Energy Bills Up? There May be Humans in Your Building

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energy billsLester Shen of the Center for Energy and Environment explains how a systems-thinking approach may improve building performance and reduce energy bills.

As you read this blog post, what room are you in? How’s the lighting? How’s the temperature? Do you control their levels — or is someone else, somewhere else, running the show?

About 40 percent of energy use in the U.S. is consumed in residential and commercial buildings. Of course, within them, it’s we humans who are flicking on the lights and turning up the heat. Running the gamut from waste to efficiencies, energy use is a strictly human activity.

This week, CEE releases a new white paper, “Human-Building Interaction: Design Thinking and Energy Efficiency,” a user-centered approach that focuses on how occupants interact with buildings to consume energy.

How and why we interact with the buildings around us, and the devices inside them, can reveal a lot about the human assumptions, habits, and constraints that govern how we live and work. Learning about the barriers blocking our best behavior can lead to effective new strategies and designs.

Human Building Interaction, or “HBI,” takes a systems-thinking approach to encourage more intentional decision-making and control, while also improving building performance for greater energy conservation and efficiency. (Systems thinking explores relationships and points of influence among the interconnected elements of a given system’s complex makeup.)

To guide the innovation process and produce effective solutions, HBI employs five steps of design thinking, a practice originally rooted in architecture and urban planning:

  1. Empathize with the users
  2. Define the problem
  3. Ideate solutions
  4. Prototype possibilities, and
  5. Test with the users to create informed and effective solutions.

With systems thinking and design thinking as our starting points, HBI takes into account the important factors that drive human actions within buildings — including motivation, ability, and various triggers — all to inform next steps in design for effective and impactful energy-saving solutions.

One great example of an HBI path to innovation is the Nest Learning Thermostat. While building a super energy efficient house, Tony Fadell, a former senior VP at Apple, was frustrated with how difficult thermostats were to operate and how ugly they looked. Working with a former Apple colleague Matt Rogers, Fadell focused on users’ needs to create a bold new way for people to interact with thermostats. After earning glowing reviews in the popular press and turning “smart thermostats” into a new consumer electronics category, Nest was purchased by Google for $3.2 billion in 2014.

The project’s success depended on putting people first, designing for real — not ideal — human beings.

As we look ahead to how we want to live and work in buildings in the future, our need for the HBI approach will only grow. Smart technologies, social media, and automation are all creating a new breed of consumer that is tech savvy, connected, and demanding of individualized and custom experiences. Understanding these trends, and anticipating the changing landscape of how we interact with buildings is crucial to creating innovative energy efficient products and maintaining ongoing energy saving practices and services.

If motivation alone were enough to make us eat well, exercise, and save money, we’d all be naturally thin, fit, and rich. But, humans being humans, building tools and systems that align with our motivations can make all the difference in the steps we take toward improvement.

Today we’re experiencing a disruptive time in the energy arena, and we need to be insightful and innovative to find and deliver effective solutions. Fortunately, HBI provides a framework for that critically important union between idealized intentions and very real human behavior.

Read more in the white paper: Human-Building Interaction: Design Thinking and Energy Efficiency.

Blog author Lester Shen is the director of innovative technologies at Center for Energy and Environment.

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