Energy Efficient Building Occupants Don’t Understand High-Performance Features, According to New Study

Energy Efficient Building Occupants Don’t Understand High-Performance Features, According to New Study

View on the interior in skyscraper
Energy efficiency and sustainability may be the new buzzwords when it comes to environmentally friendly building construction, but a new study reveals that energy efficient lighting and windows don’t matter if building occupants don’t understand how those features work.

The study’s author, Julia Day, was a graduate student in interior design when she first encountered issues with building sustainability. Her interest in the subject began when she walked into an office designed for energy-saving daylighting techniques only to see the blinds closed and numerous lights turned on.

Worse, Day discovered that the controls for the blinds and lights were hidden high up on walls or down underneath desks, and not many of the workers knew how to properly use these devices.

From there, Day embarked on her study of effective training in using the features in high-performance buildings, which consist of over one-third of new commercial building constructions in the U.S.

Perhaps most encouraging is that Day discovered that those who had proper training in their building’s energy-saving features reported being the most satisfied with their work environments.

Day, who is now an assistant professor at Kansas State University, worked with WSU School of Design and Construction professor David Gunderson to examine more than 50 high-performance buildings across the United States. Day gathered data on the buildings’ architectural and engineering plans, and interviewed and surveyed the occupants of those buildings.

In many cases, Day found that workers in office buildings received an email or a quick overview of energy features in their buildings during a meeting, but they didn’t actually understand the best practices for those features.

Windows, for example, are often upgraded to provide daylight, ventilation and heat in the winter, but they can also account for at least 10% to 25% of a heating bill if they are outdated. As a result, many commercial and residential property owners upgrade their single pane windows to energy efficient models, especially as utility costs increase all around the country.

Day looked at energy efficiency for the windows of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified buildings in her study. These spaces, certified as high-performance in energy efficiency by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program and/or the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED initiative, have increased from 5.6% in 2005 to 39.3% by the end of 2013, according to CBRE Research.

One building certified LEED gold by the Green Building Certification Institute had lights throughout to indicate the best times of day to open and close windows for natural ventilation. But out of the 15 people Day interviewed, all thought that the lights were part of the fire alarm system.

“There’s a gap,” she said of green building occupants’ knowledge, “and people do not really understand these buildings.”

Day found that the most successful of these green buildings had workers who were involved in the act of conservation by receiving adequate training on their buildings’ features.

After concluding her study, Day said she has plans to develop an energy lab to develop occupant training programs for these high-performance buildings.

“With stricter energy codes, the expectations are that buildings will be more energy efficient and sustainable,” Day commented. “But we have to get out of the mindset where we are not actively engaged in our environments.”

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