Sep 18, 2012
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THEME: Sustainability

Energy Cup: Understanding our Spaces and our Culture

After participating in two energy competitions at Perkins+Will, it’s no longer a secret that the competition itself is a thinly veiled social experiment. While the metrics and energy savings are real, the actual reason for creating the competition was not about declaring a champion (even so, congratulations again to our RTP office). The goal was to have offices look deeply at how energy is used, particularly with the hopes of getting a better grasp on some of the irrational, energy-wasting behavior that many designers have long since given up on explaining.

With Dan Ariely’s work around behavioral economics as inspiration, we are using the Energy Cup as a way to understand what really motivates people. Conventional economic theory suggests that people won’t change their behavior unless there is some form of reward or payment. As designers, this is problematic since we can’t control reward factors once our work is done and the building receives an occupancy permit. We’re continually left wondering how we can get people to save energy, especially when they don’t see any direct financial benefit from the energy savings. What our own multi-megawatt-saving energy competition and Ariely’s works suggest is that people are also motivated by factors that may not be logical or rational under conventional economic theory. Fortunately, these irrational behaviors can still be modeled and predicted over time, if closely observed.

Our RTP office’s energy usage dropped significantly because of the recent Energy Cup.

Without any prompting, many of our offices conducted interesting social and technological experiments during the recent month-long Energy Cup. Atlanta began using “Kill-a-Watt” meters to better understand where energy was really going. To their surprise, they found that many electronic items used the same amount of energy at 3 a.m. (while idle or on standby) as they did when it full operation during the day; they’ve since started to try and remedy this unneeded energy loss. During a previous competition, San Francisco looked closely at who needed lighting where (and when) and also at how the lighting design was communicated on the control panel. Examining these seemingly banal factors empowered the office to rezone their lighting and consequently save considerable amounts of energy. That same year, Vancouver studied how their office refrigerators were being used and realized that most of their contents were only half full. The resulting insight – that 3 full fridges would save space, money, and energy in comparison to 6 half full fridges – meant that cooling space for food and drinks could be appropriately resized.

Previously, students from the University of British Columbia worked with staff in the Vancouver office and across the firm to interview and survey many employees about our behaviors. The results suggested that the firm has a strong culture of both environmental stewardship and competition (after all, architects love competitions and do them for free all the time – talk about irrational). Hosting an energy competition helped us to appeal to both of these in addition to offering the opportunity to critically look at the status quo within our own spaces. Ultimately, this may lead to behavior changes toward energy usage over the longer term. It’s time to take these types of lessons and push the same boundaries with our clients.

Written by Michael Driedger

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