Imagine teaching in an elementary school with classrooms cold enough during the winter that your students struggle to write because their little fingers "don't work well" in the cold. And just down the hall students in another classroom doze off because the room is too hot and stuffy.
Imagine watching your salary literally being flushed down the toilet as malfunctioning automatic flush valves operate two or three times per "sitting." Such multiple flushes and resulting wet/soiled clothing are certainly annoying for adults. But for young children, the associated embarrassment, ridicule, and fear can lead to school restroom avoidance.
Now imagine that this is a new "green" school, built to obtain 30-50 percent energy savings over typical schools of comparable size. Unfortunately, though, you don't have to imagine any of this.
Such a school exists, designed to be green, but actually guzzling more resources than other comparable schools and having a negative impact on both teacher and student performance. If this were your community, how would this inconsistent message impact your view of green building? Would you think it a waste of money? Would you get behind future green building projects?
The success of green building is absolutely critical for reducing our overall energy consumption and corresponding release of greenhouse gases. According to statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the built environment is responsible for almost half of the annual U.S. carbon dioxide emissions and that percentage is greater globally. So every time we turn on a light, every time the furnace or A.C. kicks on, we're indirectly contributing to global warming. In comparison, driving our Hummer to work everyday accounts for less than a third of those emissions.
So we must build green, and we must be successful at it - but to do that we must recognize that buildings are experiments. They are experiments in the performance of materials, in assisting us carrying out our daily tasks, etc. This is even more the case for green/sustainable design, as we are currently experiencing an explosion of green ideas and technologies, all with great promise.
But many of these promises rest on computer simulations, laboratory mock-ups, and appeal to authority. We also need more on-the-ground evaluation after construction, often labeled post-occupancy evaluations (POEs). Unfortunately POE's are rarely performed for a variety of reasons, ranging from lack of financial resources to worry about what the results of POE's could do to designer reputations.
Even when POE's are performed, they most often are superficial in nature, consisting of brief walk-throughs and overly simplistic surveys to determine whether construction meets the design specifications. But a successful POE goes deeper, evaluating a facility's performance relative to its occupants. Such evaluation requires engaging people (the occupants, maintenance personnel, etc.) within the spaces as they make use of them.
Through such evaluations we learn of the automatic flush valves in need of adjustment, and their affects on both water conservation and student experiences. We are able to evaluate a facility's true energy performance, comparing its demand load histories to those from a population of peer facilities; and more importantly, correlate its energy performance with particular human behaviors, which can vary by age, gender, social/cultural, and environmental contexts.
For example, automatically flickering the lights as a reminder to use only daylight when possible might work in a general office, but it is extremely disruptive in an elementary school. In this particular case, the mental "refocus" time students required after such an event, particularly for special education students, was problematic for the teachers, causing resentment among many. There were even indications that teachers were deliberately leaving their lights on as a form of protest.
And so comprehensive POEs, that account for both the facility itself and associated human factors, allow us to evaluate the built environment (including green/sustainable applications) as an experiment, learning what works, what doesn't, and why in a given context.
But for this to happen we all must accept the fact that buildings, as experiments, will not always initially turn out well. They may require time and money to be revised and/or adapted to. The complexities involved make this inevitable. Designers must also set their egos aside and recognize that occupants have much to teach about their use of space. And developers and building owners must focus more on the long-term, and less on making the quick buck.
Only then will we see a real reduction in the built environment's greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a reduction in unintended consequences, such as grade school fears of the "great porcelain beast."
- Marcel Harmon is an anthropologist and engineer living in Lawrence. He is a former partner in an anthropological consulting firm specializing in the analysis of the built environment, with a focus on human factors.