According to the World Green Building Council, today’s buildings account for 39% of the world’s energy-related carbon emissions. There is a huge potential for reducing the pressure on the environment and climate by saving energy and resources, and reducing emissions. Companies worldwide have long understood the economic potential. There is a constant flow of new products and technical solutions on the market promising improvements in efficiency and environmental sustainability. But – is it all about technology?
We recently had the chance to find out more about a very different and less technocratic approach by talking to Dr. Astrid Roetzel, Senior Lecturer in Architectural Sustainability at the School of Architecture and Built Environment at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia, and Mark DeKay, Professor of Architecture at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. On ResearchGate, a social network for scientists with 130+ million publications and 15+ million connected researchers, they recently published some findings concerned with the “interplay between people and the design of buildings”, occupant behaviors, people’s individual preferences and, of course, the effects of buildings on energy consumption.
The freely accessible paper titled “An Integral Sustainable Design Approach to Human Inhabitation of Architectural Spaces: Theory and Project Design” was originally presented at the Integral European Conference in Siofok, Hungary, May 2018. It is a team project with co-authors on the paper, Mark DeKay, Astrid Roetzel, Akari Nakai Kidd, Lucy Zinkiewicz, and Anna Klas.
The thought-provoking conversation gave us a taste of how designers often focus too much on building technology and give too little attention to occupants for which buildings are made. Read on for our exclusive interview!
ECOURBANHUB: In brief and simple words: What is your study about?
In this project, we are contributing to a better understanding of the interplay between people and the design of buildings, and the related environmental impact. We are learning about what people do and prefer in buildings and why, and what that means for energy performance and building design. It’s a relatively small project on a low budget so we started with a case study at the Deakin University Waterfront Campus in Geelong, Australia. This study is focused on student’s preferences and perception of the architectural space itself as well as indoor (and courtyard) environmental parameters within the spaces.
In the biggest sense, it is about how to understand what people do in buildings and why. In a specific sense, we want to understand how people experience environmental conditions, like temperature, light, and sound. Surprisingly, the architectural discipline does not know very much about people.
ECOURBANHUB: … and what is it good for?
We hope to gain new insights for the design of buildings as well as for space conditioning and resulting energy performance. Our initial results suggest three scales of consideration: First we were able to observe some shared preferences that applied to all our participants, such as a place to study that offers a form of spatial refuge and prospect as well as offers low noise levels. Second, we were able to observe patterns that applied to a part of the cohort such as the shared context of early upbringing related to climate zone, lifestyle, built environment context, and related comfort expectations. And third, even within our small cohort of 20 participants, there was remarkable diversity in preferences for reasons related to each individual’s background and past experiences. Examples are past memories evoked by the case study space, ergonomic requirements, interpretation of color or lighting preferences.
We can conclude that ‘one size fits all’ only applies to very few of the investigated parameters, and other than that we have to design for diversity. Knowing this can help us to design better buildings that satisfy more people. The same applies to space conditioning. Today’s comfort standards propose conditions that are assumed to satisfy a majority of people. Our study could shed some light on reasons why some people still have different preferences. More diversity in indoor environmental conditions could help reduce a building’s resulting energy consumption.
We hope it is a new way to use multiple points of view—what we call perspectives— to understand a complex problem that can’t be made sense of with only a single methodology. This is a pilot study, so what it is good for as an ultimate application will be seen sometime in the future. I see this as the first test of this way of looking at the work, our “Integral Research Approach”, applied to understand architecture and design. Whatever one looks at using this multiperspectival approach, the subject is revealed in new ways. Ultimately, that means a better, more full understanding and better decisions based on that understanding.
ECOURBANHUB: You are not the first researchers dealing with occupant behavior. Why is there a further need for research? What was missing? What is the added value?
A lot of recent research on occupant behavior emerged out of the building simulation research community, initially driven by the need to quantify human behavior to improve input data for simulation. A lot of studies out of this context were therefore coming from disciplines like building physics, computer science, etc., using quantitative methodologies. Recent research results such as the International Energy Agency IEA Annex 66 project revealed that a lot of contextual and sometimes subjective variables are at play with regards to occupant behavior. With our project we are trying to contribute to the understanding of these insufficiently understood variables, acknowledging that the context of occupant behavior is a complex system consisting of a multitude of dynamically interacting parameters. What we are adding is a more holistic perspective, more awareness on the importance of contextual systems.
Simply stated, most occupant research is rather reductive. It is either based on behavioral observation or quantitative abstractions. People are represented only by their actions or by an algorithm. Sometimes researchers ask people questions, but ultimately, the questions lead to an understanding of people through statistics. These are all valid methods in their own domains, but they all arise from what we call the “Perspective of Behaviors” that is, a mechanistic understanding of how things work. It is the objective and only objective. What that leaves out is how people occupy different patterns of architectural space—the architectural context of their feeling and acting. It also leaves out any first-person understanding of what people actually feel and experience, the subjective view. Finally, most often the cultural context of occupants is left out — for example the effect of cultural norms on dress codes and how that then leads to energy behaviors like overcooling in offices, as just one example.
ECOURBANHUB: In your study, you stated “Poorly understood occupants are a main reason why predicted and actual building energy performance deviate significantly”. Why? Can you give concrete examples?
