Sustainability Beyond Energy

On balance, the green building movement and energy efficiency programs in the U.S. in have been successful over the last decade or so. How successful, and how much energy has been saved? Per capita energy use in the U.S. has decreased by about 10–12% since 2000 and certainly there is much broader awareness of efficiency compared to 10 or 15 years ago. If I had to guess (which I do, as finding accurate objective data on things like this is a real challenge) I would say that perhaps a larger proportionate share of efficiency gains has come from green buildings than from, say, transportation or industrial sectors. But there has been controversy over how much energy is actually saved in LEED certified buildings, and vocal criticism of USGBC for its overgrown bureaucracy and lack of teeth is quite common among building professionals. And because metering electricity use at any level more granular than the entire building is still somewhat rare, it’s difficult to make effective comparative assessments of device or discrete system efficiency. So although I am deeply committed to energy efficiency and improving how we build, this all may not exactly sound like a ringing endorsement of sustainability – largely because the failings of our approach to green building are often rooted in an exclusive energy efficiency focus that ignores other factors that are often more important. We have learned this: in the process of making highly efficient products, systems, buildings, or cities we often end up with results that have many non–energy benefits, but these results tend to be accidental. Now we have the technical tools to make the process of integrated design much more deliberate, but the hard part is mustering the social and political will to do so. I’d like to make the case that behavioral economics (BEcon) can help us there.

The best practical use of BEcon is to help us make better decisions. Building professionals, who usually make decisions about energy use every day as a matter of course, need to expand the focus from efficiency alone to other things like beauty, health and wellness, resilience, and connectivity – and as importantly, to understand that efficiency is inherent in good design and in fact can maximize many benefits simultaneously through interrelated and interactive effects – improved efficiency is not necessarily a tradeoff between other important considerations like cost or comfort.

This isn’t to say that our work in improving energy efficiency will ever be done. Economies are based on energy, and ours has always assumed unlimited supplies of cheap energy – we will probably overcome this bias only gradually. We are also in some real sense deeply stuck in the concept of growth as the only condition of a healthy economy. We’re simply incapable of visualizing an economy that’s not either growing at a rapid rate or crashing, since that’s what our economy and most industrial economies have always done. We have no cognitive model for economic equilibrium- it always seems to be boom or bust, especially in the West. This is probably the enduring effect of economies driven largely by resource extraction.

For me, BEcon continually provides a useful source of ideas. For starters, I like to differentiate between two concepts that are often confused and used interchangeable: “conservation” which aims to change behavior at a personal level (like reminders to turn off the lights or the water or Jimmy Carter urging us to put on a sweater) and “efficiency,” which involves systemic changes that eliminate reliance on behavior modification alone. However, efficiency strategies also have their own tricky behavioral components, as they require decisions on investment for future returns. A 2012 paper, When "Not Losing" is Better Than "Winning:" Using Behavioral Science to Drive Customer Investment in Energy Efficiency by Dylan Sullivan of NRDC, Carrie Armel of Precourt Energy Efficiency Center and Annika Todd of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory outlines a well articulated approach to energy efficiency programs based on principles of BEcon as developed by Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. These include: curating choices; managing defaults; emphasizing up–front rewards, friendly competition, and reciprocity; and using interpersonal interventions and communal feedback.

Focusing solely on energy efficiency at the expense of other more important considerations can have disastrous results. Perhaps the most visible recent example of this is the rapid deployment of LED streetlights across the globe. A frequently cited success story is the Los Angeles LED streetlight retrofit project – helped along by the Clinton Climate Initiative no less, and the world’s largest at the time of its inception – in which 140,000 high pressure sodium (HPS) lights (those ugly yellow ones) were replaced with energy efficient LEDs. Energy savings are apparently in the neighborhood of $5-7 million, although this data is typically not reported in context: for instance, how do savings compare to total investment, length of payback, and total energy use for the city? According to several internet searches I did, streetlights reportedly represent 15% of typical total municipal energy use (compared with 30-40% for pumping water, per the EPA). Fifteen percent energy savings is not a trivial amount, but what are the non-energy benefits and costs?

