Monday, October 12, 2015

Building Occupant Surveys – Maximizing Their Effectiveness

Formulating surveys for building occupants as part of post occupancy evaluation (POE), master planning process, retrocommissioning effort, etc., is always a balancing act. You want to ask enough questions to gather the information you need relative to the assessment scope of work, but you also want to avoid making it so long that individuals quit half way through or refuse to even look at it. For some building populations, such as K-12 teachers, who are surveyed to death and typically stretched wafer thin, it’s all the more critical to strategically construct your questions.

Conducting ethnographic type fieldwork as part of the assessment – performing in context interviews and observations – generally allows you to minimize the survey questions asked. Interviews and observations provide opportunities in addition to surveys for “touching” building occupants. Planning for all three allows you to limit the number of survey questions asked compared to engaging occupants with only surveys.

Looking at the survey itself, one strategy is to minimize the questions asking occupants to provide their impressions of the facility as a whole, such as their perception of the facility’s overall impact on their performance, and instead focus on the specific facility aspects you’re really interested in. These might include ratings of thermal comfort, satisfaction with specific lighting control components, or their perception of how thermal comfort impacts their performance.

Our research has shown that questions asking about the facility as a whole, or questions asking about overall facility impacts on individual performance, have a greater degree of correlation to questions asking about an occupant’s level of engagement than when compared to more detailed facility related questions. Once the questions start drilling down further into specific facility elements’/systems’ impacts on individual performance, or ratings of the specific elements/systems in and of themselves, the degree of correlation decreases.

The table below provides the results of a series of Spearman’s Rho tests that were run as part of the POEs of eight K-12 schools to determine the degree of correlation between the primary question acting as a proxy for engagement and the questions asking to rate the various aspects of the school facilities. The number listed in each cell is the resulting correlation coefficient. It can range between -1.0 to 1.0, with a positive correlation indicating the ratings are increasing together while a negative correlation indicates the value of one rating increases while the other rating decreases; 0 indicates no correlation or association. Teachers/staff were surveyed at all eight schools; students were only surveyed at the four middle and high schools.

Looking at the eight set of teacher/staff correlations and the four set of student correlations, in 11 of the 12 sets of data the strongest correlations (cells highlighted in green) occur when comparing the engagement question with questions asking about the facility as a whole or asking about overall facility impacts on individual performance. When rating the whole facility or school, one is trying to mentally average everything together and it’s harder to keep aspects of engagement out of the internal mental equation than compared to when one is just rating individual facility elements.

So we’re better able to determine actual facility performance (as perceived by the teachers/staff and students) from the detailed questions as opposed to the general questions; engagement has more influence on the general question responses (and vice versa).

You can use this as justification for excluding questions more general in nature and instead focusing on the various individual aspects of the facility that are of primary relevance to the scope of work. While the resulting survey is longer than if only general questions are asked, it nevertheless is shorter than when both types of questions are included. It should also result in a more effective use of the occupant’s time, as you should get a better picture of the occupants’ perception of facility performance relative to their needs as opposed to their level of engagement.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Post-Occupancy Evaluations Ensure Buildings are Performing WELL

Comprehensive Post Occupancy Evaluations (POEs) that focus on the occupant as well as the building and operations are critical for ensuring the success of buildings from an owner's, occupant's, community's and design/construction team's perspectives. They also have an important role to play in the success and continued growth of certification systems, such as the new WELL Building Standard. Go to the following post - Post-Occupancy Evaluations Ensure Buildings are Performing WELL and then follow the link for the article.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Community Vitality and Sustainability Depend in Part on Its Equitable Walkability

As I read the article linked to below, as I noticed it weaving in a thread of the American myth of the individual coupled with the image of freedom, adventure and independence often linked to the automobile, that also downplays our reliance on others and our need for connection and community, I was reminded of The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg. Oldenburg argued that our cities/communities need public places (coffee shops, libraries, cafes, bars, barber shops, etc.) where we can access services, gather with others to hang out, converse and establish relationships that help keep communities viable. These “third places” as Oldenburg terms them can also provide an avenue for interaction of different socio-economic, racial, ethnic, political and other groups whose spheres normally wouldn’t overlap in the other two types of places (home/immediate neighborhood and work).
But as this article points out, these places need to be equitably accessible on foot (and by bikes), along routes that aren’t only safe from the tyranny of the automobile (or potentially crime), but also desirable relative to views, sounds, air quality, etc. and provide an experience that isn’t solely limited to that of traversing an asphalt desert. So as we work with key stakeholders to equitably implement complete streets, develop safe routes to schools, plan for mixed use communities or sustainably design facilities (from the inclusion of bike racks to a larger accounting for biophilia design principles), we're not just increasing individual health/productivity, saving energy/water or reducing GHG emissions, we're also increasing community vitality, resiliency and longevity.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Built Environment’s Social Costs, Part 3: Managing Common Pool Resources and the City Energy Project