For buildings in early design stages, which don’t exist yet, the only way to evaluate the energy performance is to make predictions using building simulation. Simulation software requires input data about the building itself and its use, such as the use of heating, cooling, lighting, and equipment, use of hot water, etc. In existing buildings, we can measure this usage, but in early design stages this is not possible and assumptions have to be made. In the past these assumptions were often not very accurate, not accounting for the diversity of occupant behavior or contextual influences.
For example, if I am alone in an office I can use the shading system so it suits me, but if I share the office with colleagues the setting that provides me with daylight might cause glare for a colleague, so group dynamics come into play. Also if the switch is far away from my desk or complicated to operate I might be less likely to make frequent adjustments as opposed to a shading control that can be operated locally or from my computer. These contextual parameters influence the shading operation, and with that, the provision of daylight and solar heat gains and the resulting lighting and cooling loads, but they are difficult to predict. This can be a source of inaccuracy in between simulations in early stages and measurements in real buildings.
We started with a big problem, which is that computer simulations of how buildings use energy don’t match up with how much energy buildings actually use when occupied. Energy modelers and the software that they use make a lot of assumptions about occupant behavior, while building scientists have some traditional formulas that try to predict the conditions under which people will be comfortable. It turns out that physics works really well for roofs and windows, but not so good for explaining people and their choices. Therefore, occupants are though by many building scientists to be the biggest unknown in predicting building performance, and no one knows what to do to close the so-called “performance gap.”
ECOURBANHUB: What is meant by and what is the objective of “An Integral methodological approach” in the context of your study?
It means that we are investigating human inhabitation of architectural spaces from four different perspectives, and each perspective uses a different methodology related to a different discipline. For example, we want to know what the indoor / outdoor environmental conditions are in the spaces and we measure that, which is what architectural scientists do. We also want to know how people experience these conditions and therefore we used a method from psychology called the ‘speak-aloud method’ where we recorded people’s live narration of their experience in the moment of measurement.
We also want to know how the participant’s past experiences and cultural context conditioned the experiences in our case study space, and for that we conducted semi-structured interviews, also a methodology that psychologists commonly use. And, last but not least, we are curious about how the architecture of the space contributes to the participant’s experience, and, in order to find that out, we conducted a spatial architectural analysis of the geometry and architectural composition of the space, a method with which architectural designers are familiar. Each methodology generates different results and insights, and in their combination we get a more holistic picture. For example, we not only learn what people prefer but also why they have these preferences.
Earlier, we said that most research about building occupants originates from the Perspective of Behaviors, using scientific and engineering methods, what we call “measure and weigh.” It’s a great approach that can put a human on the moon but can’t explain delight, joy or love—or why we are attracted to views of nature, or a thousand other things about people. The Integral Research Approach (IRA) recognizes that every method reveals some aspect of truth (It is partially true, as Ken Wilber says), and, yet, no method can reveal the whole truth. Therefore, we use the “quadrants” framework to break down a larger research question into four types of questions with one or two questions from each major perspective on knowledge.
Then, we look for a research method with some validity in each of the four knowledge domains. You might say that “four methods are better than one.” The objective is to get a fuller understanding of any phenomenon being studied. The IRA also gives voice and value to various members of an interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary team.
ECOURBANHUB: You also describe your approach “…integrally‐informed, Wilber‐influenced approach…”. What does it mean?
“Integral” in this sense refers to meta-theories that try to integrate, so much as possible, all the realms of human knowledge and experience. Inevitably they seem to involve the fundamental domains like the arts, the sciences, and the humanities. Historically, we have figures like Sri Aurobindo and Jean Gebser. Ken Wilber is perhaps the best known and certainly the most widely published integral thinker working today. He’s worked out over the past few decades an amazing integral theory covering a wide range of subjects.
My book, Integral Sustainable Design, is an application of Wilber’s integral approach to the topic of sustainable design. It uses the basic “AQAL” model, meaning all quadrant-all level. Quadrants refer to a basic diagram with four fundamental perspectives: Experiences (I), Behaviors (It), Systems (complex ‘Its’) and Cultures (We). Levels refer to any number of systems of developmental complexity. The one I used in ISD was to look out through four different contemporary worldviews: Traditional, Modern, Postmodern and Integral. When you combine these, you get sixteen different perspectives on sustainable design, which is a transformation in sustainability consciousness! In our study, we asked a couple of questions about occupants from the four basic perspectives, then tried to generate a research method to answer those questions. As a pilot study, we did not get into levels of complexity, but we did try to work out in a speculative way what “inhabitation” looks like from those sixteen perspectives.
It means that we have a theoretical framework to guide us to conduct our collaboration. This framework is based on Wilber’s Integral Theory and Integral Methodological Pluralism (IMP). It suggests that for each of the four perspectives, experiences, behaviors, systems and cultures, two different viewpoints can be taken, from the inside out or from the outside in. For example, as a researcher wanting to investigate experiences, I can immerse myself in a situation and live my own experiences and analyze those, e.g through phenomenological methodologies. This would be looking from inside out. But I can also analyze other people’s reports of their experience, which is what we did using the speak-aloud methodology in our project. We observed the inside perspective from the outside, if that makes sense. If we apply the same to the other perspectives as well, then we end up with 8 methodological approaches.
The biggest picture and most comprehensive understanding is likely to occur when all 8 approaches are employed simultaneously. For the sake of feasibility with a small project and limited team, we used a simplified version of the IMP based on four instead of 8 methodologies in our project, one for each perspective. This approach enables us to be more aware of what we are investigating and what we are not investigating, and where our results have validity and where they don’t.