Social sciences and humanities and energy efficient building use

I was asked to update teaching material for a course on energy and buildings here at NTNU. The audience is mostly engineers and architects and I tried to summarize what I have learned during the previous ten or so years about what social sciences and humanities can contribute to this topic. Here it comes:

To understand what people do to buildings, what buildings do to people, and what these interactions have to do with building energy use, we have to set aside common generalizations and misconceptions about what “people” do and want. In this chapter we will look at research that puts “people” at the center of attention, observes and analyzes their decisions, behaviors and practices in order to make sure that buildings realize their technical energy performance potential - or maybe even exceed it.

Why people matter

It is a reasonable assumption that occupants do with their buildings whatever they want - as long as they do not break any rules or laws. Private homes enjoy even special protection written prominently into constitutions all over the world. Originally meant as shield citizens against despotic rule, what people do in their homes is today still defined as private and subjected to less regulation than all things public. This, obviously, does not mean that occupants’ actions are geared towards the deliberate destruction of their homes and work-places. Quite the opposite: Norwegians use huge sums each year to maintain and upgrade their buildings. But if a building is designed by architects and engineers to achieve certain goals in addition to basic structural soundness or compliance with standards, for example if they aim for a certain aesthetic or energy performance, occupants and their perfectly legal adaptations can become a problem resulting in what has been called an energy performance gap [36]1. For example, observing that occupants use poorly insulated winter gardens that are meant to act as additional insulation layer as regular living space installing space heaters, Oreszczyn [24] is frustrated about people’s ‘innate ability to think of new ways to use energy’. Also rebound2 effects on the household level have been described for example for homes retrofitted with heat-pumps that are then used to cool homes in summer or to heat for longer hours or more floor area [17, 35].

However, these and similar observations of wasteful user activities are misunderstood if they are used to argue for an opposition between the designer and engineer, who is well-intentioned, and “people”, who just cannot bother to use the building in the intended ways. Not only is there no reason to believe that occupants in general are less environmentally friendly than architects and engineers. If a building’s energy use is seen as the result of interactions between building and its users, then the way how these interactions are designed have direct impact on energy performance.

Some architects and engineers may prefer not to have to deal with occupants at all. Others see satisfied occupants as the main goal of building and technology development. We have written this chapter with both groups in mind hoping to provide useful knowledge for everyone interested in achieving building energy performance in use.

Theoretical approaches

From their early beginnings, social sciences and humanities were devoted to do more than just discovering the truth about society and humans, they wanted to improve them. For example, Emile Durkheim, who is often called the father of sociology, famously introduced his theories in 1897 to explain and reduce the skyrocketing number of suicides in modern societies [12]. This is not different in social science’s and humanities’ engagement with energy research. As long as cheap and abundant energy had been taken for granted, there was no interest in energy at all. This started to change in the 1970s when in the wake of oil crises and early environmental concerns, energy for the first time became defined as a societal problem to be solved. And today, with energy and climate high on the political agenda, there is a large number of social scientists and humanities scholars working in energy research.

What makes social sciences and humanities sometimes difficult to understand from the outside is that they use very different methods and reach very different conclusions depending on which basic approach they favor. It is possible to encounter two social scientists who, studying the same problem, based on each their solid empirical evidence come to contradictory conclusions. On a very basic - and dangerously simplifying - level we can distinguish between economic, psychological, and socio-cultural approaches. Economics is more likely to emphasize rational decision making and favors quantitative methods. Psychology will typically start with individuals and their attitudes, norms and behaviors and has a preference for quantitative approaches as well. Within socio-cultural studies many researchers will reject both the notion that people can be studied as individuals and as rational decision makers. Instead, they are mainly interested in social interactions and structures, meanings and values and how they shape and are shaped by what people do. Here we find a strong focus on qualitative methods that aim at understanding rather than the quantitative testing of hypotheses.

Whether one starts with the assumption of the prevalence of rational decision making, individuals and their characteristics, social interactions, meanings or collectively held beliefs, leads to very different recommendations for how to design energy efficient buildings. Economists will seek to steer behavior through economic incentives or punishments, or - more recently - propose strategies to exploit those situations in which people - despite being rational decision makers otherwise - show systematic cognitive biases. The most prominent of these strategies is the so-called ‘nudging’ [32]. One of psychology’s central contributions to the social study of energy is the theory of planned behavior [14,15], in which what people want to do and do is explained by the variables “subjective norms”, “attitude toward behavior”, and “perceived behavioral control”. To change energy relevant behavior, thus, norms, attitudes and what people think they can achieve has to be influenced. Socio-cultural approaches will maintain that economic and psychological explanations underestimate the importance of more fundamental social and cultural patterns. They highlight that much of what people do and think in everyday life is not result of calculations, explicit attitudes and individual norms, but rather steered by routines and habits that are formed by their upbringing or by broader cultural sentiments. Currently, the most prominent framework in social science energy research studying this aspect is dubbed social practice theory, in which meanings are approached as tightly connected to material conditions and skills [28]. Changing energy routines, from this perspective, is achieved by first destabilizing the connection between a skill-set, a building and its technologies, and meanings related to both building and skills. In a second step new routines are established by the creation of new stable connections between these elements.