Part 1 of this series focused on how a more deliberate quantification of productivity and health impacts, as well as the larger social costs associated with the built environment, could impact the decision making process relative to short and long range planning, value engineering exercises, related policy formulation, etc. Part 2 discussed some of the evolutionary reasons for our species’ shortsightedness and how involving more people in the decision making process can increase our collective ability to take the long view.
Another concept that is useful here is the tragedy of the commons. The basic idea is that individuals or small groups acting in their own self interest will often behave in a manner contrary to the long term best interests of the larger group that they are a part of. Specifically they will tend to behave in a manner that depletes resources common to the whole group (including environmental quality and global climate stability). However, there are features of group organization that have evolved over the history of our species that help curb these “selfish” behaviors and promote pro-social behavior beneficial to the larger group. Involving more people in the decision making process is one of these features.
In 1990, Elinor Ostrom formulated eight design principles that enable groups to successfully manage their common-pool resources for the longer term benefit of the group. More recently David Sloan Wilson et al. generalized Ostrom’s eight design principles to a wider range of groups and situations. Very briefly, these eight principles are as follows (taken from the Wilson et al. reference):
  1. Clearly defined boundaries.
  2. Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs (and a more comprehensive accounting of benefits/costs must be performed as discussed in Part 1).
  3. Collective-choice arrangements (ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules, i.e., involve as many people impacted by the rules/behaviors as possible).
  4. Monitoring (managing free-riding and exploitation – transparency can be a component of this).
  5. Graduated sanctions for rule violators (resource distribution, public shaming, gossiping and ostracizing can be components of this, along with more formalized legal means).
  6. Conflict resolution mechanisms (to resolve conflict quickly and fairly).
  7. Minimal recognition of rights to organize (groups must have authority to conduct their own affairs).
  8. For groups that are part of larger social systems, there must be appropriate coordination among relevant groups (build responsibility for governing/decision making in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system).
Simplified forms of the first seven principles evolved over the long history that our ancestors spent as hunter/gatherers, living in comparatively small groups. The last one has come into play more recently as our societies have grown in size and complexity. The larger the group, with more potentially competing subgroups composed of varying related individuals (social/culturally and genetically), the harder it is to set up and maintain these design principles. One question then becomes how we effectively upscale the elements of these design principles that are fine tuned for small groups. This LinkedIn post and subsequent comments discuss this in more detail.
Let’s briefly look at managing common pool resources with respect to Kansas City’s selection to participate in the City Energy Project. This is a 3-year initiative by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT) to promote energy efficiency improvements in commercial and institutional buildings. Two critical issues being addressed as part of this effort are 1) encouraging the business community to rapidly adopt the Mayor’s Energy Challenge and 2) sharing their benchmarking and building data with the City. As discussed in Part 1, the potential productivity and health benefits often associated with projects making energy focused improvements may be enough to move the needle for some building owners. This falls under Ostrom’s second design principle.
Per Part 2, the more key stakeholders directly or indirectly involved in this decision for any individual building, the more likely a building owner will adopt the Mayor’s Energy Challenge, all else being equal. This falls under Ostrom’s third design principle. And sharing benchmarking and building data is critical for measuring and monitoring progress as a community, a component of Ostrom’s fourth design principle. Sharing this data isn’t required to participate, but it is required to receive the benefit of public recognition (back to the second design principle). And the lack of data sharing itself will be transparent (Ostrom’s fourth design principle), potentially leading to various degrees of peer pressure and shaming intended to promote data sharing (Ostrom’s fifth design principle). Even if the peer pressure and shaming are only perceived to have occurred (or just feared to potentially occur), they can be effective motivators for behavior change in order to avoid negative impacts on social and economic status.
It will be interesting to see how successful the City Energy Project is, in Kansas City as well as the other nine selected cities, and how the degree of success can be tied to Wilson et al.’s generalization of Ostrom’s eight design principles. It’s likely that many elements of the design principles are being incorporated inadvertently simply because they’re already recognized as best practices. But a contextual, systematic incorporation of Wilson et al.’s and Ostrom’s work in this area would likely increase the City Energy Project’s overall success.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Built Environment’s Social Costs, Part 2: The “Shortsightedness” of Homo Sapiens

Part 1 of this series focused on how a more deliberate quantification of productivity and health impacts, as well as the larger social costs associated with the built environment, could impact the decision making process relative to short and long range planning, value engineering exercises, related policy formulation, etc. Yet this is rarely performed as part of the master planning, design, retrocommissioning or post occupancy evaluation processes.

