Sunday, February 23, 2014

To Be Green or Not To Be Green, That is the Question: Assessing & Encouraging Prosocial (Green) Decision Making in the Building/Construction Industry

Cognitive psychologists generally divide our decision making systems, with respect to risk, into analytical vs. emotional reactions. The former carefully considers costs versus benefits, while the latter interprets risks emotionally; as a “primitive and urgent reaction to danger” intended to rapidly size up a given situation and remove us from that danger. Neither system is particularly suited for rationally considering long-term benefits thanks to our evolutionary past as hunter/gatherers.

As a result our analytical analyses and emotional responses tend to over emphasize those events, threats, etc., that have immediate impact in our daily lives – i.e., job loss, daily deadlines, etc. vs. rising sea levels or green house gas (GHG) emissions. In addition, these studies have demonstrated that the degree of our reactions, responses, urgencies, and calls to action end up being relative to our perception of the impact on ourselves and those we call our own.

However, this picture begins to change when decision making shifts from the individual and very small group level to larger groups, as demonstrated by researchers affiliated with the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED). 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 (households, companies, community boards, etc.) than by individuals.

Uniformity among group members, high levels of cooperation, and functional integration become the hallmarks of successful groups (see Evolution: This View of Life and The Evolution Institute for more information on this). Selfish behaviors tend to be locally advantageous and more relevant in the short term, while pro-social behaviors tend to be globally advantageous and more relevant in the long term. Prosocial behaviors also tend to enhance cooperation among group members.  And our social/cultural norms act as a kind of “glue”, binding together unrelated individuals within larger groups and providing a measure of uniformity in their behavior.

Relative to the building construction industry, it would seem that short term, local, benefits often outweigh long-term benefits when making decisions on how green to be. Following the above line of reasoning, this suggests that in those cases where short term, local benefits have won out, individuals or small groups whose common good did not necessarily coincide with green’s delayed benefits were the primary decision makers involved. And it would also suggest that these decision makers had less influence from other people within their own organization, as well as outside their organization.

So in 2009 I conducted a pilot study to test the following hypothesis: The more people who have a say in the decisions involved in a construction project (particularly earlier in the design process), the more likely it will be designed and built sustainably (LEED or otherwise), all else being equal. You can see a pdf of the paper and slides I presented at the 2009 Behavior Energy and Climate Change (BECC) conference here: The Decision to Go Green: Individual vs. Group Influences on Our Likelihood to Build Sustainably.

To test this, I compared a data set of certified, non-certified but green, and conventionally designed facilities with respect to the decision makers – the number of decision makers involved, who they were, their demographic make-up, their core values, and the degree of outside influence that impacted their decisions. Specifically I ran a Kendall’s Tau-B correlation test looking at the degree of correlation between the number of people involved in the decision process (directly and indirectly) and both a) the number of sustainable elements incorporated and b) the level of certification sought.

The reader is referred to the slides and paper for a more thorough discussion, but though preliminary, the results did support the hypothesis that the more people who have a say in the decisions involved in a construction project, the more likely it will be designed and built sustainably, all else being equal. This would suggest that by somehow creating an environment where building owners actively reach out to their employees, as well as their clients, tenants, surrounding neighbors, etc., and directly solicit their opinions regarding any new construction or existing renovations, it will increase the likelihood that these projects will be sustainable and certified. Future research will expand the database of projects examined and better control for local/regional variation.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Comfort Vs. "Cool": Thermal Comfort & Clothing Variability in Schools

Thermal comfort in schools is impacted by a variety of factors, and this was discussed somewhat in a previous post: Culture and Thermal Comfort. But beyond HVAC system problems as well as the differences in perceived temperature control, activity levels and physiology between students and adults (and between men and women), the variation between student and adult thermal comfort ratings are partially due to the typically greater variability in student clothing compared to adult clothing (particularly during the warmer months and for high school students). One’s perspective of acceptable clothing is shaped by peers and family, school policy, and society in general. Clothing is also used as a means of establishing “group” identity as well as signaling membership in that “group.” For teenagers who are still maturing and experimenting with who they eventually want to be and what “groups” they want to belong to, clothing is part of that experimentation, both in terms of clothing type and the amount worn (Harmon 2012).

