Targeting Occupant Behavior for Energy Savings
Our actions and behaviors in operating a building can significantly impact its performance, making it an underachiever compared to what it was designed for. Three things can remedy this: capital-investment improvements, operational changes, and behavioral modifications. Start with occupant behavior.
We design and build our schools, offices, and other facilities to demanding performance codes, standards, first-cost and ongoing budgets, and operational requirements. We measure twice and cut once as we build and commission our buildings to ensure that what is constructed can perform to the level of performance designed. Then we occupy our buildings — buildings with LEED certifications, energy efficiency targets, and established energy budgets. When we start moving into our new building we focus our attention on operating it to support occupants and meet varying demands on the facility, losing sight of the energy target that was so carefully engineered.
Why do our buildings fall short of their designed energy performance? We frequently operate our buildings in a way that requires them to work harder than designed, while the systems themselves are aging and becoming less efficient and less effective. Operational changes that happen to accommodate the people who use a facility — scheduling, use of a given space, renovations and expansions, occupancy, and application of building automation and controls systems — can create a major gap between designed performance and actual energy consumption.
Fortunately, there are three ways to achieve and potentially exceed the designed level of performance for nearly any building. Through capital-investment improvements, operational changes, and behavioral modifications, we can get more out of our buildings. For buildings, we can invest in energy-efficient systems such as lighting, building operators can adjust heating and cooling schedules, and occupants can adopt better habits like shutting off lights when leaving a room.
When all three energy performance methods come together, a facility can operate at top efficiency. But if your organization is not ready to invest in a comprehensive overhaul, what's the first step to saving energy? Start with people. If your occupants develop good habits today, you will be well-positioned to maximize future capital improvements.
Make It Work
People are infinitely creative. In a facility, this creativity can be to the detriment of facility managers, with occupants finding ways to circumvent systems, override settings, and thwart recommendations. Facility managers know these tricks all too well: a wet washcloth draped over the thermostat to force heating, vents taped over with pieces of paper, or space heaters and mini-fridges gobbling up energy. While this is frustrating to facility managers, these occupants may not realize the impact of their actions or may not see an alternative to their creative solution. They understand the facility goals or procedures, but still engage in behaviors that conflict with their awareness of company policies.
This is precisely the challenge when addressing human behavior: People are predictably irrational. People often act in ways that conflict with what they know they should do or even what they believe. These contradictions are evident every day: People smoke despite the health risks and text while driving despite the risks to everyone on the road. In all of these issues, behaviors and beliefs are complicated. Individuals make different choices on the same issue based on their environment, values, and priorities. Additionally, complex social factors — many of them invisible — play heavily into these decisions.