Synergies: The User Interface

Last week I set about summarizing the interdependence needed in a building project, and I identified three areas where synergies would benefit overall performance and long-term sustainability of the work. I went into a little detail on the building envelope synergies with the building systems as that is the most obvious aspect the professional realm can address. With current low-bid processes, with the artificial separation between design and construction and the even wider divide between the processes of creating a building and then the daily efforts of operating said building, the co-benefits in design of the facility itself are easiest to grasp and maximize. We have relatively little to overcome. We need to use the blue team’s Mystic abilities to conquer the professional separations that legal risk avoidance has unwittingly facilitated. Ironic, since that separation creates so many more risks in poor performance, miscommunication and self-protection to the detriment of the end goal. We need to think and apply our inner eye and inherent respect for the engineering sector and the construction field in order to identify the ways in which we can make a building envelope higher performing with better thermal control, reduced (eliminated?) thermal bleeds and zero square inches of unplanned penetrations.

Another, harder aspect to address as far as maximizing the understanding and prep for interdependence is the user interface. This is part two in my discussion of synergies in the building industry. Team yellow, Instinct, has long known that we build buildings for people, but we have silenced that instinctual relationship in order to build for the glossy magazine layouts, and the wow-factor of first impressions, and to keep up with the Joneses. It’s time to open up that basic concept again, seek to comprehend the usability of all elements in a building and, even further, engage the building user in running the building.

Wow, radical concept.

I heard a little piece on NPR about a smart home being the subject of a TV series, and some of the episodes show the house totally taking over, running everything wild and even harming the occupants. That is quite the opposite of the real intent: being able to influence, monitor, control, and tweak home or building operations. I truly believe a building that is “dumb” with no ability to control building systems other than through a full-time paid and well-trained staff of facility managers should scare us even more. We should not fear the interactions with building systems that will actually help us to optimize our comfort and our energy use. We must also design buildings to give the feedback that makes this level of collaboration possible. Again, the strength of the system will come with layers of redundancy and diversity, and with a nicely woven set of overlapping reinforcing feedback and control loops.

A small example, with a very simple approach, is connections between windows and HVAC system controls. When the building user opens a window, the HVAC system shut down. A proper feedback loop is not just all in the timing, but all in knowing your place in the system, so the building user must understand that they are shutting off the mechanical systems if they choose to open a window. This is a far cry better than all of the buildings that have little to no user control of the heating and, when it gets hot, the users open the windows to cool off and the system reads the temperature dropping indoors and compensates by pushing out more heat. We have evolved.

Plug Loads

Plug Loads

Another powerful (truly) aspect of real user engagement is plug load control strategies. I find this absolutely fascinating as well as underutilized, though the new energy code in NYS (base on the International Energy Conservation Code) is addressing this at least in transient housing situations. Basically, the occupancy of the room triggers the outlet operation. Now, you may have seen this in European Hotels (they’ve had it for many, many years) where the room is fully powered when the access key card is in a slot near the door. When you leave and take that key card with you, the room powers down, except for the outlet feeding the fridge and other must-stay-on items. I was at a hotel in Upstate NY that had this system installed, and after about a year of operations, they started handing patrons two key cards and instructing them to place one in the slot to power the room so they could come and go without affecting the power, thereby undermining their entire energy management strategy. They did this because it was a pain in the butt to explain to occupants the system upon arrival, and to deal with the few complaints of those that didn’t understand. They have since thankfully gone back to the one key approach and upped their communication with their guests, maybe due to client feedback and maybe due to building performance losses. Lessons learned.

You can see, it is really all in the education. I am currently struggling to figure out how to engage colleges in setting a plan for a zero net energy residence hall. In the conversations I have had so far, the interest on the part of the campuses is minimal because they feel they have no control over the students. Some even feel that the idea of a plug load control system or other energy control system would be (sorry for this pun) a turn-off for the student population. They have “trouble enough” keeping the finishes in good repair in dorms, how could they expect students to understand active versus passive plugs to control plug loads or to shut shades at certain times to mitigate solar heat gain and reduce need for cooling. This attitude is very short-sighted.

I admit, I am a bit of a glass-half-full person, so I see this as an opportunity to change our information sharing on this point. This level of control begs for some decent marketing spin. Spin that will come to benefit campuses on many levels. A Residence Hall (any living environment) is typically the most retained memory of college, and often a point of continued identification for future donors to the campus. So how do we max that connection? Let’s tap into our instincts and figure out how we make energy control not a “conservation” measure, but a control measure, meaning that we are giving the occupant control. Wouldn’t that create even fonder recollections of campus life? It has been proven time and time again that when there is low flow underfloor air distribution with individual control in offices the overall energy use goes down a bit. Some people turn up the heat and air (or cooling an air) and other turn it down. Overall the sum is a reduction in energy use and, most importantly, an increase in comfort.

But, it is not a “set it and forget it” approach. It takes not only feedback, but review of that feedback and adjustments as needed. Look at the first years of hybrid cars on the road and clear feedback on driving style and efficiency. It has changed the driving habits of many. Not all, but many.

I think that’s our other failing. We think that every solution must work for everyone or it is a failure. However, redundancy and diversity are prevalent throughout nature and we should learn from her and approach our own efficiency in the same manner. By offering many points of connection, several different types of feedback, and a clear safety net (for example, the system shutting off when windows are open) we can get to greater efficiency by tapping into user engagement. We can give the building occupants the understanding, over time, that they are in control, and the building is not only theirs to meet their needs, but it is in their care. I think even college students may well rise to that responsibility. Not all, mind you, but many.

Think, and be greener,

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