Why green building design is failing the people test

14 Mar 2015 by Fabian

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I recently read an interesting article in FM Magazine on how environmental attitudes and occupant expectations influence thermal comfort: Green occupants for green buildings: The missing link?. The article was based on research by Max Deuble and made the point that ultimately the performance of green buildings is determined by their occupants.

The opportunity and challenge of natural ventilation

Natural Ventilation in a Green Building

Natural ventilation

While Green Buildings have many characteristics, one key idea is to make more use of natural ventilation. This reduces energy use, and can enhance the indoor environment, and consequently the health and well being of the building’s occupants.

However, as the article notes, post-occupancy surveys of buildings with these ventilation systems frequently find that occupants do not understand how to operate their building, which can lead to discontent and underperformance. In fact these buildings can be warmer in summer and cooler in winter, with more noise and more glare.

These buildings are failing the people test. The article goes on to say that:

“There are many reasons why buildings don’t perform as well as expected; however, the hardest-to-manage reason for longer-term performance gaps is the way people behave
 in their buildings. Individual occupants and 
the choices they make – such as opening or closing windows, overriding automated systems or leaving appliances on – directly affect the building’s energy performance.”

Mixed Mode Ventilation Control Panel

Mixed Mode Ventilation Control Panel

You can understand the challenges, when you consider the kind of “user interfaces” these buildings offer their occupants (and I use the term loosely). If you can’t read the instructions on the panel they say:

“Green Light: Indicates that the outdoor conditions permit the windows to be open. If occupant wants to open windows then follow procedures below: (1) Turn AC unit off by turning the AC switch in the adjoining panel to ‘off’ position; (2) Open the window. Red Light: Indicates the window should be closed …” Etc.

So yes in theory this could work, but with five different status lights, tiny instructions on a metal plate, the Building User Guide probably sitting in a filing cabinet in the building manager’s office, its easy to see why post-occupancy surveys report the outcomes they do.

One of the key points of the article is that when building occupants are properly engaged, when they are ‘green occupants’, then they are willing to overlook and forgive less-than-ideal conditions. Obtaining this ‘forgiveness factor’ is one of the secrets of a really high-performance building that doesn’t have to pour energy into maintaining temperatures within very tight tolerances, in opposition to what’s going on in the outside natural environment.

Our experience with natural ventilation

While our Greensense Perth Office wasn’t originally designed with natural ventilation in mind, it happens that we do have easy access to the manual controls to the air-handling systems for our office, and we do have a big set of double doors we can open up to a quiet, shady, tree lined street.

We’re also lucky to have a very engaged team, and so every day this summer, the first person into the office opens up the doors, and many days, we don’t have to seal up the office and switch over to artificial cooling until midday. The team also has access to a big display screen with real-time feedback on energy use and temperature in the office, which really helps.

A big part of our business is helping our clients to engage with their building occupants and three of our most recent projects have been on buildings that make some use of natural ventilation, like the first 6-star Green Star Public Building in Western Australia.

Another great 6-star example is Melbourne University’s new Architecture Building. Here we  integrated with the Building Management System, and we provide occupants with real-time feedback through large format display screens with customised interactive graphics and messaging, like the slide below on ‘Heating and Cooling’.

Natural Ventilation at Melbourne University

Natural Ventilation at Melbourne University

The future of building user interfaces

Modern building design needs to engage people. Green buildings need green occupants who relate to the buildings they occupy. Green occupants are engaged, educated, and empowered; and who make appropriate and intelligent choices when interacting with the buildings’ systems.

This need extends well beyond natural ventilation and includes:

  • using window blinds to take advantage of natural light (or screen out glare);
  • using internal stairs to move through the building;
  • using end-of-ride facilities and adjacent public transport facilities;
  • using video-conferencing and telepresence facilities;
  • switching off computers and other appliances when they aren’t in use;
  • disposing of waste using recycling facilities;
  • accommodating variations in indoor temperature; and, on and on it goes.

So I hope you agree that better buildings need better user interfaces to pass the people test. Green building’s need to talk to their occupants and build a relationship. They need to make use of modern communication channels like digital signage and AV systems, web sites (think animated widgets embedded in corporate intranets), email and SMS, and even social media.

2 responses to “Why green building design is failing the people test”

  1. Anita Horvath says:

    I’m interested in robust sustainable design that’s fit for purpose.

    Was recently informed about a public building in Perth which may have received an award for design.
    However some years after unveiling , it needed to be shut for a given period ,as the measures used to attain energy efficiency didn’t do the required job.

    Are you please able to supply details?
    -what happened , how was it fixed, what assurances / checksandbalances are needed to ensure successful sustainable design outcomes.

    I would appreciate a timely response, or referral to other websites.

    • Fabian says:

      I don’t know what happened with that specific building. I would say that its important that the ESD Consultant is involved in commissioning and continues to be actively engaged through the due diligence period, and that there is a good solution in place for ongoing operational monitoring and management. Its very important that ESD Design isn’t just about documentation and certification during the design phase, but, as you say, is about getting the right outcomes.

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