In the US, buildings account for about 40% of the primary energy use. Now, a lot is being done to cut that number down and companies like ours exist to do just that. Sustainable building practices are on the rise with recently developed standards like LEED, Enterprise Green Communities, and Passive House. Cities are mandating stricter energy usage reporting to collect better data that they can then use to inform green policy and legislation. So I’d say we’re headed in the right direction but there’s one thing that always sticks out in my mind when thinking about efficiency in the long term, the one variable that is arguably the most important and the most difficult to control: people.
In any kind of building, though particularly in multifamily properties, the people using the building ultimately decide whether or not it’s going to be efficient. New equipment and cutting edge technology are only going to get you so far if the people inside the building don’t adopt them. As simple as that may sound, we’ve often found it to be a barrier to long-term savings and performance. In some ways it makes sense since energy efficient behavior can be in direct conflict with comfort and productivity. Letting the AC blast for hours on a sweltering summer day just feels right sometimes. But as studies have shown, this part of the energy efficiency equation is crucial to its successful results. Let’s take a look at some of the behavioral studies that explore this topic.
The US Department of Energy conducted a study in 2014 to assess the behavior of federal employees, operations and maintenance staff, and visiting public in federal buildings and their impact on building energy performance. The study employed strategies from peer-reviewed literature that are shown to drive behavioral change and aligned them with specific sustainability goals. Key strategies used to promote behavioral changes included education regarding emerging technologies, offering rewards, and securing commitments. The study concluded that the groups’ behavior significantly impacted the results of proposed energy efficiency initiatives. These results were not surprising to me, nor would I expect them to be surprising to anyone, but the fact of the matter remains that the behavioral component of energy efficiency initiatives, while crucial, is the most difficult to control and often most easily overlooked.
Behavioral Cooperation in Action
So what happens when you get everyone who works or lives in a given building on board with energy efficiency? According to a study published by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 2013, occupants contribute to 30% of a building’s energy consumption. These findings inspired Allegheny County’s Sustainability Office team to collaborate with an energy management services provider, to implement a program to improve employee behavior towards energy efficiency within the organization. The county’s participant group consisted of 6,000 employees, making it a significant opportunity to observe energy conservation as affected by behavioral change. The program was based on four key steps:
- understanding individuals’ behavior and establishing a baseline
- raising awareness and communicating the impact of energy conservation
- creating a sustainable behavioral program
- revisiting existing programs and improving upon their practices.
This effort proved to be a huge success at the organization. In just a few months, the county saw significant improvements in three key behaviors: turning off lights, turning off computers when not in use, and switching to a community printer, which in turn led to measurable energy savings. See Figure 1 below for more detailed findings.
In Allegheny County, energy consumption went down thanks to a concerted effort to change attitudes and behaviors, but I wondered whether or not we were starting with a low bar since the US is known for being a global energy hog. Would the same be true in other, more energy savvy parts of the world?
Several similar studies have also been conducted in countries where the general awareness of and responsibility towards energy efficiency is observed to be higher than the global average.
The 2013 paper by the European Environment Agency that analyzed the behavioral impact on consumption patterns also published findings on the impact of behavior on energy efficiency. It showcases that an interface between policymaking and human behavior is key to achieving sustained reductions in energy consumption. As noted in the paper, for several energy efficiency measures implemented in Europe, the success has depended crucially on individuals to understand the information they receive and to act upon it. One of the prime examples highlighted in the study combines direct and indirect feedback methods such as deploying smart meters, installing in unit energy consumption displays, providing detailed bill analysis and historic consumption comparisons. These strategies have been most successful in changing individual behavior to achieve energy savings. And it makes perfect sense.
You can install the most efficient, cutting edge technology on the market but if you don’t get your people to adopt it, it’s just not going to be effective. Take faucet aerators, for example. These innocuous fixtures are tremendous energy savers, but all someone has to do to impede on those savings is unscrew it from their faucet. Explain to the resident how they work and allow them to be a part of the selection process and you’ll see your long-term savings.
These are just few examples in the long list of studies and observations that highlight the importance of individual behavior in this context. It would not be farfetched to say that the success of emerging technologies and improved practices hinges on its users as much as the product’s viability and cost implications.
By no means can behavior alone achieve our goal of operating a more efficient building, providing a more comfortable residence, or living in a more energy efficient world, but it is crucial to our success in any one of those endeavors.
Wolfe, A.K., Malone, E.L., Heerwagen, J., & Dion, J. 2014. Behavioral Change and Building Performance: Strategies for Significant, Persistent, and Measurable Institutional Change. Report prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy under Contract DE-AC05-76RL01830. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, WA.
