If you build it, they will come. But if you build a green building—one that aims to be environmentally responsible and resource-efficient—but people aren’t comfortable living or working in it, you risk falling short of your green goals.

That’s why UBC Master of Arts student Julia Reckermann is factoring people into the environmental equation, conducting one of the first pre-occupancy surveys ever to gather baseline data to help study the happiness of green building occupants.

“Behavioural aspects can impact building performance,” says Reckermann. For example, if one person opens a window to cool off while another cranks up the heat, energy efficiency is compromised. Additionally, if workers aren’t happy in their offices, their productivity may decline, and green buildings will be more difficult to promote.

UBC is constructing the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS). When it opens in summer 2011, CIRS will be a space for multidisciplinary education and research, and one of the greenest buildings on Earth. It will scavenge heat from neighbouring buildings and from the ground, draw ventilation from the wind and harvest its water from the rain. Using new technologies, CIRS will purify its wastewater and generate electricity by capturing solar energy in photovoltaic cells that are integrated into the building’s exterior. And with wood as its primary building material, it will sequester more carbon than the carbon emitted in constructing the building and decommissioning it at the end of its life.

For her MA thesis in Resource Management and Environmental Studies, Reckermann hopes to shed light on how inhabitants affect the building’s performance, and how the building affects its inhabitants. “It’s like an organism where all the components need to work together for the best result,” she says.
“You have to look at the internal organs as well as the shell…the influence of the building inhabitants has been largely ignored in the research.”

In conventional buildings, systems tend to be automated, and tenants are passive recipients. At CIRS, inhabitants will have the option of opening windows for natural ventilation
or using manually adjusted air diffusers, and working in naturally lit spaces or adjusting the intensity of overhead lamps through a web-based lighting control system. They will be able to review building performance data through a web-based interface and vote on building-wide adjustments. CIRS aims to continuously improve the building systems’ performanceas well as the health, productivity and happiness of inhabitants over time.

How will CIRS’ inhabitants compare the green experience to their old one? Typically, inhabitants are surveyed only after they’ve occupied a green building, not before. John Robinson, the Executive Director of the UBC Sustainability Initiative, is the principal investigator on a study that’s significant because it’s one of the first times a green building’s inhabitants will be surveyed both pre- and post-occupancy.

Co-investigator Reckermann is handling the pre-occupancy survey, to be conducted in February. She will collect baseline data by surveying people from more than a dozen buildings who will be moving into CIRS. Among other things, the survey explores how satisfied people are with their current work environment (in terms of thermal comfort, acoustics, air quality, etc.), what they know about building systems and the activity surrounding them (for example, thermal controls) and their past experience with green and conventional buildings. It also looks at their expectations of the new building, to compare to their end experience.

Co-investigator Sylvia Coleman will follow-up with a post-occupancy evaluation one year after occupancy that will allow researchers to consider the significance and effectiveness of the CIRS approach.

The study is one example of how CIRS aims to bridge the gap between sustainability theory and practice by treating the campus as a living laboratory. According to Robinson, it’s not enough to build an impressive green building. The university needs to “study it to death: what are all the features of the building, what works and what doesn’t, how do we take that learning and get it out into the marketplace?”

With CIRS, UBC aims to create a model for sustainable development that can be replicated on its campuses and in cities around the world—a model that factors in the human element.