Because the varying insulative properties of clothing also affect thermal comfort, when a large segment of the facility population has a wide range of clothing styles subject to frequent changes, it becomes more difficult to maximize thermal comfort. One potential means of addressing this beyond the building itself, is to encourage everyone to keep layers of clothing available. The goal is an occupant population that will add or reduce layers of clothing as individually needed and more uniformly respond to exterior weather conditions in terms of percentage of exposed skin, but still allow expression through clothing choices and styles (Harmon 2012).

This is a reasonable response to widely varying clothing styles because we know that occupants in general are more likely to adjust their clothing in response to changing thermal conditions as opposed to keeping them constant (Schiavon and Lee 2013). However, in K-12 environments this is complicated by socio-economic status (perhaps more so than in other environments) because low SES students may not have the financial resources to obtain multiple layers of clothing. In addition, energy models commonly assume a clothing insulation value of 0.5 clo for the cooling season and 1.0 clo for the heating season, with an abrupt change from one to the other as the seasons transition. But we know that clothing is not constant (and can be highly variable among the building population). Studies (Lee et al. 2013; Lee and Schiavon 2013; and Schiavon and Lee 2012, 2013) have shown that energy models making use of more dynamic models of clothing insulation result in improved thermal comfort, smaller HVAC equipment sizes and lower energy consumption.


Harmon, M. (2012) Creating Environments that Promote Efficiency and Sustainability: Anthropological Applications in the Building/Construction Industry. Proceedings from the 2012 ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings, pp 7-75 - 7-87,

Lee, J., H. Zhang and E. Arens (2013) Typical Clothing Ensemble Insulation Levels for Sixteen Body Parts. Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ), Center for the Built Environment, Center for Environmental Design Research, UC Berkeley,

Lee, K. H. and S. Schiavon (2013) Influence of Two Dynamic Predictive Clothing Insulation Models on Building Energy Performance. Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ), Center for the Built Environment, Center for Environmental Design Research, UC Berkeley,

Schiavon, S. and K. H. Lee (2012) Dynamic Predictive Clothing Insulation Models Based on Outdoor Air and Indoor Operative Temperatures. Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ), Center for the Built Environment, Center for Environmental, Design Research, UC Berkeley,

Schiavon, S. and K. H. Lee (2013) Influence Of Three Dynamic Predictive Clothing Insulation Models On Building Energy Use, HVAC Sizing And Thermal Comfort. HVAC Systems, Center for the Built Environment, Center for Environmental Design Research, UC Berkeley

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Windows With Unintended Views - The Need to Engage Key Stakeholders Using Multiple Methods

Not only do designers need to engage as many different stakeholder groups as possible to give them a voice, but they need to do it using multiple methods – interviews, observations and surveys (after occupancy as well as before). This typically results in insights that wouldn’t have been gained from using only one or two methods, including insights into unintended consequences. And one-on-one interviews in context often jog memories about issues as well as provide opportunities for occupants to share thoughts they might not in a group.

In this New Mexico elementary school, teachers had mixed feelings regarding the small, low windows in the classrooms, and its likely that many of the following concerns were weighed during the planning/design process. Some found the windows distracting to class activities, while others felt that a view to the outside was important for students. One teacher felt that the outside view of playground activities and the valley below important as the views provided a number of learning opportunities. Others liked the light from the smaller windows, and the fact that blinds allowed the teachers to control the views.  Several teachers commented that the vertical blinds didn't work well.

However, it is likely that the following unintended consequence wasn’t addressed during the planning/design phases, and the only way to learn about it was by engaging the teachers in a post occupancy evaluation or ethnographic exercise of some type. While out on the playground, one teacher related that the size and placement of the windows was unfortunate, as they framed adult bodies in an unflattering way that generated rude comments from older students inside the classrooms.  As a result, staff, particularly female staff, felt that they had to be particularly aware of body placement in their classrooms as well when they were outside near the building. This distracted from the learning process in a number of ways (including providing an avenue for the expression of disrespectful behavior among some students), and it was suggested that slightly larger windows would have solved the problem. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Great Expectations - Utility Cost Savings Don't Always Mirror Energy Savings

The following is a lessons learned taken from the renovation of elementary school in rural New Mexico. It was part the findings from a post occupancy evaluation (POE) conducted by M.E. GROUP for the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority. The format it's presented in comes from the Garrison Institute's September 2013 Climate, Buildings and Behavior Symposium.

Intended Goal/Desired Outcome: Incorporate several high performance design strategies in the renovation of a rural New Mexico elementary school to create a school facility that reduces energy and water consumption and utility costs relative to the original school, as well as improves the teaching/learning environment.

