By Shannon Kaplan, P.E., LC, LEED AP
From the June 2017 Issue
When it comes to green buildings, designers and builders have made great progress in recent decades. The mainstream now accepts the notion that reducing energy use is a fundamental goal, not the focus of a few tree huggers. Many building owners seek green building status validation through various certification programs as a matter of branding and a marketing advantage. And for others saving money on energy is the primary goal—one that buildings too often fail to reach. Given the time, effort, and skill put toward making energy efficient buildings, why haven’t these facilities always saved as much energy as was predicted? The answer is as simple as it is challenging: it’s the way occupants behave.
How Energy Efficient Is The Building?
Typically, the process of making an energy efficient building focuses on using design to improve energy performance. Whether addressing the building envelope or systems, using passive strategies, or incorporating energy from renewable sources, the approach involves creating a set of design options that are modeled to understand the potential energy savings, and the selected design strategies are then constructed. Rarely, if ever, do these carefully designed and executed strategies take into account factors other than those conceived by the design and executed by the construction team. The result? Too often, the calculated energy savings fail to materialize, and owners are left to wonder what went wrong.
Theoretical energy savings have become a common benchmark and count as a means of proving energy efficiency in green building certification in such programs as the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for New Construction. If the building underperforms and uses more energy than predicted, there is no “green certified building” penalty; only the owner’s wallet suffers when energy costs are higher than anticipated.
Many in the green building community have scrutinized this flaw in the system. The solution has been to prove the predicted energy savings are real. The LEED for Existing Buildings rating system uses actual data to prove energy savings. The Net Zero Energy movement also requires proof of success in energy savings. Both of these require owners to wait at least one calendar year before being able to prove their success. With the building owners, facility managers, and design teams watching the energy usages for 365 days, the stakes feel higher, and the accuracy of the energy use predictions become critically important: if the calculations are off, the building may not meet the energy efficiency goal. Failure not only means no current certification, but also requires changes and more waiting to prove performance.
As the focus on real performance continues to grow, building owners and design teams will need to look beyond structure and systems design, which establishes the base range of energy related performance for the building, to other factors that influence where in that energy range the building will actually fall. Some of the other factors, such as weather, are out of our control and we have established normalized data as a best bet for predicting energy use. Other factors, such as building occupant choices, cannot easily be normalized and require further understanding for each building.
Occupant Engagement: What, When, and Why
Often, occupant energy impact is associated primarily with the plug-in equipment occupants bring into the building for their work. While this equipment does have an impact on total energy usage, some quantity of plug-in equipment is already factored into the energy model.
What’s often neglected is actual human behavior. Modeling software makes some limited basic assumptions about how we will behave in a building, but this by no means captures reality. There are currently no software programs that can accurately predict how each individual will behave; we can’t calculate the choices a person may make, let alone the choices of a building full of individuals.
The best strategy we have today for capturing the impact of occupants’ energy related choices is to engage with them, get to know them, and ask good questions about their decision-making. We frequently discuss some occupant choices, such as schedule, but others are not part of a typical designer-user conversation. Below are some key areas that should be discussed with occupants.
- Building Schedules: When do I come in? When do I leave? Do we have after-hours events? How many? How long? Do we work weekends? How many? What days?
- Building Temperature: What makes me comfortable? What temperature do I need? How does humidity affect me? Am I willing to wear more layers, or do I need a space heater? Am I willing to dress in short sleeves, or do I need a fan? Do I expect the building to be fully conditioned after-hours? How often do I complain about temperature? What will the building maintenance staff do to help?
- Lighting: How much light do I need? Do I need task lights? Is there too much light? If so, do I shut the blinds? If I shut the blinds, will I ever open them back up? Or do I turn off the overhead lights? Am I okay if the lights dim when there is daylight? Or will I find a way to defeat the photocell? Do I expect all lights to be on during regular hours? Do I require security night lighting? Am I okay with occupancy sensors? Or do those bother me, because the lights aren’t always on?
