People Power – Tips on how to deliver an occupant engagement solution in green buildings

07 Apr 2015 by Peter

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In recent years there has been an increasing trend in the green building space to actively educate and engage occupants around building performance. The idea behind this is to allow our commercial buildings to share information in a simple, easy-to-understand way that helps us all better comprehend how they work and how we should use them.  There have been a few different drivers for this, including:

  • Green building rating tools such as Green Star that give credit to projects that try to educate building users;
  • Building owners looking to showcase the cool ESD features of their new high-performance building;
  • A developing recognition within the industry that occupants are in fact a critical part of the building ecosystem and that high performance buildings will fail to achieve their design intent if occupants are not brought on the journey. See our previous post;
  • A desire by organisations to demonstrate to staff, students, customers and other stakeholders that they walk the talk; that they have an ongoing and demonstrable commitment to sustainability and to the wellbeing of the people that use their buildings.

Commonwealth Bank engaging staff at their Sydney HQ. Photo credit: Luke Hopewell

Here in Australia it has been the pursuit of Green Star points that has driven the most activity around occupant engagement and the associated development of solutions to support and enable it. Perhaps unsurprising then that it has been this same area that has contributed a good deal to the “lessons learned” for this still nascent area, with a number of projects either failing to deliver a viable solution at all, or delivering something that delivers little or no value to building users.

With that in mind I wanted to share our insights on some of the key areas to consider if you’re looking to have a go at engaging occupants in your own buildings.

1. Have a mission! Have a clear objective and make sure that it extends beyond ticking a box on a Green Star application, even it that is the initial driver. The objective might be quite specific, such as showcasing the ESD features of a new green building, or broader, such as raising the awareness of your organisation’s sustainability goals. It is important that this is well defined up front and that you have a mechanism in place to measure whether or not you’ve achieved what you set out to. A good way to do this is with a periodic survey of your staff or building visitors, easily done these days with online survey tools.

2. The A Team: Put together the right team. You’ll need different folks with different skills and, to use a sporting analogy, you’ll need to make sure everyone is playing in their best position. We often see these solutions being delivered by engineering types. Now we love engineers but they’re about the furthest thing from a typical building occupant as it’s possible to be, and so the solutions they come up with are often far too technical and plain. Remember that the best way to communicate is through the heart, not the head.

So, who should be in your dream team?

  • A Sponsor – The main man/lady; the person who is going to make it all happen, pay the bill and bang heads together when needed. Note: there is sometimes a bit of politics involved in these projects between building owners, managers, builders, sub contractors, ESD engineers etc, so be ready!
  • Project Manager – to herd the cats.
  • The Engineers – you will need some help to access your building data and this is where the engineers will be useful. Please don’t let them anywhere near the user interface though!
  • The Creative Guys – You need to be able to take what can be quite dry and uninspiring building data and present it in a visually engaging and intuitive way, so make sure you have some creative talent on the team.

3. Know your audience: Who are your building users and what are they likely to be interested in? This is arguably the most important step of all and the one that is regularly fumbled in many of the projects we seen. Often the occupant engagement solutions are being put together by engineers and building systems guys, meaning the content that is delivered is too technical and often not remotely relevant to staff or other building visitors.  So, take the time to try and profile your likely audience and make sure that the content you provide is suitable for them, both in terms of the information itself, the tone and the presentation. Line charts and gauges showing things like live demand in kVA for the HVAC plant, or whatever, might be interesting to your BMS engineer but I promise you they’re not interesting to anyone else!

4. Get your stories straight: Figure out the stories you want to tell. This is the fun and creative bit. Work with your team and make sure you’ve canvassed as many different stakeholders as you can. This will develop out of Step 1: Have a mission, and as I mentioned for some organisations this might be a very specific message around the ESD features of their new building, but even within that tight scope there are still decisions to be made. The trick here is to focus on the stories that are likely to pique the interest of your building occupants and maybe even capture their imagination. Your stories should be:

Relevant – Ensure that the information you present is as relevant as it possibly can be – for example, if you’re providing information on electricity consumption within your building, try to break it up in such a way that occupants can relate to it, so maybe floor by floor rather than the whole building.

It’s worth remembering that we’re basically a selfish bunch and we’re more likely to be engaged by content that more directly relates to us. For example, if I’m a cyclist, give me info on the weather for the ride home or, for the public transport users, consider including live bus, train or tram information.

Creative – Don’t just focus on the common stories around electricity and water use. Building sustainability is about more than that so consider what other themes you might want to cover. This might include topics such as waste, travel, printing use, indoor environment quality, weather or wellness indicators (remember, sitting is the new smoking). By covering a broader range of topics you will naturally broaden your audience.

Fresh – What we find interesting on Monday we’re often bored with by Friday and this certainly applies when it comes to occupant engagement. Make sure you’re able to keep content fresh and relevant.

5. Data doesn’t need to be dull: Data represents the building blocks for your stories so it is crucial that you figure out what data you have to play with. This step is obviously very closely linked to the previous one and there’s a bit of chicken and egg to it; clearly it’s much harder to communicate a particular message without some interesting data to make that point. You’ll need to review all the different data streams that you have at your disposal. Think laterally and don’t forget the key mantra: Keep it relevant, keep it creative, keep it fresh.  Here are some ideas for data sources from projects we’ve seen or worked on (starting with the more obvious):

  • Metering data (your electricity, water or gas, often via a Building Management System)
  • Onsite or renewable energy systems
  • Local weather feeds (generally from the Bureau of Meteorology)
  • Sensors for lighting, temperature and CO2 levels
  • People counters (how many people are using the stairs instead of the lift)
  • Public transport authorities (e.g. Tram Tracker)
  • Social media feeds such as Twitter and Yammer

6. Channels: What channels do you have to reach your audience? This might be a display screen in the foyer or staff hub, which is pretty standard for these types of solutions, but you should also consider other ways to reach people. These might include your intranet, internet or social media, we even know of a couple of projects where the content is delivered onto the digital screens in the lifts.

7. Maintenance: Ok, so this one is pretty boring but it’s very important if you’re to avoid a white elephant. You need to make sure you have a plan to keep things working smoothly. Over time issues crop up and things break. If left unchecked, these little gremlins will eventually leave your once-awesome occupant engagement solution looking anything but, which in turn will lead to it being ignored and then finally switched off.

The Wrap Up

So there you go, that’s our take on some of the important areas to think about when engaging your building occupants and other stakeholders. Do you think we’ve missed anything? Feel free to comment below on other areas you feel are worthy of mention.

If you are looking to have a go at engaging your building’s occupants then hopefully you’ve got a few of these already covered, and perhaps we’ve helped identify some areas you can improve on before it brings your project to a standstill. Good luck!

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