The human side of buildings needs to come first off National Energy Efficiency conference

We humans are such variable and fickle creatures. Turns out we’re not that fussed about “perfect” indoor air quality, what we want is agency – to have some control over our environments. Two global experts at the National Energy Efficiency Conference on 19 and 20 November will shine a spotlight on new findings about how humans respond to indoor air quality and “comfort” and health.

For years engineers and designers have sought to create the perfectly “intelligent” building with “perfect” indoor air quality that can be finessed to stable temperatures and the highest level of energy efficiency. Only to find unhappy occupants.

Trouble is they forgot to ask the people in the buildings what they wanted and how they might respond. 

According to two leaders who study the human side of creating great buildings, Professor Liam O’Brien from Carleton University at Ottawa in Canada and Dr Dominque Hes from University of Melbourne, occupant behaviour needs to better inform design, not the other way around.

O’Brien is currently leading a task force of about 50 international experts trying to crack open the conundrum of what makes people happy in their environments.

It’s a time when there are big shifts under way in demands for better buildings. Even the residential sector is finally coming in for attention with NABERS ratings expanding into apartments.

But what’s the nexus between lower energy consumption and comfort? While residential occupants will welcome the slashing of bills that can typically reach $1000 to $1500 a quarter in some residences, in offices comfort is critical.

According to O’Brien some interesting issues have emerged in recent times.

It’s simple, says O’Brien, “most building designers don’t know how to design for people”. 

For instance, “there tends to be an assumption that people are very robotic, for example, if the lighting goes below a certain level they will turn on the light. And we tend to assume that building are either full or empty so we can either heat or cool buildings when they’re full.”

“The reality is more complicated; buildings can be partially full.

“Designers assume we can provide people with perfect conditions – 23 degree Celsius – but in fact people prefer a diversity of conditions. Some might be very active and have a high metabolic rate and might want things cooler.”

Professor Liam O’Brien, Carleton University at Ottawa in Canada

How you deal with this is to provide some opportunity for people to adapt to their preferred condition. 

“The old way of doing things is to control the air temperature [in the process taking control way form people], but now we know for the past few decades that if you give people control they are more tolerant.”

At home, they might open the window and even if the improvement in temperature is slight, they won’t mind that it’s not perfect.

Another complication – and potential solution – is that our perceptions of air temperatures and surface temperatures are different and the latter can strongly influence our responses. For example, we can make the ceiling feel colder or the floor warmer. We can warm up the temperature of the desk.

“Now there are chairs that can be warmed,” O’Brien says.

And perceptions can influence experience.

“Traditionally we’ve been looking at different forms of comfort – thermal, visual and acoustic and these can be seen as quite different (and sometimes contradictory),” he says. But maybe they have more in common than we think; and are more connected.

For instance, if it’s hot you might be able to open a window only to find the noise from the street makes the acoustics uncomfortable. 

So one form of comfort brings on discomfort in another way.

And this is fascinating: visual signals can trigger felt responses. 

“We’re now realising that if people feel very warm they prefer darker conditions.” 

So there’s a growing recognition that comfort needs to be viewed holistically. In other words, there is the physical experience of temperatures and also the psychology of perceptions.

The task force that O’Brien is working on is a collaboration of engineers, psychologists and designers and it’s “looking at people’s behaviour in buildings”.

“There’s no question I would say that in the past few years engineers are accepting we need some help. Even as simple as how to design a survey to ask the right questions.”

Dominque Hes, director of the Thrive research Hub at the University of Melbourne, says the shift in emphasis from sustainability to healthy workplaces is evidence of change in thinking about the workplace.

“We often talk about comfort in the workplace as if it’s synonymous with healthy,” she says. “But it’s not.”

“Think about going for a run: it’s not comfortable but it’s healthy”, she says.

Likewise having a uniform environment of 21 degrees might be comfortable but it might not be healthy.

Having control over your environment is possibly more important.

“If you feel like you have agency means you have both the right and the responsibility to engage with that space.

Dr Dominque Hes, University of Melbourne

“There’s a big difference between how people manage their homes and their workspaces and the main reason is they have more agency at home. They know what the bills are and are able to open the doors and curtains, but if everything is three steps removed you feel you don’t have the right to open and close windows and if you’re in a spot that’s too cold you end up wearing too many layers.”

So how do we create the agency that enables people to better control their comfort levels and health?

Some clues emerged during a PhD research project by Kathryn Lucas-Healey, which was supervised by Hes. Key ideas to keep front of mind include for designers to:

  • provide the means for people to adapt their environment to their needs and the social conditions for this to occur
  • reflect on the social reasons why someone might (or might not) open a window or door, adjust airconditioning and so on and avoid basing design on assumptions that conflict with these
  • Make sure the design aesthetic signals that it is okay to interact with this building

The PhD thesis (2017) was entitled, Thermal comfort in context: the social construction of comfort in mixed mode offices in warm humid Australia, School of Architecture, The University of Queensland.

Hes says the emergence of the Well standard and the 85 or so buildings that have been certified to date in Australia is evidence that the market is starting to value the health and well being of occupants as something that needs to be incorporated into the search for excellence of building design.

The shift is starting to support a cross disciplinary focus.

“We’ve done all the easy energy efficiency things to get to the real quantum of improvement in performance and it’s now a more complex conversation; that’s why we’re shifting from sustainability to wellness.”

For the market to move further, Hes says, we need architectural education to move away from a focus on the hero architect to a more holistic approach that recognises the complexity of the built environment rather than a tendency to preference a building’s aesthetic appeal. 

And the way people use buildings needs to be better understood and incorporated in design as well. 

Remember, Hes says, that a bad building with good people will outperform a good building with bad people, every time.

The National Energy Efficiency Conference will take place at Sofitel Sydney Wentworth on 19-20 November 2018. See website for more details.

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