Tom Marseille

Tom Marseille explores the balance between the potential of smart buildings and the occupants who use them.

The majority of industry professionals involved in the design of high-performance buildings understand that some level of occupant engagement is required to achieve sustained, successful outcomes. But what does this engagement look like? 

Efficiency is in the occupant’s hands

At one end of the spectrum, effectively leveraging passive design and daylighting usually depends on occupants changing the indoor environment to fit their needs (e.g., opening and closing windows or raising and lowering blinds). Essentially, occupants are asked to become more aware and more educated about how their buildings are meant to operate to provide the most benefit.

Although there are great examples of success in this low-tech approach, there are also many examples of where design intent and occupant behavior are at odds. Interior blinds, for instance, are lowered to eliminate glare, but if they are never re-opened, the intent to save energy and improve productivity through natural light is lost. 

Buildings that are designed and built to current market standards increasingly include more indoor sensors to control mechanical HVAC or artificial lighting. But occupants can easily manipulate these tools, and do so frequently, typically in response to a lack of control over the space. Occupant education can help in setting expectations and encouraging behavioral changes, but it is challenging to execute, and the knowledge does not stay constant during inevitable staff turnover.

More than ever, occupants and tenants are being asked to play a bigger role in achieving high-performance outcomes for their buildings by reducing their own personal consumption, and to make smart choices in reducing energy and water use.

To help enable the desired behavior, technology is needed to provide the feedback loop; energy dashboards, for example, are fueled by metered and submetered building utility data. The goal is to package this information for occupants in ways that are easily digestible and—most important—actionable. This use of technology may represent the next step toward making more effective “building-aware occupants.”

Customizing building information, and making it accessible via individual workstations or smartphones, is a reality today. But it remains to be seen whether occupant interest and active engagement can be sustained in the long term. Early findings are not particularly encouraging except in cases where there is a strong motivating factor. Does this mean having effective building-aware occupants is an aspiration that may not be achievable?

Your building can sense you

Looking ahead, data, and our ability to collect data, creates a powerful new paradigm that is promising to improve our lives through increased convenience, comfort and productivity. Beyond occupancy sensors to activate lighting, HVAC or even electrical outlets, what we are now talking about is the next—or perhaps first—generation of truly “occupant-aware buildings.”  

Everyone, from tech developers to futurists to politicos, have latched onto the idea of smart buildings within smart cities, of making sense of big data collected from new information conduits available through the internet of things and new sensory technology. Smart buildings stand to benefit the broad spectrum of building stakeholders.

Developers looking for a quick and profitable sale can tout the latest approach to building technology and use it as a lever to fulfill energy efficiency code mandates. Building owners could enjoy lower operating costs through a fully and continually tuned, optimized building, and be poised to better track and retain tenants. Tenants may see improved productivity from employees through a healthier, more comfortable environment, which could contribute in turn to reduced staff turnover. Smart sensors gathering data on occupancy trends may inform future workplace strategies, enabling planning for reduced leased space requirements without compromising employee comfort and productivity.

It is a powerful idea, but it raises some questions, because—if we are willing—buildings will soon know our preferences, where we are and when they can expect us to arrive or depart. Buildings can potentially make choices for us to optimize (based on the trended algorithms) occupant experience and performance.

Does this mean that eventually, your building may know more about you than you are comfortable with, even though you are more comfortable in your building? Is the next generation of high performance for building stock only possible at the expense of personal privacy? And can we truly rely on this additional layer of systems complexity to be reliable, affordable, maintainable and secure?

For now, we can still consider the other option of educating people to "do it themselves," to emphasize and enable the building-aware occupant in a simpler building, arming them with information that helps them consume less and enjoy an admittedly lower tech building more. So, is the occupant-aware building better than the building-aware occupant? Or should we embrace both, and design and build 21st century occupant-aware buildings for building-aware occupants?