Less than Ideal Actual Outcome:  There was a 22.6% decrease in the total annual energy consumed comparing the average of the post renovation school years with the pre renovation year as indicated by the blue line in the figure on the left. However there was a corresponding 168% increase in annual energy costs, as indicated by the blue line in the figure on the right. This decrease in energy consumption is impressive, as the pre-renovation cooling systems consisted of undersized evaporative coolers which consumes significantly less electrical energy than the post-renovation all electric geothermal ground coupled water source heat pump system. And from what was learned, this evaporative cooling system was poorly performing relative to occupant comfort. But the reduction in gas load from pre to post-renovation (green line in the figure on the left) is greater than the corresponding increase in electrical load (red line on the left). The elimination of the old gas heating system and transition to all electric water heaters everywhere but the kitchen, combined with the more energy efficient lighting system incorporating daylight harvesting (despite its problems), the improved roof insulation and the white TPO roof likely account for the overall decrease in energy consumption post-renovation. Plus there may have been a transition to more efficient kitchen equipment as well as potential scheduling changes (possibly less use after hours and over the summer post renovation – though there was conflicting information on this).

What went wrong or appears to have gone wrong? This seeming contradiction in decreased energy consumption but increased utility costs (shown in the figure on the right) is likely due to shifting the school’s load from primarily gas to primarily electric, as the school's average electric utility rate for the 2011-2012 school year was slightly more than twice the average gas utility rate.  A decrease in electric rates from pre-renovation to post-renovation likely explain why the increase in utility costs weren’t more than the 168% increase that did occur (as well as the addition of the PV system to a small degree).

There was also an increase in the estimated annual green house gas (GHG) emissions produced by the school’s energy consumption over this period, as indicated by the green line, going from 306,931 lbs to an average of 533,273.5 lbs. As with the energy costs, this is likely due largely to the shift from a gas heating / evaporative cooling (electric) HVAC system to an electric only HVAC system. Electricity generation in New Mexico is mostly via coal fired power plants and burning coal releases more CO2 and SO2 than burning natural gas. However this analysis is based on limited years of utility data before and after renovation.

What systematic challenges or issues does this example elucidate? In the effort to reduce energy and water consumption through high performance, sustainable design, utility costs are sometimes left out of the analysis and GHG emissions are rarely considered at all. However, there are often significant cost differences between different fuel sources (as this example shows). Saving significant energy does not automatically translate into significant utility cost savings if there is a change in the ratio of fuel sources used. And this can have a significant impact on owner operational budgets, particularly small, rural school districts. And as climate change, mitigation and adaption inevitably become  more of the public discussion, a facility’s greenhouse gas emissions will become a formal part of a project’s life cycle cost analysis (LCCA), energy analysis and energy model.

What are the lessons learned? Two basic lessons:

  • In addition to first cost, maintenance costs, energy consumption and occupant comfort/controllability, the following should also be considered in the selection/specification of major systems and equipment: differences in operational (i.e., utility) costs and green house gas emissions of electric vs. natural gas systems/equipment (and how that may change over the next 20+ years).
  • Utility rates/rate structures have a significant impact on utility costs. Coordinate what these will be with the local utilities as opposed to using national/regional averages and forecast near term changes in these rates if possible.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Curious Incident of the Solatube in the Daytime; or The Good, the Bad and the Noisy - Another Reason to Commission Systems and Engage Key Stakeholders

The following is a lessons learned taken from the renovation of elementary school in rural New Mexico. It was part the findings from a post occupancy evaluation (POE) conducted by M.E. GROUP for the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority. The format it's presented in comes from the Garrison Institute's September 2013 Climate, Buildings and Behavior Symposium.

Intended Goal/Desired Outcome: Remodel existing classrooms in a New Mexico elementary school to successfully bring in large amounts of good quality daylight through Solatubes in order to a) increase the quality of the educational environment and b) reduce the facility’s energy consumption with the further addition of daylight harvesting to those classrooms.

Less than Ideal Actual Outcome: At least one Solatube per classroom ended up having operational issues that were still occurring over a year after occupancy. Damper actuators were constantly opening/closing (independently of the other Solatubes) or becoming stuck in the closed or open position. This created distracting noises as well as constant changes in light levels. In addition to the general distraction resulting from the constantly changing light levels at these Solatubes, when they were located adjacent to smart boards or projection screens, viewing difficulty increased. Add in the general sound distractions and decreased audibility for those students near the malfunctioning Solatubes, the potential negative impact on student learning was significant in those classrooms. 