Aside from the financial investment, many costs are difficult to calculate but are salient nonetheless, as they involve many residents’ perception of an adversely impacted environment. This eventually affects many things like real estate values and sales in pedestrian commercial districts. Unfortunately, in many early LED streetlight retrofit projects used first generation LEDs that produce light with a high blue content – later LEDs include warmer color high efficiency light sources. The blue light is perceived as overly bright and glaring. While the old HPS lamps aren’t anything to love, they now look warm and inviting compared to most new LED streetlights. And in most installations, there is only one fixture type used– there is no differentiation between lights that are good for driving (the predominate fact of existence in LA) and those that are good for pedestrian areas, which need to be warmer and dimmer. And while there are claims that light pollution has been reduced because of LED lights’ inherent directionality (they don’t project waste light skyward like the HPS lamps), this effect is totally negated by the fact that their high blue content light more easily reflects off pavement, directing light back into space (the albedo effect), where it has a higher light pollution effect than longer wavelength yellowish or redder light. Citizens in cities in the U.S. (Brooklyn, Davis, CA, Seattle, Atlanta) and England ( London, Manchester, have been reacting vehemently to these poorly considered LED installations, using terms like “zombie lighting” and “prison-yard lights” to describe them. On the benefits side, many also perceive that areas are safer and better lit, and (incorrectly as it turns out) that light pollution is reduced. What is clear in the final calculation is that human comfort, the beauty of the environment, and other crucial non-energy benefits were not even part of the equation.

Also, in lighting at least, the focus on energy must be replaced with a focus on all other non-energy factors for a very real and unanticipated reason: LEDs deliver energy savings so effectively (for many building types, lighting power density of > .5Wsf is now realistic) that energy savings can’t continue to be a significant source for funding efficiency projects. Paybacks and ROI now need to be calculated with different metrics. I have written before about new/retooled/better metrics for building performance that reflect important things like health and comfort data for users, here and here.

In architecture the focus on efficiency is notably broken, specifically in the modernist aesthetic that glorifies over-glazing of buildings. This predilection is strangely about as non-green or sustainable as it’s possible to get, and is most prominent in highrises designed by starchitects. In fact the king of starchitects, Frank Gehry, has been known to trash the whole idea of sustainability as simply an annoyance – the operating narrative is that of a standoff between his mighty Roark-like ego and the rest of the simpering, sanctimonious world of lesser talents. While he may have some legitimate complaints about LEED, in his practice he’s pretty much the opposite of green, and has been called out for this. At any rate, his dismissive attitude furthers the mistaken perception that sustainable design is necessarily expensive, difficult and irritating.

But here’s how the design process for prominent towers in large city centers usually proceeds these days: the starchitect dictates a glass box (or cone or large fragment thing), developer Mr. Big agrees either through intimidation or because he’s requested it all along (because it’s Modernism, and all new buildings must be Modern), then the mechanical engineers are called in to make it as “green” as possible by mitigating with systems what are already probably very poor energy efficiency decisions in fenestration, skin, structure, and siting, not to mention lack of appropriate consideration for occupant health and comfort. So while there is often an important and widely touted focus on efficiency, and an appreciable level of sustainable design may perhaps ultimately be attained, it’s often at great extra cost and not much real return. And sometimes, inconveniently, the true energy performance ends up looking not so good a year or two after the “green” glass box has been built and occupied.

To replace the inevitable Glass Box design scenario with a better one we need two important things: a widely accepted and valued aesthetic model of a building that looks efficient and actually is, and a truly integrated design practice based on shared, collaborative visualization and execution. For at least a decade I’ve been at a loss to see how to deal with the first deficiency, but fortunately the second has been remedied handily by emerging design technology that enables parametric design as well as enhanced building performance. Maybe better design tools will in fact enable better design. They’ll do that more effectively when they incorporate parameters beyond energy that are most important to building users, like comfort and better environmental quality– fortunately they’re beginning to do just that.