Two different building design strategies for energy efficient use

Which of the theoretical approaches presented in the previous section appears more ‘true’ will vary from individual to individual. Strengers [31] has described what she calls the ‘resource man’ (who often is male but does not have to be), i.e. individuals that conduct their lives aspiring to be as rational as possible in as many areas as possible. For the ‘resource man’, who arguably is overrepresented in engineering and science education, mainly economic but also psychological explanations will seem intuitively more ‘true’ than for those who base much of their daily life following other priorities.

Only when one takes a step back from one’s own world-view, the relative contributions of the various approaches presented here come into sight. The danger is to apply one theoretical framework to all people in all situations. This will at least lead to weak explanations. In the worst case, when only one perspective is used to inform policy or building design, it will systematically exclude the groups that are not represented well in the respective approach. For example, a building design that assumes that occupants are in principle unable and reluctant to adapt their behavior to reduce energy will deny ‘resource men’ the ability to contribute. On the other hand, a design that favors ‘resource men’, for example by providing real-time energy feedback and fine-grained user control, will be useless to those occupants that are not able or willing to engage with the kilowatt-hours related to their behavior. Since in most cases the actual occupants are not known during design and construction, it is preferable to avoid basing the design on a one-sided interpretation of what occupants want and can do.

The acknowledgement that occupants are different, that one size does not fit all and that occupants are not known before they move into a building has led to two very different design strategies.

First, in the technical literature we find a broad stream of strategies that seek to minimize occupant interaction with building systems through more or less intelligent automation. The basic idea here is that the building provides perfect indoor environmental conditions at all times and in the most energy efficient way without the occupant even noticing it. Automatic systems adjust heating, lighting and ventilation behind the backs of the occupants according to outdoor conditions and the occupants’ demand. In such a building it does not matter much what occupants do, the building will adjust and will do so in the most energy efficient way. The big advantage of such a strategy is that it does not matter what happens within and between occupants, the outcome will always be a comfortable place to go about one own business. The biggest challenge that such an approach has to deal with in relation to occupants is to adjust to changes in uses. This is less problematic when it comes to longer term changes, such as the change of a household composition (e.g. children grow up) or a when a non-residential building is adjusted to new uses (e.g. conversion of meeting room to work space), since automation systems - as long as they are designed with these changes in mind - can be adjusted. Shorter term changes are more problematic in this respect. As long as for example rhythms of occupancy follow regular patterns, they can be accommodated for. But there are larger trends that pose a challenge to systems that seek to adjust to occupant demands. First, there is a strong push towards more flexible everyday lives, where work places enabled by information and communication technologies (ICTs) increasingly become independent from rigid temporal and spatial rhythms affecting both home and work. It is more and more difficult to predict in which building a person will perform his or her daily tasks at which time. Second, in non-residential spaces another form of spatial flexibility is introduced, where workers share spaces or are not even equipped with a permanent work place [11]. While these developments are seen critical by some, there are strong cost-efficiency incentives that make it unlikely that work will return to more traditional patterns soon. With automation having to react quickly, preferably in real time, to occupancy changes, other, more fundamental problems of denying occupants environmental controls are becoming apparent. A frequent observation in post occupancy evaluations [3] is that occupants complain about automatic shading systems. The more visible and obvious an automatic system intervenes with occupants’ indoor environment - and shading is obviously a highly visible change - the more likely they are to express puzzlement and dissatisfaction [25]. The systems control the building according to more or less complex algorithms, which are not known by the occupants. This is experienced as loss of control, which - given differences in how indoor environments are experienced - leads to a preference for manual control [16]. This does not mean that occupants want to control their environment at all times. As long as the adjustments happen in the background and in fact lead to acceptable indoor conditions, the option to design systems with minimal occupant interaction is a viable one. In the very moment, however, when individuals feel that their spaces are too hot, too cold, the air is too sticky, or when they feel over- or underexposed to light, and when automation actions become too visible, coping mechanisms have to be expected [19]. These can consist of actions that do not affect energy performance, such as putting on an additional sweater or moving to another room. But we also see interventions with potentially severe consequences, such as installing additional space heaters or sabotaging sensors and shading devices. Accounting for these observations, the complete reliance on automation in buildings in practice is rare. Instead, it is common to add manual overrides to automation systems. Since occupants tend to forget to readjust these overrides when the desired conditions are produced, usually these overrides are then switched off automatically after a certain period of time. It is important that this happens in a way that does not demand from the occupant to constantly override the system, which understandably leads to great frustration [2:262].

