High-efficiency building bloopers revealed through occupant studies

November 13, 2017
A study by Washington State University found residents of high-efficiency buildings often waste energy--in this case, by taping over a vent--if they don't understand how to use the building. Credit: Washington State University

Many researchers know that new high-efficiency buildings don't typically get used as intended. The numbers don't add up, and occupants can easily waste energy if they do not understand how to use the building.

Julia Day, assistant professor in Washington State University's School of Design and Construction, set out to learn why.

In collaboration with William O'Brien from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, Day recently published a paper in Energy Research and Social Science, that explores occupant in high-efficiency buildings. Their research could lead to better designed and more efficient buildings that work for their occupants.

Creatively overriding the system

"I have seen people taping light switches to keep their lights off, people placing popsicles on thermostats to turn on the heat, and even someone taping a quarter onto a window sill to reflect light onto a thermostat to turn on the AC," said Day. "People can get pretty creative, but why not design it so they can use it in the first place? We need to create environments where people can be productive."

Occupants in the various studies often showcased poor energy efficiency behavior when looking strictly at the . However, through interviews and other qualitative methods (i.e. survey stories), the researchers could understand and explain the behaviors.

For instance, the researchers found a remote weather station that had automated lights to save energy. But, the lights inhibited nighttime work.

"We found out the employees would have to sit still for about 15 minutes for the lights to go out," said Day. "In one instance, after sitting still for 15 minutes, an employee sneezed, turning the lights back on, and the employees had to then start over the process and stay still again."

Motion sensor headaches

In another study, an occupant covered their motion sensor switch with tape because the lights gave them headaches. Another occupant complained their lights were frequently turning off when they were in their office because their motion sensor was around a corner. So, they put a toy Drinking Bird™ to continuously trigger the sensor, regardless if the lights were kept on when the office was empty.

In another , designers installed a signaling system to indicate the best times of day to open or close windows to take advantage of natural ventilation, but none of the occupants knew what the signaling system meant.

Occupant input, not just numbers

"We were learning more about occupant behavior through open-ended answers in the surveys, versus just looking at the numbers," said Day. "There is a lot to be learned by looking at both qualitative and quantitative data. We can learn from people's stories and their behaviors to further reduce consumption."

Day is involved in several international and national organizations including the International Energy Agency Energy in Buildings and Communities Programme's Annex 66, an international effort to define and simulate occupant behavior in buildings.

Explore further: Missing ingredient in energy-efficient buildings: People

More information: Julia K. Day et al, Oh behave! Survey stories and lessons learned from building occupants in high-performance buildings, Energy Research & Social Science (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.erss.2017.05.037

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6 comments

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CitizenMM
4 / 5 (1) Nov 13, 2017
I've not seen any hacks in our office yet regarding the automated systems but I'm sure it happens. Also, the "vent" indicated in the picture at the top of the article looks more like a speaker grille, likely taped to block white or pink noise (fancy static).
Nik_2213
not rated yet Nov 13, 2017
Article is pay-walled...
Eikka
4.5 / 5 (2) Nov 13, 2017
From general systemantics theory we know the Fundamental Failure-Mode Theorem (F.F.T.): complex systems usually operate in a failure mode.

The more moving parts you have, the more likely that one of them is broken or misbehaving at any given time, so a sufficiently complex system is always in a failure mode.

The corollary is the Functional Indeterminacy Theorem (F.I.T.): In complex systems, malfunction and even total non-function may not be detectable for long periods, if ever.

Another point of systemantics is that loose systems work better and last longer. Highly efficient systems are dangerous to themselves and others, because they're operating in a narrow range of optimum parameters.

For example, a house that is built to be completely sealed against heat escaping through air leaks is completely dependent on the ventilation system working properly or it becomes a healt hazard mold trap. It's likely then, that somebody forgets to turn it on.
Macrocompassion
not rated yet Nov 14, 2017
This implies a lack of communication and not bad building practice.
Eikka
not rated yet Nov 15, 2017
This implies a lack of communication and not bad building practice.


A well designed building, as any functional design, doesn't need a user's manual. It just works.

Different people have different requirements, preferences, lifestyles, and the building cannot be so narrowly optimized that the occupants have to open and close windows according to a flashing indicator light. That's a design flaw. Eventually an occupant will move in who doesn't care, can't or won't read the instructions, and the complex system goes all for naught.

Another issue is that the special systems inevitably break down; the computers and controllers go obsolete, the manufacturer goes out of business, replacement parts cannot be found on the market, and 20-30 years down the line the owner of the building replaces the broken automation with simple manual thermostats and puts the ventilation on a fixed timer as a temporary bodge that becomes permanent because it "works".
Eikka
not rated yet Nov 15, 2017
Just imagine a top of the line home automation system built in 1987. Is it still working? If not, can you still reasonably fix it, or do you have to re-build it entirely?

Any "high efficiency" active building control system you build today is going to have the same fate. It's going to break down well before the actual building becomes obsolete, and people probably won't bother to fix it because that costs a lot of money an requires parts and expertise that are no longer available.

Now the problem becomes, does the building actually work without the fancy system? If not, then the design was flawed because it didn't take into account its own obsolescence. If it does work, then the system was superfluous to begin with. That's why home automation and "smart homes" are such a niche thing: any way you slice it, it's going to be a bad investment.

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