Almost always included with discussion about non-energy benefits is the fact that they’re hard to quantify. Things like productivity and user comfort have been particularly difficult to measure, partly because a well understood, rigorous and affordable solution has not been forthcoming and research is often undertaken simply to verify assumptions that have already been taken for granted. Productivity as an economic measure by itself has been notoriously difficult to measure in any situation, and may eventually be seen as a relic of an industrial economy rather than an information one. Still, there seems to be general consensus that people are happier and more productive in green buildings, as this typical report shows. (In searching for data on this I deliberately avoided reports from USGBC and other similar organizations, as I wanted some measure of independent verification). Studies like these rely on post occupancy questionnaires and self-reporting and have limited data sets, so don’t represent a really rigorous approach, at least to my mind. Correlation is established but not causation – perhaps that’s enough, and a common sense observation does dictate that a beautiful building with appropriate light, views, and clean air will be preferred by most employees, and a strong connection between green buildings and specific metrics such as higher rental and occupancy rates, resale value, and reduced operating expenses has been well established, as reports like this typically indicate.

New metrics focused on the humans who occupy the buildings, applied to emerging tools that fully integrate whole building modeling, design, construction, operation, and maintenance can have powerful impacts on the design process. The interactive effects of the behavior of people in spaces can be modeled and studied, based on data sets from previous projects where applicable. Accurately visualized circulation patterns can help to shape floor plans and furniture plans and service delivery locations. Precise and realistic daylight modeling can help to validate fenestration and insulation strategies. Designing a building from the inside out, with people’s primary needs and biological responses as the first priority is now possible to accomplish with actual data.

Since our capacity to imagine and build almost anything – and even to make it significantly energy efficient – seems more assured than ever, the important factors affecting design outcomes – behavioral factors, the ones hardest for engineers and designers to deal with – assume a new prominence. How can we focus on behavioral factors to make better decisions in building? A good place to start this inquiry is like what I did above in the glass box scenario – to examine the decision making behavior of the few top players and their institutions early in a design project. In other words, examining the behavior of the design/client team instead of just end users can be instructive. Unfortunately, most people involved with sustainable design don’t understand that we aren’t motivated by saving something intangible (energy) as much as we are by gaining something tangible (productivity, health, increased sales). Even more to the point, we are more motivated by fear of loss than by promise of gain. The way energy efficiency investment decisions in building projects are often presented engenders fear of loss (loss of certainty, aesthetics, ROI, permitting expediency, or control of schedule or budget) and in the deeply conservative building industry, things change slowly as we all know from experience. Energy savings are an invisible benefit, while a shiny new building immediately confers status to all who participate in its creation, and status is certainly a prime behavioral motivator. We also have a problem with the “default setting” for sustainable design as it is often practiced today, which is to take a regular building and “add” sustainability to it, automatically framing any “green” features as more expensive and vulnerable to VE.

Of course LEED and other rating systems do address non-energy benefits directly. But behavioral, experiential and emotional factors that impact the success of a building as much if not considerably more than energy have been difficult to define, measure, model, and verify. The process for incorporating them into design involves checklists and rather crude post-occupancy surveys administered by people with clipboards, or on radio button web interfaces. These methods have some value, but they’re pretty much the only options, are usually done after the fact, and often miss crucial insights that point out expensive mistakes and shortcomings or inspiring insights that can drive innovation. And we have few methods to quantify and place value on user experience, health and emotions.

Fortunately, new tools and methods for measuring, modeling, and monitoring behavior, experience and emotions are available and will become integrated into design tools and make their way into the design process. Sensors and systems that measure unconscious responses and behavior can now monitor where people move in buildings, what they’re feeling, how confortable and healthy they are, and how this data impacts not only energy use but productivity. Because buildings are becoming not just physical systems but information systems, data sets for behavioral factors can be shared between buildings, and behavioral responses can be modeled and understood as in interrelated part of buildings (and cities) from the early design process through operation and maintenance. Holistic design can drive policy, collaboration, and participation. It’s a whole new world.