With so many new smart buildings going up all the time, a US researcher has been investigating an issue adjacent to their design: scant attention has been paid to the human element and the need for suitable training.

Smart Buildings: Training and Common Sense Fallen by the Wayside?

One day when she was a student at Washington State University, Julia Day went into a high performance building which was, among other things, supposed to be energy-efficient. She was not a little surprised to see the blinds down and the lights on in the middle of the day in one room when the building had been designed to take advantage of natural light. The reason for the blinds being down turned out to be that the buttons for adjusting them were now out of reach. Years later, the now Assistant Professor at Kansas State University has co-authored, with David Gunderson from the School of Design and Construction at Washington State University, a report entitled ‘Understanding High Performance Buildings: The Link Between Occupant Knowledge of Passive Design Systems, Corresponding Behaviors, Occupant Comfort and Environmental Satisfaction’, which recently appeared in Building and Environment, an international journal that publishes original research related to building science and human interaction with the built environment. The report argues that while so many ‘smart’ buildings have been constructed in recent years, with over a third of all new commercial buildings in the United States designed to be energy-efficient, the basic problem is not technical but has a human face: the building occupants. They seem to be the major oversight and Day stresses the need to bring occupants back to the centre of smart building design and use.

Bringing common sense back into the office

Julia Day underlines a wider issue affecting so many working environments: common sense often flies out of the window. While most people behave fairly rationally at home – for instance turning the lights out when they leave a room, for example, all too often this does not happen at work. The Day-Gunderson report underlines that company culture is rarely conducive to simple ways of saving energy – habits which happen naturally however in the home environment. In addition, their survey threw up cases where the layout or fixtures and fittings actually militate against the energy savings systems that have been installed. This was in fact what happened where the buttons to adjust the blinds were unreachable due to the desk layout.

Occupant training needs a boost

A second point revealed by the survey is that occupants are either not trained effectively or receive no training at all on how high-performance buildings actually work. One respondent told of a system of warning lights which are supposed to advise on when best to open the windows. The general assumption among the people working in the building was that the lights were linked up to the fire alarm. “With stricter energy codes, the expectations are that buildings will be more energy efficient and sustainable, but we have to get out of the mindset that we are not actively engaged in our environment. Making that shift takes a lot of education, and there’s a huge gap right now,” warns Day. She and Gunderson conclude that energy education needs to go beyond a mass email or bulletin board post to ensure that everyone understands their role in promoting energy efficiency. Lastly, the report highlights a profound concern regarding high-performance buildings, where so much thinking goes into the process from the architect’s design to the last brick laid, but very little thought is put into what happens once the keys are handed over. A number of buildings have installed systems which take the occupants into account, from buildings which detect people and adjust heating and lighting automatically to smart local heating solutions. However, initiatives of this kind have not yet been developed on a large scale and they too will without doubt require a determined training programme if such buildings are to yield their full benefits.

By Guillaume Scifo