iScience, Volume 24, 20 August 2021,
Heating and cooling in buildings account for nearly 20% of energy use globally. The goal of heating and cooling systems is to maintain the thermal comfort of a building's human occupants, typically by keeping the interior air temperature at a setpoint. However, if one could maintain the occupant's thermal comfort while changing the setpoint, large energy savings are possible. Here we propose a mechanism to achieve these savings by dynamically tuning the thermal emissivity of interior building surfaces, thereby decoupling the mean radiant temperature from actual temperatures of interior surfaces. We show that, in cold weather, setting the emissivity of interior surfaces to a low value (0.1) can decrease the setpoint as much as 6.5°C from a baseline of 23°C. Conversely, in warm weather, low-emissivity interior surfaces result in a 4.5°C cooling setpoint decrease relative to high emissivity (0.9) surfaces, highlighting the need for tunable emissivity for maximal year-round efficiency.