New research out of Washington State University has found a lack of occupant education is undermining the performance of buildings designed to be energy efficient. However, in buildings with a focus on energy conservation, workers are much happier.

The research into occupant behaviour and education, published in Building and Environment, was begun by lead researcher Julia Day after she walked into an office designed for energy efficiency through daylighting, though which had the blinds shut and all the lights on.

She learned that cabinetry and systems furniture blocked nearly half of the occupants from access to the controls.

“People couldn’t turn off their lights, and that was the whole point of implementing daylighting in the first place,” she said. “The whole experience started me on my path.”

Working with WSU School of Design and Construction Professor David Gunderson, Dr Day looked at more than 50 high-performance buildings across the US.

She examined if and how people were being trained, and the training’s level of effectiveness. In many cases, building features were simply mentioned in a meeting or email, and people were largely unaware of how their actions could impact building performance.

In one case, a building designed to LEED Gold standard had a user notification system indicating the best time to engage natural ventilation, with a green light meaning windows should be opened.

“I asked 15 people if they knew what the light meant, and they all thought it was part of the fire alarm system,’’ she said. “There’s a gap, and people do not really understand these buildings.’’

Dr Day found that making the best use of a high-performance building meant creating a culture focused on conservation, with the research showing that in buildings with an energy-focused culture, workers were more engaged, participatory and satisfied with their building environment.

“If they received good training, they were more satisfied and happier with their work environment,’’ she said.

Dr Day is now working to develop occupant training programs that take advantage of high-performance buildings.

“With stricter energy codes, the expectations are that buildings will be more energy efficient and sustainable,’’ she said. “But we have to get out of the mindset where we are not actively engaged in our environments. That shift takes a lot of education, and there is a huge gap right now.”

2 replies on “Energy efficient buildings missing key ingredient: trained occupants”

  1. Good to see this necessary part of green, low carbon buildings highlighted. It reinforces an important – no, critical – part of any movement for action: that at the end of the day it is about behaviour, and changing our behaviour patterns that do not now yield the outcomes we need.

    It is no good having the technological knowledge if we do not use it. It is no good constructing buildings designed to be responsive to daily and seasonal temperatures and the like if we do not open those vents, draw those blinds and so on. Stephen Choi has written earlier in TFE about this:

    I currently work in a building designed to work in this way. But rarely do I see anyone operating the features built-in to achieve this – barely seasonally let alone daily. Part of the reason is that there are no simple visible instructions. Another part I guess is that we have lost touch, got lazy, divorced ourselves from our environment. See also Craig Roussac’s earlier article in TFE about the same thing Airconditioning and comfort: when is too much of a good thing too much?

    There is a movement now to encourage (some Councils actually require) building managers and operators to prepare and promote “active travel plans” that inform and encourage building users and residents to walk, cycle, take public transport etc. for their own health and the health of the environment. Because it was realised that it is no good building in areas of good connectivity (as in transit-orientated development) if we still maintain old habits and just jump into our cars like we have always done.

    The designers and managers of operative and smart technology buildings need to think of and implement similar actions if we are to get the behaviour responses, the people responses, these types of buildings also rely on.

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