One reason for this is that our evolutionary history has indirectly led to a form of shortsightedness. Our “stone-age” or hunter/gatherer brains and cognitive abilities evolved in the vastly different and more limited context of our ancestors. The people dealt with on a daily basis were fewer, the geographic area and environmental variability smaller, and the “future” limited to the annual cycles of weather, migration, etc.  Most of our evolutionary history was spent in this type of environment. As a result our analytical analyses and emotional responses tend to over emphasize those events, threats, etc., that have immediate impact on our daily lives. Examples include job loss, daily deadlines and initial costs as opposed to 5+ year paybacks, the long term health implications of safe routes to schools or the regional economic impacts 20 years in the future from green house gas (GHG) emissions.

In addition, the degree of our reactions, responses, urgencies, and calls to action end up being relative to our perception of the impact on both ourselves and those we call our own.  Current and projected crises in other countries or regions, or that affect different social/cultural groups and are not perceived as providing us with risk, may not result in a response or change in our behavior. It’s easier to see the short term, first cost benefit from value engineering out those extra HVAC zones than the longer term productivity/health benefits to future building occupants and tenants you may not even know if you’re the designer/contractor, developer and/or building owner.

Fortunately, this picture begins to change when decision making shifts from the individual and very small group level to larger groups. If cooperation and group unity is achieved, decision making is often made with respect to the common good.  Delayed, long-term benefits are given more weight by groups, such as whole companies, community boards, city voters, etc., than by individuals. For example, the development, modification, and acceptance of building codes is a group endeavor; one that generally increases initial cost while at the same time providing for a safer environment over the life-spans of our buildings, which may be multi-generational.  This is also a reason why longer term considerations are given more weight the more integrated the planning/design/construction/occupancy process is; the collective “group” is larger and includes more representation from all of the relevant key stakeholder subgroups.

Essentially the more people involved in the decision making process, the better we’re able to account for long term costs/benefits and the more “pro-social” our behavior is, all else being equal. I did a pilot study on this specifically with respect to sustainable construction decision making back in 2009 (paper/slides available here), and the results fell in line with this. If you’re interested in learning more about the research that underlies decision making relative to environmental risk, encouraging “pro-social” behavior and evolutionary multi-level selection theory, I recommend starting with the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions and Evolution: This View of Life.

Part 3, the final part in this series, will look at how all of this correlates with successfully managing common pool resources (such as energy and water), and apply this framework to some specific examples, including Kansas City’s recently begun implementation of the City Energy Project.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Built Environment’s Social Costs, Part 1: Quantifying Productivity, Health and Larger Societal Costs

As designers, we have a responsibility to investigate and present the social costs and benefits of our designs to all key stakeholders. Whether its building safe routes to schools , taking a project to Net Zero, or evaluating the number of separate HVAC zones in an individual project, our clients, building occupants and the general public should be aware of the associated productivity and health implications at the individual/local level, as well as what the larger social/cultural and economic ramifications are.

Business operating costs (the “people” costs) range anywhere from 10 to 100+ times building operations costs, depending on the number and salary level of the employees and type of facility.[i] [ii] Because of this, even small percentage improvements in productivity and health can dwarf the associated decreases in operational costs obtained from sustainable built environment solutions, and this can drastically change the results of any life cycle cost analysis.

For example, M.E. GROUP’s rectrocommissioning efforts at the Conrad Duberstein U.S. Courthouse and Post Office in Brooklyn, NY, resulted in 37 energy conservation measures (ECMs) that were estimated to cost $9,167,000 to implement and save $872,000/year in building operational costs.[iii] Using contextually gathered data from surveys, interviews/observations, and space condition measurements to strategically apply previous research on productivity relative to specific building conditions, such as lighting, acoustics, IAQ, etc., these same ECMs were conservatively estimated to result in $3,570,000/year in productivity improvements. This was 4.1 times the estimated operational savings while only considered some of the productivity benefits and excluding all of the potential savings related to health improvements. Simple payback using the operational savings only was 10.5 years. If we include productivity the length of time drops to 2.1 years. Yet we rarely consider quantified productivity and health impacts as part of the master planning, design, retrocommissioning or post occupancy evaluation process. For additional examples, see the following blog posts: How a Lack of Space/Flexibility Can Impact Teacher Productivity/Performance, Culture and Thermal Comfort and Study: Safe Routes to School Investments Save Millions and Improve Quality of Life.

