Occupant Behavior

November 12, 2010   |   Platinum Builders
A building can be designed to the highest possible standard of energy efficiency and sustainability, but in order to meet performance goals, it ultimately requires a commitment by the occupants. Traditionally, the effort to reduce energy consumption has focused on improving the building envelope and making our appliances more efficient. We are now seeing a push by facility managers and utilities to focus on occupant behavior.

It is possible for the occupants of a well-designed building to use a lot of energy.

“There’s no such thing as a zero-energy home – just zero energy homeowners.”

Installing low-flow faucets and water efficient fixtures sets our buildings up for incredible reductions in water consumption, but cannot deter a user from keeping the water on when they do not need it. Moreover, it is all too common to see a room being heated while the windows are open or for lights to be left on in an empty room. These are just a few examples of areas in which the user truly dictates the effectiveness of our sustainable design strategies.

So how do we increase tenant participation and compliance? Some strategies include a top down approach (support of upper management in commercial office spaces), incentives, persuasion, perhaps guilt? Ashley Halligan, a property management analyst lists five ways to “encourage behaviors that align with environmental performance goals:”

    The earlier that tenants are involved in discussions surrounding energy goals, the better. If future tenants can be brought in during the design phase, they may have a heightened feeling of responsibility.
    Do not focus solely on energy – for some people, these can be abstract ideas. “Some organizations are having success by offering holistic programs that emphasize overall health and well-being. These may include cooking classes, composting, instruction on sustainable foods and more. By establishing holistic ideals in an organization, the occupants become more likely to participate in energy-saving campaigns.”
    Some buildings, such as the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission Headquarters, utilize a Dashboard in order to engage occupants and display energy usage in real-time. This allows occupants to rally together towards collective energy saving goals or to compete against their peers. These dashboards are often visually stimulating and user-friendly and can become an attractive focal point of a lobby or building entrance. The Lucid Design Group has created a “Building Dashboard” (click here for a short video on their product) for the future that “integrates social networking, allowing a seamless connectivity to Facebook and Twitter, which makes occupancy usage accessible and publicly visible.

There is a new field of study around human-building interaction (HBI). New technologies are being developed to make our buildings and homes more user-friendly, allowing us to actually be more energy efficient when we would like to be. One such technology is the Nest Thermostat (designed by the same people that did the iPad – go figure). Watch a video about the Nest, here.

    There’s not much that’s more motivating than a little friendly competition. By implementing intelligent monitoring software, energy usage can be tracked by appliance, individual user, office, floor, etc. Tenants or companies within a building can compete against one another for lowest energy use, or whole buildings can compare their usage to others.
    “Energy usage and measurements can seem abstract. And a lack of understanding often results in a lack of interest. By making things clear, polished and simple, occupants are more likely to embrace the idea of energy conservation.” It is important to show tenants actual cost saving data – to show them what they are actually achieving through their efforts. Once a building’s occupants are educated and on board with energy use reduction, they become a valuable asset to the performance goals – 1000 pairs of eyes searching for energy inefficiencies throughout the building.

Although the effect of occupant behavior on energy consumption was documented as early as 1970 in Princeton’s Twin Rivers Project, tenant compliance is still a relatively new field in the green building world. Utilities are coming on board in an effort to reduce their cost of avoiding outages (reducing energy use is actually a cost effective strategy for them) and it is clear that more thought must be put into occupant education and awareness strategies. This new field of study will mean new job opportunities for Certified Sustainable Building Advisors as the demand increases for sustainably educated facility managers.