Zachery Ambrose, Ashley Jones, Sally Russell 2014. Energy Saving Behavior Change for the 21st Century. ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings.
Rachel Young, Sara Hayes, Meegan Kelly, Shruti Vaidyanathan, Sameer Kwatra, Rachel Cluett, and Garrett Herndon 2014. International Energy Efficiency Scorecard. American Council for Energy Efficiency and Economy.
Our Top Picks for Energy Cinderella Stories
Every year there’s one small team that slowly but surely rises in ranks, winning upset after upset, while facing off against the biggest names in basketball. The same can be said for certain energy conservation measures which are often overlooked in favor of flashy, high-tech projects. But sometimes, it’s the smallest changes that make the biggest impact. Let’s take a look at our top five picks.
These simple devices are so easy to buy and install we’re not sure why they’re not on every faucet. By restricting the flow of water that comes out of your faucet, aerator implementation is a simple and cost-effective water conservation measure that can also result in major cost savings, especially across a portfolio. (Note: Low flow doesn’t mean crappy – we sometimes refer to the aerators we recommend as “engineered flow”, because they don’t get you any less clean, they just use less water.)
Where to start? Caulk has many useful applications. You probably think about caulking around the tub and countertops as preventing leaks into the floor below, but it also prevents mold and preserves indoor air quality. Caulking around your windows, doors and A/C sleeves keeps indoor air in and outdoor air out. So if you’re feeling the chill on a cold winter night, or when you receive your heating bill, feel around for air infiltration and try a fresh bead of caulk to keep you cozy and warm.
Energy efficient lighting has got to be one of the easiest upgrades out there with the most bang for its buck. The cost of the bulbs themselves are quickly recovered in short payback periods and improved quality of life. That’s right, efficient lighting also means comfortable lighting. Gone are the days of flickery twisty CFL bulbs – get yourself some of the new LEDs and enjoy beautiful light, much longer bulb life (10x fewer bulb changes) and much less unwanted heat, leading to a balanced indoor environment and budget.
If you’ve ever accidentally backed into an uninsulated pipe, you’ll surely understand the value of pipe insulation. Pipes get hot, really hot, and that’s exactly what they’re made to do. What they’re not made to do is retain that heat. This is where pipe insulation comes in. Attaching insulation around every heat and hot water pipe is not only an important safety measure, it also significantly cuts down heat loss, meaning you’ll have lower heat and hot water bills.
Control Your Controls
Sometimes the biggest savings are right under your nose. Many building owners implement building controls of some form. But more often than not, once the controls system is in place, it’s left to operate on its own without much oversight. Checking in on your controls is the best place to start when something isn’t working, but it’s an even better practice to check in when everything seems to be working fine. You never know what you might see. After all, a proactive approach to energy management is the real Cinderella story every year.
Passive House, or PassivHaus as you may have seen it written, is an innovative new approach to energy efficient design and construction practices. We’re excited to see it popping up across the United States more and more. There are plenty of well-covered examples of these projects – their potential impact on residential energy conservation efforts is unmatched. But what are people really talking about when they say Passive House? And more importantly, should you be considering it for your next development?
What is Passive House?
Passive House is a recently-developed German building standard that takes energy efficiency to the next level.* Buildings that are designed to this standard are called “Passive Houses,” but they aren’t just single family homes. Passive Houses can include multifamily and commercial developments, too.
Passive Houses require less energy to heat and cool, and are up to 90% more efficient than the existing building stock. Insulation and superior air sealing are the primary focus of Passive House design. The goal is to design an extremely air-tight building envelope, limiting outside air coming into the building. This allows for the ventilation to be managed mechanically, which dramatically improves indoor air quality without consuming unnecessary energy.
What are the benefits?
Passive Houses are built to exceptional standards, and the benefits follow suit. The fine-tuned control over indoor air quality and temperature make Passive Houses extremely comfortable for residents throughout changing seasons and across climates. An added perk of the focus on insulation is that they are also much more sound-proof than traditional buildings – something our friends in NYC and other bustling cities across the country certainly covet.
Additionally, Passive House is a smart financial investment. Because the buildings are so well insulated, their heating and cooling systems can be dramatically smaller, which helps offset some of the costs of higher quality envelope. The highly efficient design reduces energy usage and operating costs dramatically, making up any additional construction cost within a few years.
And, of course, these buildings are good for the environment.
How do I know if it makes sense for me?
While existing buildings can be retrofitted to these standards, Passive House is most common for newly constructed single family homes, multifamily buildings, and commercial real estate developments. If you have an upcoming construction project, Passive House is an excellent option to explore if you want to maximize comfort and minimize utility costs. The key is to incorporate it into the design process as early as possible for an easier transition to high-performance design.