Moving to a larger scale, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicates that approximately 40.6% of U.S. CO2 emissions generated annually is produced by buildings compared to transportation and industry.[iv] Using Johnson and Hope’s social cost of carbon (SCC) estimate[v] (also discussed in two of Laurie Johnson’s blog posts  here and here, as well as David Robert’s blog here), a reduction in annual CO2 emissions of only 5% from the building sector would translate into $11.66 billion in avoided future U.S. economic damages, based on 2012 emissions data[vi] and Johnson and Hope’s 2010 SCC estimate using the 1.5% discount rate. Limiting this to the commercial sector only, that number would be $5.48 billion. That’s billions of dollars of avoided agricultural productivity decreases, health care cost increases, increased flood damages, etc. But as with productivity and health, we rarely take greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts into account as part of the master planning, design, retrocommissioning or post occupancy evaluation process.

If we did, the decision making process relative to short and long range planning, value engineering exercises, policy formulation, etc. would often have different outcomes. Part 2 of this 3 part series will discuss some of the evolutionary reasons for our species’ short sightedness and how we can increase our collective ability to take the long view during the decision making process. Part 3 will discuss how this correlates with successfully managing common pool resources (such as energy and water), providing specific examples, such as Kansas City’s recently begun implementation of the City Energy Project.

[i] CABE/BCO. 2005. The Impact of Office Design on Business Performance. Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and the British Council for Offices, London, UK. 

[ii] Fisk, W. J. 2002. How IEQ Affects Health, Productivity. ASHRAE Journal 44(5):56-58.

[iii] Harmon, M. 2011. “The Commissioning Agent as Anthropologist – Part 1.” The Checklist: The Quarterly Newsletter of the Building Commissioning Association. (second quarter): 8-10. 

[iv] ©2013 2030, Inc. / Architecture 2030. All Rights Reserved. Data Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration (2012).

[v] Johnson, L. T. and C. Hope. 2012. The social cost of carbon in U.S. regulatory impact analyses: an introduction and critique. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. September, 2012.

[vi] EPA 430-R-14-003: Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990 – 2012:

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Vacancy Sensors and Peer Pressure - Using Both to Reduce Energy Consumption

A good deal of research and case studies have demonstrated that vacancy sensors/settings (manual ON/auto OFF) save more energy than occupancy sensors/settings (auto ON/auto OFF). Some of the primary reasons for this include minimizing false-on occurrences, eliminating lights turning on when someone just quickly steps into and then back out of a space and the fact that people tend to leave their environmental conditions as is unless moved to action by some external stimuli (discomfort, peer pressure, etc.). There's also the additional benefit of providing more control to the occupant of their lighting.

Here's one more example demonstrating this – M.E. GROUP’s Kansas City office. On May 16, 2014 we changed the settings of our occupancy sensors from auto ON/auto OFF to manual ON/auto OFF. The image below shows the energy usage two weeks before and two weeks after this change (date indicated by vertical dashed line). For this time frame, there's a 34% energy savings. Now Memorial Day is included within the post two week time frame, but this is partially offset by the additional lighting used after hours (energy usage indicated in red) as a result of meeting a project deadline. As more time passes, we'll have more data for a better comparison.

Three of the primary reasons for the energy reduction contextually relevant for our office are 1) the elimination of work room lights automatically turning on when someone enters for a brief amount of time, even just to reach in and throw away trash or recycling, 2) the elimination of reception lights automatically turning on as we walk in and out the front door to access the rest room (our reception desk is not manned) and 3) open office lighting kept off for longer periods of time during the day (we have access to daylighting). We’re a high performance building consulting firm and energy conservation is part of our office social/cultural norms. Once the change was made, not only did the vacancy setting take advantage of our tendency to leave environmental conditions as is in general, it also took advantage of the fact that there's been some peer pressure to keep our lights off unless absolutely needed.

We’re able to measure the lighting and plug loads in our office because we make use of an Enistic energy management system that meters loads separately at our panel (overall and by circuit), as well as down to the individual workstation. Here’s a Prezi that tells the story of our LEED Platinum CI office (it’s no longer just tracking LEED – we did receive certification).