High-Performance People in High-Performance Buildings

As we continue to build more efficient buildings, one challenge still remains: occupant behavior. How can we ensure that people living in efficient buildings respond appropriately? Educate them.

The fight against global warming requires great efforts. There are several ways of mitigating the changing climates, each of which emphasizes actions by a different set of stakeholders. Much of the work in this area follows physical, technical, and economic models of the built environment.

In this scenario, architects, engineers, efficiency advocates, and policymakers are the major players, making technical improvements to existing buildings and designing new ones to reach high performance goals—particularly to achieve energy efficiency goals, in this long fight. On the other hand, we usually use the term “building energy consumption” to describe how much energy buildings use over a period of time. Indeed, buildings don’t use energy, people do.

So, how do people consume or waste energy in buildings? The biggest culprit is the thermostat.

If you ask any building manager or facility team, “what complaints do you hear most?” They will usually say, “people are always mad at the air-conditioning!” People feel too hot or too cold. If you aim to address this issue, it’s an impossible mission. There is no “one size fits all.” Different people perceive the temperature differently and react to restore their comfort.

A study published in Nature Climate Change attributed this issue to the gender difference, arguing that the present thermal standards were developed based on the metabolic rate and clothing choices (suits) of men in the 1960s. The New Yorker’s article titled as Is Your Thermostat Sexist? also discussed this observation. Women tend to feel colder because of their physiology and women tend to dress for outdoor rather than indoor conditions. Given these improvisations, it is even harder to design environmental systems to meet 100% thermal satisfaction for all occupants in high-performance buildings. But high-performance people and high-performance buildings must connect the dots.

As our planet continues to warm, we argue that energy policy and architectural solutions alone cannot achieve the goals of energy reduction and global warming mitigation. Here is a fact: a simplified assumption of occupant preferences and thermal behaviors in building energy simulation can lead to the gap between projected and actual energy performance of buildings. This inaccurate simulation tends to undermine the reliability of policy assessment.

Moreover, in the absence of reflecting the wide distribution or heterogeneities of occupant behaviors into policy assessment, it remains challenging for policymakers to examine the impacts of incentive policies on the dynamics of occupant behaviors. This is an important step for an accurate projection of future energy use in the building sector.

If energy conservation is a primary goal of an energy policymaker, then the building occupants must understand how to react and adjust environmental overheating or overcooling that supports both personal comfort and energy efficiency (e.g., opening/closing windows, blinds, portable heater, etc.).

Education programs are needed. Occupants must understand the elements they can and should affect. If architects have specific expectations of the building function and corresponding behaviors, then occupants may need additional training and guidance. And policymakers must design policies that support substantial and sustained behavioral changes—to ensure that building occupants become as high-performing as the buildings they inhabit.

Nancy Ma headshot

Nan (Nancy) Ma

Doctoral Candidate
Nan (Nancy) Ma is a Ph.D. student studying architecture in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design.