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Learning from experience

Abstract

Ask anyone who designs, owns, or manages an office building if they want the occupants of their building to feel comfortable, healthy, and productive, and the answer would of course be 'yes'. But ask again if they know what occupants actually feel about the space, and the answer will be quite different.

The facility manager is most likely to have a sense, but often it’s only anecdotal. The building owner might eventually have an inkling about occupant sentiment if they see a financial effect because an environment is inadequate.  Yet, sadly, very few architects or other members of the design team are likely to know how well their building is working after it is completed and occupied, the fees have been paid, and they are on to another project. Without learning from experience in an objective way, building industry professionals are less likely to make design or economic decisions that will truly enhance the performance and experiential quality of their buildings.

And while this information would be valuable for any project, it is particularly essential if one is claiming to have designed or built a green building, where the quality of the indoor environment is a critical dimension of sustain- able design. The only way to back up those claims is to evaluate a building’s actual performance, in terms of energy consumption or indoor environmental quality, and compare the performance to design intent.

Without question, it is absolutely crucial to reduce energy consumption in buildings and help avoid the potentially devastating impacts of climate change. But in terms of the building owner’s pocketbook, energy costs are still relatively small compared to worker salaries, which represent over 90% of the total operating costs of a commercial building. In addition, the cost of worker recruitment and retention is significant. Thus, from the building or company owner’s point of view, perhaps the most persuasive argument for sustainable design is one that makes the connection between a higher quality indoor environment, and increased comfort, health and productivity of the workers.

So, how does one learn about the quality of the indoor environment? While there are many physical measurements one can take, they need to be interpreted in terms of the impact on occupants. Occupants themselves are a rich yet underutilized source of direct information about how well a building is working, but the challenge is how to collect both the positive and negative feedback in a systematic way. This has been at the core of research underway at UC Berkeley.

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