressions?

Everyone is very friendly, and I think this may be because there are a lot of transplants in the Bay Area. A lot of people know what it is to move to a new place.

People in Australia are known to be friendly.

Yes, Australians are happy to have a chat, but we tend to be a bit more insular socially with our friends, so it seems easier here. People here are very gregarious.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I like to explore. One of the great qualities of the Bay Area is that there is so much on offer close by. I want to drive along Highway 1, all the way up to Seattle and down past LA. And then drive across the Southwest too. California is nice but it’s like a separate country, distinct from the rest of the U.S. I’m interested to see what’s outside of it too.