Monday, 12 September 2016

What's not to like?

Do you Like your office?

Do you like your office? When I say ‘like’ I don’t mean appreciate or ‘enjoy’, I mean do you Like it with a big, blue Facebook thumb? Such questions have got a bad rap in recent years. The ‘Like’ is seen as the ultimate superficial gesture, the epitome of ‘slacktivism’ and a meaningless affirmative in place of actual thought or expression. But, in the right hands, a Like could make an awful lot of difference, and could even change the world.

A Like is really just a data point, and it doesn’t mean an awful lot when you’re talking about a friend’s holiday photos, but applied to buildings ratings can make a lot of difference both in the short and long term. The world’s biggest companies boast of their Likes online and jostle for your attention because it shows their product is good and authentic.

This model has a lot of potential with buildings: We’ve been used to measuring the energy efficiency of buildings for years, but the problem is engagement. Landlords are often reluctant to promote their energy ratings because they take into account the energy habits of their tenants, over which they have little control. As a result, the energy rating isn’t something landlords shout about, and thus they have little marketable value. In Australia, however, it works differently.

The worst performing Australian offices
perform 4x better than Britain's worst
The National Australian Building Environmental Rating Scheme (NABERS), by contrast, uses in-use energy data to distinguish between the areas controlled by the landlord and the areas controlled by the tenant, as well as the performance of the building’s fabric, to create a rating that landlords are happy to engage with. As a result, building owners are only too happy to brag about the stars their building has achieved under this scheme, to the point where the NABERS rating is common vocabulary in the marketplace, and commercial tenants often insist on certain ratings when they inquire after property.

This is effectively a market-driven approach to energy that encourages good practice by linking it to very tangible benefits, rather than through threat of sanction. The fastest way to a client’s heart is through their wallet, after all, and this represents a first-class way to recognise and reward real, measured performance. But there’s a darker side to this situation. What is, at the moment, a discussion being had largely around the cost and supply of energy and how it’s generated could in the near future become a much more serious discussion about basic needs.

How we tackle energy use now could be a dry run for how we talk about national or global water shortages in the future, so it could pay to make sure our model works now before the consequences of failure become even more severe. This is where Likes come in again. In the same way that NABERS has been able to get landlords actively engaged in marketing a high energy rating as a must-have, so engineers must work on ways to get occupants to think this way too, and with new technology this is becoming more and more realistic.

Technology can be used to engage building occupants in sustainability

‘Big data’ projects like BIM are revolutionising building services, and we are finding new ways of using technology to make buildings more efficient, more responsive and more pleasant to use every day. But, as we learned at our last Conference, a building that truly performs is only as good as its occupants allow it to be. Even the most artfully designed system is a failure if occupants don’t like it and don’t use it properly, or reduce its effectiveness by finding ways to avoid using it at all. Air conditioning left on all day, timed light switches taped over to keep them on, motion sensors turned off. All of these reduce intended performance.

By listening to occupants and giving them an incentive to feed back by using their responses to improve buildings they use, we can instead design systems that occupants actually like. This can be as simple as a questionnaire, or even happy/sad face buttons by the service you’re testing for occupants to press. Whatever works. By showing users that their building gets better as they engage, the more likely they are to advocate for more sustainable approaches and insist that these are the
norm.

Engineers in the future could identify needs before the occupants, using data
All these options are possible now, but what about the future? As we collect more and more information from buildings and get better at actually using it usefully, it opens up many possibilities. One of the more exciting is predictive technology, which most people will recognise in Google’s uncanny ability to show you adverts for things you want. The more data we get from occupants, the more sophisticated and accurate these algorithms will become. Engineers of the future could run programmes to determine exactly how to design every conceivable feature of a building to match the anticipated occupants, better than they could ever describe it themselves.

This data would cause a sea-change in how buildings are specified, designed, built and operated, in order to best fit their purpose and eliminate as much waste as is possible. To be comfortable and well designed, yet also as efficient as possible. To minimise input costs as well as maximise output benefits. But before any of this can happen, we need to think like NABERS and create ways to incentivise building owners and users to maximise their own building performance. Only then can we create a long-term and sustainable system that puts performance first. Not bad for a humble Like!

1 comment:

  1. Very persuasive – with a contemporary social media twist. Given the high stakes of the energy trilemma, and the opportunity the Brexit trauma might present to make radical changes to building energy performance regulations, I wonder if a groundswell of opinion can form around the idea of mandating landlords utility meters for the energy needed to operate a multi-let building, and separate utility meters for the energy used for the activities of each tenant: lighting, small power, etc.. This would put robust metered energy data on a plate where the agency exists to control and manage the energy being metered. Landlords get the data to demonstrate how good and well-managed their buildings are, and each tenant gets the data they need to show they are pulling their weight in terms of energy efficiency too.

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