Managing Behavior and “Building Culture” for Greater Efficiency

Building owners and tenants strive to heighten building efficiency in modernizing cities, like Hong Kong. Photo by ¡kuba! / Flickr

In the past few years, large commercial building owners and managers have expressed growing interest in using behavioral strategies to improve their buildings’ performance. That interest often takes the form of “occupant engagement,” whereby tenants are encouraged to adjust their habits to save energy or water. Researchers estimate that behavioral strategies can save 25 percent of energy in homes and between five and 30 percent in commercial buildings. However, despite burgeoning interest, commercial building owners and their facilities managers have barely begun to unlock the potential of behavioral strategies. Achieving these tremendous benefits first requires an understanding of the people and culture of a building.

Big Potential in Need of Better Strategies

Building owners and managers often overlook the many simple changes they have the power to make. “Energy efficiency is a complex societal problem that needs a multi-pronged approach. Policy, rate structures and utilities all make a difference, but in the end, the motivation for change remains with corporate entities and individuals,” says Stephen Selkowitz, a researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In a recent research paper, Alan Meier and co-authors argue that building owners and operators “have the technical means to reduce energy use, [but] social, organizational and technical constraints limit ability and motivation. These include low status, customer service practices, poor feedback on occupant environment, little energy data, and technology shortcomings.” Understanding and addressing these human factors is essential to creating effective behavioral strategies.

Managing a Changing Building Culture

Technology is only as good as how it is used. Often overlooked is the fact that this relationship works both ways—any technology incorporated into a building can ultimately change behavior. If building operations staff encounter new or unfamiliar technology, then it is important to understand the impact on the “culture” of the building. Just as technology and science are some of the biggest drivers of deep changes across societies, the same is true at the scale of a building.

To manage cultural change in buildings and enable cooperation among all the participants in the building lifecycle, researchers Lamberto Tronchina and Massimiliano Manfren have recommended that building owners use common terminology and definitions; performance metrics; and building design and operation management approaches (particularly those that are integrated, data intensive, model based). These steps provide the foundation for better building operations and greater energy savings.

Top-Down and Bottom-Up Approaches

Why does one building and its staff perform flawlessly while another similar building struggles to keep up? It often depends on the management approach used in the building’s operations group: top-down vs. bottom-up.

For example, someone operating within a top-down paradigm is more likely to put together a training program that emphasizes instructions and references to authoritative sources—rather than creative problem solving and peer-to-peer networking. A top-down manager will expect thorough and rapid adoption and compliance with their “system.”

But imposing an unfamiliar system may end up creating changes for staff that are unwelcome, imposed and superficial, lacking meaning for their everyday lives. If so, the manager will have set themselves up as the sole authority and will probably experience more unexpected failures and disruptions to the system they established. They will receive more calls to come fix things, rather than staff fixing problems themselves. The result will be an account that requires heavier, more intensive servicing. This means higher costs and more demands on time, in addition to poorer results.

On the other hand, a bottom-up or social approach requires patience and a belief that a few changes can move operations and management staff in the direction they need to go in order to better manage the building. Understanding the mechanics of a building includes understanding people. Meier and coauthors recommend:

“(1) recognizing the building as a social system and using real buildings and users to experiment with solutions; (2) supporting increases in the visibility and professionalization of building operators and operations; (3) improving technical capabilities for seeing and managing energy in buildings; and (4) improving coordination between indoor environmental quality and energy efficiency, helping ensure that efficiency technologies meet their energy performance expectations without leading to unnecessary deterioration of the workplace environments.”

People matter. Considering their habits and their subtle differences when making management decisions can create more engaged occupants and managers and tilt future outcomes in desired directions. Deeper buy-in among personnel leads to greater support over the longer-term and, with it, more consistent outcomes and realized savings.

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