The observation that keeping building systems completely in the occupants’ background can be challenging has led a group of building researchers to demand the exact opposite: design for deep and far reaching building-occupant interaction. The basic idea is that giving occupants not only control but also responsibility for both indoor environments and building performance is not only unavoidable but also desirable. Combined with robust and mainly passive low energy design, it is argued here, occupants can play an active and constructive role in the creation of green and livable buildings. In a manifesto [7], this perspective was introduced as explicit antithesis to the assumptions underlying the design strategy that was described above: First the experience of comfort is defined as being relative, i.e. depending on time of day, year, physiology, activity, the degree of control, occupant interactions, etc. From this perspective, there is no absolute state of comfort that can be described in abstract terms - e.g. as temperature range - and then achieved by building systems. Instead, it is claimed that occupants differ widely in how they experience the same environment and that their ability to create their own conditions is an important part of being comfortable. Design choices derived from this assumption should then provide occupants with a broad range of adaptive opportunities, such as opening windows, lowering blinds, etc, but they also would have to provide far-reaching transparency of building systems so that occupants are able to understand how their actions affect the building’s energy performance. Such a program obviously limits the possible complexity of a building, which leads to a preference for simple, robust designs. While seen from a social sciences and humanities perspective this manifesto and the related research [5,6,8] indeed offers a solution to the challenge of variability in occupant demands and increased flexible everyday life that was described above, it has to rely on occupants taking responsibility for their buildings’ performance. In the moment when occupants use buildings as an infrastructure, taken for granted and invisibly enabling their daily tasks [30], design strategies that depend on their motivation to engage will fail. Thus, design for occupant engagement has to make sure that building users understand their responsibility and are equipped not only with the knowledge and ability to adjust the building to their wishes but also to understand and accept where this is not possible because it would affect the building’s energy performance negatively.

Findings from social sciences and humanities

Seen from a social sciences and humanities perspective the two design strategies presented above - different as they may appear from a technical standpoint - pose a similar challenge: What are the conditions under which occupants accept the demands posed on them by a building and engage with the building in the way intended by its design?

Options favored by economists will point to rewards which have to be offered to gain acceptance. Investments in energy efficiency technologies in the buildings are in this respect in principle unproblematic as long as the payback period does not become too long and as long as the theoretical savings are actually achieved. Also occupant engagement can be thought of as being motivated by economic incentives. At the core of this problem from an economists perspective is that in many buildings we encounter split incentives. Even in the simplest case, an owner-occupied one family building, household members who are not paying the energy bill have the possibility to sabotage energy efficiency investments, e.g. teenagers and their long showers [18]. In rented homes and non-residential buildings incentives can be split among even more different actor groups. Green leasing contracts, in which tenants are encouraged to contribute to energy savings through economic incentives, are one attempt to deal with this problem [9]. But even in successful implementations of such contracts we may find split incentives within the participating organizations, for example when the individual employees are not gaining anything from adjusting their behavior. More indirect economic interventions, such as nudging occupants towards acceptance and engagement, for example by making the desired behavior easier than the undesired one, are certainly useful to create both acceptance and engagement, but have been shown to be difficult to evaluate for their actual effectiveness [22].

In the context of the two design strategies presented here, psychology’s theory of planned behavior, directs our attention towards the psychological variable “perceived behavioral control”, which in our context is a measure for occupants’ belief that they are able to affect indoor environments or energy performance. In a building which provides a perfect environment without occupant control this variable is irrelevant, but as soon as occupants encounter discomfort, the lack of perceived control in addition to the actual discomfort (too cold, too warm) will be detrimental to occupant satisfaction. In this respect, the design strategy which relies on occupants taking responsibility for the building’s performance fares better. Studies of adaptive behavior have shown that occupants tolerate greater variability of environmental parameters in naturally ventilated buildings [21], the so-called forgiveness factor [23]. Thus, not only can we expect that occupants enjoy to be able to control their buildings, they will also be less demanding [20]. However, psychology also teaches us that this advantage of occupant engagement strategies will quickly disappear, when occupants’ perceived control is restricted by design choices, such as not being able to close office doors at all times to support natural ventilation air flows. In this sense, passive design strategies may even be more limiting to occupants’ perceived control than active ones.

