Motivating Occupants to Be Part of the Solution: Yes You Can! If you build it, will the occupants use it as you intended?

By Kathy Kuntz

Architects, engineers and builders have become increasingly effective at designing and delivering high performance buildings. Increasingly smart, these buildings will use less resources—provided occupants use systems as designed. Leveraging insights from social science building professionals can influence human behaviors and ultimately we can facilitate a culture where saving energy and reducing waste is “just what people like us do.”

Occupant actions matter. Research in Minnesota suggests that plug load represents more than half of building energy use in high performance buildings—which means buildings won’t deliver promised energy savings if occupants are wasteful. That’s why occupant engagement is so important.

So how do we engage people? Well, it’s not about information. Really—hanging up posters and talking at people rarely creates change. (This is hard to read, I know, especially since most of us are information fiends. We soak up random data for fun but in this case our target is regular people and study after study demonstrates that information isn’t sufficient to change practices. If information was enough, we’d all eschew chocolate cake for broccoli!) Part of the problem with information campaigns is that our target audience is already on information overload. In our modern world people are constantly bombarded with information to sort through while they are also thinking about the report that’s due at work, the argument they had with their sister and what to make for dinner. Juggling all of that people tend to be cognitive misers—to take the easy route rather than collecting data and thinking through each action carefully. And that means we use heuristics—we keep doing what we always did, we make choices based on the last information we saw, we follow the cues from others, etc. These mental shortcuts often lead to inefficient behaviors. As an example, I grew up in North Dakota where, as a young driver in the 1980s, I learned to warm up a car thoroughly before I drove it. That habit was fine then but in 2019 cars are made differently and my old way of doing things not only wastes fuel but it’s hard on the modern engine.

So how do we influence people to change what they do? First and foremost, you should celebrate people doing the right things. Humans are social creatures and we rely on the cues we get from others. So if you want folks to turn off their monitors then make a point of catching people doing this. On a random day you could hand out candy or coffee cards to the folks who remembered to turn off their monitors — it will create buzz and showcase these practices. Research shows that positive reinforcement is very powerful and in an instance like this you’re making more visible the practices you want to promote.
Too often, instead of celebrating what people are doing right, sustainability advocates shame people for their bad practices. This doesn’t work. Not only does it harm relationships but it also showcases exactly the wrong practices.

In the last two decades the USGBC has been instrumental in changing construction practices. Now it’s time to pay more attention to occupant practices so that we can realize the full potential of high performance buildings.

Join the USGBC-Missouri Gateway Chapter in welcoming Kathy Kuntz to St. Louis for “It’s What We Do: Creating a Culture Where Sustainable Practices Are the New Normal” on Tuesday, October 8 from 5:30 – 7:30 pm at Alberici, 8800 Page Ave (63114). Full details and registration available at www.usgbc-mogateway.org.