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Occupants kept in the dark about high-performance buildings

December 3, 2014 - Julia Day was a Washington State University graduate student in interior design when she walked into an office that was, supposedly, designed for energy efficiency and noticed that the blinds were all closed and numerous lights were turned on. The building had been designed to use daylighting strategies to reduce dependence on electric lighting, thereby saving energy.


December 4, 2014
By Anthony Capkun

After enquiring, Day learned that cabinetry and systems furniture throughout the building blocked nearly half of the occupants from access to blinds controls. Only a few determined folks would climb on—or under—their desks to operate the blinds.

More than one-third of new commercial building space includes energy-saving features, but without training or an operator’s manual, many occupants are in the dark as to how to go about using them.

“People couldn’t turn off their lights, and that was the whole point of implementing daylighting in the first place,” says Day.

“The whole experience started me on my path”
Day recently published a paper showing that building occupants who have effective training in using the features of their high-performance buildings were more satisfied with their work environments. (She did the work as a doctoral student at WSU, but she is now an assistant professor at Kansas State University.)

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Working with David Gunderson, professor in the WSU School of Design and Construction, Day looked at more than 50 high-performance buildings across the U.S. She gathered data, including architectural and engineering plans, and performed interviews and surveys of building occupants.

She examined how people were being trained in those buildings and whether that training was effective. Day learned that, sometimes, the building’s high-performance features were simply mentioned in a meeting or in a quick email sent to everyone, and people did not truly understand how their actions could affect the building’s overall energy use.

One LEED Gold building had lights throughout the premises to indicate the best times of day to open and close windows to take advantage of natural ventilation. A green light indicated it was time to open windows.

“I asked 15 people if they knew what the light meant, and they all thought it was part of the fire alarm system,’’ she said.

Educating for an energy-focused culture
Day says that, according to CBRE Research, the amount of commercial space that is certified as high-performance in energy efficiency through the U.S. EPA’s Energy Star or USGBC’s LEED has grown from 5.6% of commercial space in 2005 to 39.3% at the end of 2013.

Yet, in many cases, the corporate culture of energy use in buildings hasn’t caught up. While at home our mothers nagged us to turn off the lights when we left a room, or to shut the door because “you don’t live in a barn”, office culture has often ignored—and even discouraged—common sense energy saving.

Day finds that making the best use of a highly efficient building means carefully creating a culture focused on conservation. In buildings with an energy-focused culture, workers are engaged and participate, and are satisfied with their building environment.

“If they received good training, they were more satisfied and happier with their work environment,’’ she said. Day is now working to develop an energy lab and would like to develop occupant training programs to take advantage of high-performance buildings.

“With stricter energy codes, the expectations are that buildings will be more energy efficient and sustainable,’’ she said. “But we have to get out of the mindset where we are not actively engaged in our environments. That shift takes a lot of education, and there is a huge gap right now.”

— With files from Tina Hilding, Communications, WSU Voiland College of Engineering & Architecture, thilding@wsu.edu .