Barriers to energy efficient behaviors in high performance office buildings

Presented by: Julia K. Day, Ph.D.

In recent years, more stringent codes and environmental standards have led to an increase of higher performance building designs that use less energy, which are often heavily reliant upon occupant interactions with the building (Brown et al., 2009). It is typical that designers and building owners recognize the intent of a given design and any sustainability goals, but the people that work in these buildings on a daily basis may not comprehend how their actions affect the building’s energy use (Janda, 2009). For example, occupants’ interactions with daylighting controls or passive ventilation strategies may have either a positive or negative impact on both building energy use and occupant thermal/visual comfort. 

A sequential mixed methods study was conducted to better understand the relationships between occupant behaviors, reported environmental satisfaction, and learning in high performance buildings. First, interviews were conducted (n = 3) and documents were analyzed to determine the study population. Second, a survey was sent to ten high performance office buildings in the U.S. (n = 118), and third, follow-up interviews (n = 41) were conducted with occupants from selected buildings to better understand the survey responses. The hypothesis predicted that if participants had received training for high performance building features, then they would be more satisfied with their environment than those who had not received training. Data were analyzed through both statistical (quantitative) analyses and coding (qualitative) for emergent themes.

Results indicated there was a significant difference between the two groups (those who had received effective training and those who did not), and the null hypothesis was rejected. Individuals who reported having received effective training were significantly more likely to be satisfied with their office environment than those who did not receive any training. In addition, some of the most interesting findings emerged from the following subsidiary research question: for what reasons do occupants choose not to interact with high performance building features?  

Occupants chose not to interact with high performance building features for several reasons, including the following: 1) social concerns (occupants did not want to affect others) and/or the culture in the office was not conducive to changing thermal or visual conditions, 2) “Not my dime” in reference to energy use, 3) occupants did not understand how to effectively control the building features, 4) lack of perceived control, or 5) occupants were unable to alter controls or interact with the building (e.g., in one of the study buildings, override switches were not provided to control the electric lights, which was incredibly inconvenient for occupants who needed night vision capabilities to perform their job at a weather station – a programmatic and design misstep). 

These emergent themes tie back to the literature surrounding social influence (Jain et al., 2013), lack of understanding (Hadi & Halfhide, 2011), and lack of control (Day et al., 2012). Educating occupants about how to control building systems, encouraging interactions and energy-saving behaviors, and explaining the rationale behind building energy savings may all be ways to address the issues identified above.

Advancement of design knowledge
Findings of this study demonstrated 1) the importance of an integrated design approach that considers needs of the occupants as well as programmatic goals (Brown & Cole, 2009), and 2) the need for occupant education sourrounding interactive building controls. We, as interior designers, have an opportunity to not only educate occupants through our designs, but we may also be able to create environments that encourage active occupant engagement and foster an increased awareness of energy efficiency in buildings.


  • Brown, Z. B., Dowlatabadi, H., & Cole, R. J. (2009). Feedback and adaptive behaviour in green  buildings. Intelligent Buildings International, 1(4), 296–315.
  • Day, J., Theodorson, J., & Van Den Wymelenberg, K. G. (2012). Understanding controls,  behaviors and satisfaction in the daylit perimeter office: A daylight design case study.  Journal of Interior Design, 31(1), 17–34.
  • Hadi, M., & Halfhide, C. (2011). Green buildings: Understanding the role of end user behaviour.  Going Green: The Psychology of Sustainability in the Workplace, 31.
  • Jain, R. K., Gulbinas, R., Taylor, J. E., & Culligan, P. J. (2013). Can social influence drive energy  savings? Detecting the impact of social influence on the energy consumption behavior of  networked users exposed to normative eco-feedback. Energy and Buildings, 66, 119–127.
  • Janda, K. B. (2011). Buildings don’t use energy: people do. Architectural Science Review, 54(1), 15–22.
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