Socio-cultural research has shown that people tend to accept and engage with technological environments as long as they stay in the background or can be easily adapted to their needs. Studies of the ‘domestication’ of technologies in everyday life have shown that this adaptation happens in cognitive, symbolic and practical terms [29]. Cognition is involved in understanding and learning to use the systems, symbolic aspects refer to what the technology means for its users, and practical concerns are related to how good the technology supports the completion of the many tasks posed in a busy everyday life. Phrased negatively this means that a building that is difficult to understand, that is attributed with negative connotations, and that complicates the occupants’ daily tasks is likely to be sabotaged. Phrased within these terms, complex buildings that rely on minimal occupant intervention, require minimal learning from the occupant. In this sense they are much easier to domesticate than buildings based on occupant engagement. This, however, only holds true as long as the practical dimension really works as intended. In the moment when problems arise, and occupants are forced to re-domesticate they are confronted with an impenetrable technological complexity which quickly leads to occupants adapting the building in their own, often destructive ways.

Taken together, the approaches from social sciences and humanities gathered here, particularly psychology and socio-cultural perspectives underline the necessity to prepare for the moments in which occupants experience discomfort. Strategies that assume that occupants can be served through technology in a way that discounts the need for perceived control and eliminates the ability to adapt the building to occupants’ needs will have to make sure that their systems are robust enough to handle dissatisfied occupants. The other extreme, far reaching occupant engagement, will allow for greater perceived behavioral control, but they are also more difficult to ‘domesticate’ for occupants, which may only be realistic in specific building-occupant constellations.

The role of building operation and evaluation

Fortunately, at least in larger buildings, occupants are not alone but can rely on building professionals for support. The two basic design strategies for energy efficient building use that have been described above assign very different roles for facilities management teams (FM teams). The more complex a building systems are the higher the qualification demands on operators. In this context technically advanced solutions have been proposed, such as remote operation systems, in which few but highly qualified operators supported by real time information gathered by sensors and connected control systems are able to detect failures and control a large number of buildings. In line with the overall logic of a reduction of occupant control, these systems work well when occupants do not even detect the failures because they are fixed before they affect their environment.

This is in stark contrast to the role of building operation as part of the second design strategy, the one relying on occupant engagement. Here, it has been proposed that occupants together with professionals from the strategic, tactical and operational levels of building operation should become part of what was called a ‘building community’ [4], which is a ‘community of practice’ [34] around the common goal to improve a building’s performance. The formation of such communities requires frequent interactions, a common repertoire and shared goals, which - in opposition to remote operation - puts emphasis on the local presence of building operators and their intimate knowledge of both the specific occupants and their building. In this way the idea is that they will be able to act as mediators that do not only fix technical problems but become part of a community engaged in making the building better [1].

Related to this is the topic of building performance monitoring and evaluation. There is wide agreement in the literature that buildings should be evaluated not only sporadically, for example right after the building is commissioned to use, but undergo meticulous checks during their whole lifetime to make sure that they perform according to their intended performance. Also here, we see two different directions taken according to whether mostly technical strategies are pursued or user engagement is demanded. One technical option is ‘continuous commissioning’ [13,10], in which professionals make sure to continuously collect and analyze data during a building’s life to monitor its performance and to identify problems. Technical monitoring is also a part of Building Performance Evaluation (BPE), but it is explicitly user-centered and includes prominently the systematic collection of occupant feedback through questionnaires and (walk-through) interviews [26,33].


In this chapter, we have painted a stark contrast between two different strategies for the design, operation and evaluation of energy efficient building use. Given the impossibility to base building design on one specific type of user, both the option of far-reaching efficiency improvements behind the backs of occupants, but also strategies for comprehensive occupant engagement should stay on the table. We have sought to present arguments both in favor and against each of these two options and to describe caveats and consequences if one of them is chosen. More technically inclined readers of this chapter will definitely be less skeptical towards the feasibility of technically complex buildings and rather be fascinated by the technical challenges that have to be overcome. If there is one thing this chapter wants to convey it is that the economic, psychological, social and cultural side of energy and buildings - once one abandons preconceived notions about what people are and want - harbors at least as many fascinating riddles and challenges as the technical one.


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  1. In addition to occupants, energy performance gaps are related to mistakes or changes made during construction and building operation.

  2. Rebound is originally a concept used for economy-wide effects where savings from energy efficiency investments lead to energy intensive investments [27], but have more recently also been described for individuals and households

Thomas Berker
Professor of Science and Technology Studies