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Why building green isn't good enough anymore

‘Occupant behaviour’ is the new buzzword in sustainable design, says Christine Murray

If you’ll forgive an Americanism, in the words of Kermit the Frog, it’s not easy being green. The sustainability agenda has been hailed as a potential saviour of architectural practice, and architects have been repeatedly advised over the past five years to tool up on sustainability by learning how to specify green, retrofit existing stock and build for a low-carbon tomorrow.

But alongside the myriad eco-products and green tech at Ecobuild this week, is a growing awareness that architecture can only go so far – the success of any low-carbon project hinges on initiating a step-change in occupant behaviour. In other words, clients need to understand that the biggest driver of energy efficiency is the stuff you put in a building, and whether it is switched on, or more crucially, off.

In our piece on post-occupancy evaluation in the Sustainable Design issue (AJ 24.02.11), Martin Spring quotes a study by engineering consultancy Max Fordham which states the printers, plasma screens and photocopiers in schools ‘can increase the carbon emissions of the building by a massive 83 per cent’. And Fionn Stevenson from the Low-Carbon Building Group of Oxford Brookes University said that ‘user behaviour can result in variations of up to 300 per cent of energy usage’.

If professionals in the built environment have grown up in their understanding of what constitutes sustainable design, the public is still relatively naive in its understanding of eco-architecture. Clients often need to be convinced that double-glazing and decent insulation tick more green boxes than sedum roofs, PVCs and wind turbines.

In some ways, educating the client falls outside the remit of the architect, and yet, if the profession is actively positioning itself as an integral part of the low-carbon solution, they must engage with post-occupancy, or risk being blamed when utility-hungry clients receive their first energy bill.

Without a deeper understanding of use, an otherwise sustainable project may be deemed a failure, not because of the design or specification, but because the end user didn’t understand how to save energy in the first place.

Design and specification can help with this – smart meters will be rolled out to all homes and businesses by 2020, but anything that actively encourages the occupants of a building to engage with their energy usage, through moderate power generation or interactive displays, will reward and encourage good behaviour.

Practical completion is the first day in the long life of a building. For a project to be truly sustainable, the architect must engage with what happens after the client turns the key. Designing green is no longer good enough, we have to design in green living too, and teach the client how to use their building sustainably.

Whether it’s making sure they understand the carbon footprint of a room full of servers, or the implications of keeping the interactive whiteboard on standby, client knowledge is paramount to sustainable design.

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