- Equipment: Did we purchase Energy Star equipment? Am I okay with sharing equipment—printers, refrigerators, coffee makers, and such, or do I want my own? How often do I use the equipment? Do I let it go into sleep mode? Is it okay if the equipment were fully shut off at night? Do I ever turn my computer and monitor off at night? Is it okay with the IT department if I did, or do they run updates at night?
Even if you asked every single one of these questions, you’d likely find that you still don’t have a complete picture of how facility occupants will impact energy.
First, each occupant will provide different answers so you’ll be generating a range with some spikes of most frequent answers. Second, these are all general questions, and occupants and departments likely have distinct behaviors or energy uses that you’ll need to uncover. Third, the information you collect will never represent an absolute. Not every answer is data-driven; people respond emotionally as much as rationally. Consider how you might feel started grilling you about what you do in your office, and how and why. Your reactions might range from curious to flustered to irritated. Moreover, responses may depend on the particular, not the general: “If I have a doctor’s appointment, I come in later than usual” or “When we have a deadline, I might be in the office until 10 or 11 at night.”
People Are The Problem, And The Solution
It isn’t enough just to understand the choices occupants make and incorporate those into an energy prediction model. The aim is to improve their actions, and guide them toward energy saving choices. It is easy to assume that if you tell someone to do something differently because you think it is better, they will automatically see your logic, agree, and change their behavior. But you cannot control that individual’s decisions.
Change is hard. Change is also personal. As a designer, building owner, or facility manager, we can explain and extoll the ways in which occupants can help save energy, but that doesn’t mean the information has reached them at a personal level.
Making things easy doesn’t always work either. Many times, buildings are designed with sophisticated automatic building control systems that help save energy. You can explain how the system works and how much energy it saves, but the occupants are ultimately influenced by opinions, beliefs, and habits. If they don’t like the automatic system, they will find a way to defeat it.
In order to engage building occupants effectively, you need to be aware of—even self-conscious about—what you are doing and its impact on others. Test methods and approach in advance. It can be as putting yourself in the occupant’s shoes. If that doesn’t come easily, try role-playing with a colleague and then ask if your questions made sense and how these made that other person feel. Such tests are never foolproof, but they can go a long way toward making interaction with occupants a positive experience.
Before pressing for the opportunity to engage building occupants in energy conservation, consider these basic steps.
Plan. Know who you want to talk to, how often, and what you will talk about.
Educate. Do not assume occupants know the goals of the project or are familiar with the language of building design and energy efficiency. A brief overview can go a long way to help them understand how they can help accomplish the project’s objectives.
Ask for their help. Your goal is to partner with occupants, not to tell them what to do. Invite them to help you meet sustainability goals. Ask for their ideas. You may have some suggestions for improvement, but they will likely have great ones, too. They will be more motivated to follow through on ideas they came up with so let them give ideas, and then add any ideas they may have missed.
Listen. They know themselves, their spaces, and their needs. Listen actively and be curious, asking them questions about what they do and why.
Recognize. Make sure you give them recognition for their input and efforts. Let everyone, especially leadership, know who helped. The key to success is positive encouragement. Let them know their voice matters and their input is helpful.
Follow up. Make sure to follow up and show where their input influenced the design and resulted in changes. If you asked for ways to save energy, send the group an update showing the potential energy saving impact of their idea. Make them feel that they are part of the team and show them that their input counts. This will help them believe that it is really important for them to hold up their side of the partnership.
If your ultimate goal is to reduce energy use, a large part of the strategy must be to change the behavior of building’s occupants. That’s difficult and time consuming, and occasionally it may feel like you are making little to no progress. But with planning and patience you can, in fact, influence an important part of the building’s culture and the end results can save more energy (and more money) than expected.
Kaplan is a project manager at AKF Group and In-Posse, AKF’s High Performance Building Lab. AKF is a full-service consulting engineering firm serving public and private sector clients across the United States and around the world. Kaplan specializes in net zero energy design and building occupant engagement. She has worked with multiple teams across different building types to help them identify ways the occupants can save energy with a focus on making those changes lasting new habits.
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