The people puzzle

Occupant behaviour is often treated as the awkward cousin of the building performance family – it has no definitive model, is difficult to predict and tricky to influence. However, for all this, it is one of the most important factors in determining whether or not a building performs in the real world. CIBSE’s Head of Sustainable Development Sara Kassam explains.

The perfect sustainable building has already been designed – it is solar powered, generates more energy than it uses and is extremely well insulated. Unfortunately for any potential occupants, it’s also 270 miles up and the International Space Station. Short of investing in upper-atmosphere real estate, the quest for better building performance needs to be balanced against the comfort of those using the building – that’s who it’s built for, after all.

But, though the human occupants of the building need to be considered as a factor in the building’s design, sustainability isn’t the enemy of its residents, nor are the people a problem that need to be engineered around. The best designs find ways to create an environment that is most comfortable for the occupants, as well as sustainable. However, this is easier said than done.

Not pictured: Comfort 
At November’s CIBSE Building Performance Conference and Exhibition, Mat Colmer of InnovateUK said “You can engineer buildings, but you can’t engineer people”. Another presentation at the Conference included the example of a high-tech security system recently installed, which was found not be working properly because staff insisted on propping a crucial door open with a chair.

While it is annoying for the engineer to have people unconsciously ruining their system, it is important now to ask why staff were doing this. If the door was too difficult or annoying for staff to open regularly, then a new mechanism could be installed to make it more friendly, or an alternative route through the building could be found to make the route to their destination faster. This is just one example of how design and occupant behaviour can be brought together to make a building work, but unfortunately there are a million ways for these situations to play out and no definitive model to predict them.

Luckily, the knowledge is out there for engineers and designers. Every stakeholder in the life of a building, from the architects to the FMs to the owners and occupants, holds part of the key to designing a building that works – it is up to the designer to collaborate with them all to get their feedback, to make positive changes to the design. Human behaviour is a complex socio-technical system, and no design can rely on assumptions made about the occupants at the drawing-board stage.

There is also an element of stewardship necessary to create a highly performing building. A closed system will tend towards chaos, and occupants left to their own devices won’t necessarily understand or appreciate the systems that are in place within the building. Firstly, a comprehensive handover can be essential in making those maintaining the building aware of how best to make it work, and the occupants how they can help.

Secondly, post-handover, it helps to put in place a system of interaction between the building and its occupants that makes them responsive to each other’s needs. Make it clear, easy and engaging to encourage good habits in users, as well as for them to make changes themselves or to provide feedback on what could be done better.

Ultimately, people cannot be treated as components with predictable properties that can be engineered into a system because people often don’t behave in the ways designers expect. Instead, by increasing their focus on users’ behaviour building services engineers have an excellent opportunity to both improve the performance of buildings and the people in them.

Health and wellbeing is an integral part of building performance and will be considered across different themes at the 2016 CIBSE Conference in November. To receive information about the Building Performance Conference & Exhibition, including the programme, speakers and early bird offers please register your interest.


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