Low SES (socioeconomic status) students are also disproportionately impacted by facility problems impacting comfort and health, such as these, for a variety of reasons in part related to having on average less support outside of the school. And this school has a large percentage of low SES students, making it doubly important to rectify these issues and in general avoid them to begin with.

The post occupancy evaluation of the school and subsequent analysis led to the manufacturer getting involved again. It was subsequently concluded that the motors in these malfunctioning Solatubes were defective, and new motors were sent out. However, if this does not end up being the fix for all of the Solatubes, other potential causes might involve:

  • Internal electronics damaged from lightning strikes.
  • Low voltage wire runs in excess of manufacturer recommendations.
  • Dimmer fins binding on the tube and stuck (an issue that sometimes occurs during construction). This will over-tax the motor.  
  • Dimmers may need to be reset/synced, requiring coordination with the manufacturer representative.
  • The 0-10V daylight dimmer system was previously discontinued due to lack of satisfaction. If this is what was used on the Solatubes at this school, the circuit boards may need to be replaced with the standard 5V dimmer solution, requiring coordination with the Solatube representative.
  • The custodian thinks that teachers may be inadvertently over-riding and overwriting some of the settings.

What went wrong or appears to have gone wrong? Two things primarily:

  • The lighting control system was not included in the commissioning of the building’s systems, something that should have been considered more during planning/design and worked into the overall budget if possible. This likely would have uncovered at least some of the defective motors prior to occupancy, and possibly some of the other issues as well.
  • The maintenance of the lighting control system fell through the cracks primarily because it ended up being too complicated for the district to work with, and this was not adequately accounted for during planning/design. The integration of the manual wall controls, photocells, occupancy sensors and solar tube controllers is complex and the local electricians have trouble working on the whole system. The school custodian and district O&M personnel didn’t really understand the system that well (including the Solatubes) and neither did the teachers.
    • As a result of the perceived lack of personal environmental control and frustration created among the teachers/staff in the affected spaces, this further negatively impacts their productivity/performance and general teaching effectiveness.

What systematic challenges or issues does this example elucidate? Because of the general lack of local expertise, high tech systems, such as the ground source heat pump (GSHP) system, Solatubes/lighting control system and PV system used at this school typically require importing installation, operational and maintenance expertise from metropolitan areas of the state, increasing the cost and time required to maintain them. As a result, for this particularly rural New Mexico school, they must bring people in from Albuquerque or El Paso to help maintain these systems; at a minimum for small things they often have to get on the phone. It’s frustrating for these smaller, rural districts.

Often such systems in these contexts end up operating below design expectations long term, negatively impacting occupant productivity/performance and health, saving no energy, or worse, using more energy than had the system not been included. At some point they often end up being disabled. This gives high performance, sustainability, green, and/or associated certification systems a bad name – with the teachers/staff and students, as well as the community at large. And they’re less likely to incorporate such elements or similar elements in future projects.

What are the lessons learned? Two basic lessons:

  • Commissioning, commissioning, commissioning: Commissioning, including enhanced commissioning, of all the building’s major systems will typically pay for itself multiple times over. This is certainly the case if productivity and O&M cost impacts are estimated quantitatively and included in any LCCA performed. It is important that the designers and contractors (if involved early on) communicate this clearly to the owner. 
  • Engagement, engagement, engagement: It is imperative that the O&M tasks and costs associated with the operation and maintenance of high tech systems be thought out ahead of time during programming/early design, particularly relative to an owner’s (and community’s) capabilities to determine if the owner lacks the needed expertise and resources. If so, then either a) a path is developed to provide the owner with the necessary expertise and resources through training, systems manuals, a formal building operating plan, maintenance contracts, adequate warranty periods, devoted percentages of operating budgets, etc., or b) alternative design strategies need to be considered that meet owner expertise and resources, save the intended amount of energy and provide high quality environments (learning environments in this case). The school, district and community must be engaged through charrettes, focus groups, surveys, interviews and observations to help determine if a) or b) is the best fit with the district’s and community’s values and goals (short and long term). The process will also likely involve “syncing” the values/goals of these various key stakeholder groups.