Top 5 Occupant Engagement Myths of High-Performance Buildings

By Barbara Ciesla  
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High-performance buildings are designed to save water and energy, reduce waste, improve air quality, and increase occupant health and productivity. They represent a holistic approach to building design that considers all aspects of the built environment as part of a system. And the most important parts of that system are the building occupants. Without occupants' support of a building's high-performance attributes, even the most well designed building can fail to measure up to its high-performance potential. Research shows that if occupants don't act in a way that supports design intent, performance standards can be compromised.

Although occupants are critical to the success of a high-performing building, they are often the missing piece of the sustainability puzzle because of the complexity in addressing human behavior. A successful occupant engagement program at a commercial building will help create a buildingwide culture of sustainability in which tenant companies, employees and other stakeholders feel empowered and accountable for their contribution to a high-performance building.

Because occupant engagement is an emerging practice in the commercial building sector, there are many assumptions in the marketplace that are proving to be myths. Here are five common myths of occupant engagement that don't support a successful occupant engagement strategy.

MYTH No. 1 — A one-size-fits-all approach is effective. The design of initiatives and execution strategies must take into account the unique contexts of the property. This means a comprehensive understanding of the workings and interrelations of building design, operations and use. It also means understanding the demographics and business needs of all building occupant groups. Therefore, a little more investment into researching the unique contexts of building characteristics and occupant demographics results in money well spent.

MYTH No. 2 — Communication alone is tenant engagement. Many well-intentioned people think they are conducting tenant engagement when, at its core, they are simply communicating. Often these communications are developed without occupant context, rendering them ineffective when pushed out to building groups. Results from many behavioral marketing studies tell us that communications are part of a successful behavioral change approach but they aren't the whole story. True engagement is not passive, requiring proactive and collaborative involvement of occupants. It is also very important that the operational needs are understood and integrated into the program.

MYTH No. 3 — Information from technology changes behavior. You can't just show occupants a graph and expect them to "get it." A systematic approach means structuring messaging, education and engagement initiatives in a way that gradually introduces information and tools. Tools such as energy demand graphs are great if people can truly understand them but most people (i.e., non-engineers) need background and context to understand and accurately use the analytic IT tools they may face. Also, energy demand graphs don't identify specific end target energy use goals or offer suggestions on how to achieve those goals.

MYTH No. 4 — High-performing buildings are achieved through capital investment and retrofits. Occupant engagement is the low-hanging fruit of high-performance buildings. Occupants account for more than 50 percent of a building's energy use. It's difficult if not impossible to get the most out of an investment in an expensive retrofit if you haven't addressed occupant behaviors. If facility managers start an occupant engagement program before spending money on major high-performance upgrades, they will get the most out of both occupants and their investment.

MYTH No. 5 — It's all about the dollars: Occupants don't care about doing the right thing. In terms of environmental performance, industry standards for measuring success have historically relied on hard, quantitative figures. That is changing. On a more anecdotal level, one bit of feedback occupant engagement specialists keep hearing is that tenants and other building stakeholders want to participate in high-performance building efforts because it's the right thing to do. For instance, engagement initiatives such as daytime cleaning are persuasive for tenants because they better the work/life balance for janitorial teams by enabling them to work days instead of nights and not just because it's an energy-saving measure.

Barbara Ciesla is an associate principal at architecture firm Perkins+Will.

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  posted on 7/16/2012   Article Use Policy

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