Greenbuild Session Spotlights: The Occupant Experience

This year’s Greenbuild sessions reflected a shift in the industry’s attention from energy efficiency to occupant experience. This is certainly a welcome change—one that will have a direct impact on how we live and work—and a topic of great interest to Urban Green.

In particular, three Greenbuild sessions on building automation, discussed below, piqued our interest: It was evident that figuring out how to make occupants more comfortable, healthy and productive has many facets, with a range of issues to consider in order to be effective.  

Urban Green will be addressing these very issues on November 28th at Optimizing Operations in Automated Buildings, where a building owner, operator, engineer and controls specialist will discuss the barriers to and opportunities  automation in NYC buildings.  


Like many others, Tom Marseille of WSP understands that there must be a balance between smart building technologies and the occupants who use them. But striking that balance can be a challenge: Even with building automation, achieving optimal building performance (and comfort) requires occupants to be actively engaged.

In Occupant Aware Buildings, or Building Aware Occupants?, he joked about how an “engineer-occupant” might interface with a fully-automated system to tweak it to his or her preferences: by taping a cup with an ice cube over the temperature sensor (to keep your office nice and toasty in the winter) or by placing a post-it over the occupancy sensor (so the lights stay off when natural light is sufficiently available).

But the larger problem remains: buildings need systems that also allow non-engineer occupants to easily provide feedback and create comfortable indoor environments.

But comfort may not mean energy savings. In the midst of this fourth industrial revolution, or the “internet of things,” Marseille has noticed a difference between what we, as occupants, say we want and what we actually do. Michelle Shiota explained this challenge well; Marseille read her words aloud to the audience:

“Explicit pro-environment and sustainability attitudes have little predictive value in terms of behavior. This is not specific to sustainability–our habits, impulses and desire for comfort and convenience have trouble competing with even our best intentions and dearly held beliefs.”

The trick for the automated buildings of the future will be to balance sustainable solutions with occupant comfort and ease.

Looking ahead, big data is poised to play a pivotal role in shaping and improving our day-to-day lives. Soon—if we are willing—our buildings will know when and where we are, as well as how we work and inhabit spaces. Many in the audience expressed their discomfort with disclosing this kind of information, given how it could potentially be used. Addressing privacy concerns and cybersecurity challenges will be necessary for automation to become more widespread.


For Chris Pyke, Research Officer at the USGBC, the first step toward occupant health and comfort is measuring the quality of the environment inside our buildings (IEQ). In Strategy and Technology for Monitoring Performance and IEQ, Pyke emphasized that indoor air—a key element of IEQ—is integral to occupant health.

While simply installing sensors will create a mountain of data, it won’t yield any clear solutions. As Pyke warned, “If you find yourself throwing sensors into a building without knowing the problem you’re trying to solve, then take a step back–just measuring and obsessing about one parameter for its own sake isn’t useful.”

Pike therefore outlined three key issues for building owners and managers to address  as part of their IEQ monitoring:

1. Protect Inhabitants from Pollution. The first reason is simple, but sometimes overlooked: Controlling indoor air quality can protect people from outdoor air pollution. A worldwide heat map identified the east coast of North America, central Europe and coastal China as problem spots. That means expensive building locations in these areas often come with unhealthy outdoor air.

In fact, 92 percent of the world’s population experiences poor outdoor air quality. Roughly 3 million deaths are attributed to air pollution each year, and over 90 percent of those occur in low- and middle-income countries.[1] Recently, the San Francisco area suffered through weeks of air laden with heavy smoke from widespread wildfires that burned down more than 3,000 buildings. But Lane Burt, engineer with Ember Strategies, reminded us that “fires didn’t just burn those buildings to the ground, those fires incinerated building materials.” These building materials turn into particulates, which traveled for miles as air pollution.

Being aware of outdoor air quality can allow facility managers to close their buildings’ air intakes before it affects indoor air quality. Of course, that would result in higher carbon dioxide levels for occupants—which leads to the next reason to track air quality: supporting cognitive function.

2. Managing Air Quality to Support Cognitive Function. When a room is filled with people, it also fills up with carbon dioxide, which has been shown to impair cognitive function and increase drowsiness.[2] Workers in conference rooms and children in classrooms can send carbon dioxide levels spiking over 1,000 ppm. We can anticipate this problem with occupancy sensors and boost the levels of fresh air ventilation to avoid unhealthy, unproductive or uncomfortable conditions.

Pyke highlighted the need for a continuous measurement of pollutants, rather than simple snapshots or averages—particularly in areas prone to poor air quality or with vulnerable populations.

3. Regulating Temperature & Moisture to Increase Comfort. Lastly, building managers need to keep the temperature and moisture of indoor air comfortable for occupants. There are many standards that define ranges of comfort for these variables, and it’s important to track these elements throughout the day to identify times when a room may be too hot, cold or damp and adjust the systems accordingly.

Measuring these three qualities of the indoor environment will give us insight into the true efficiency of our buildings. As Lane noted: “We've been working on 'building efficiency.' But it's not really efficiency, it’s just energy and water intensity. Each system has an efficiency, the amount you get out per amount that goes in. We're only just starting to quantify what we get out of the indoor environment.”


It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement around building automation, sensing technology and occupant engagement. In Zen and the Art of Building IoT (Internet of Things), John Picard (an architect and technology evangelist) and Carol Jones (Enlighted) captivated the audience with dazzling stories of technology’s potential. They shared anecdotes from their work that illustrated both the difficulties with sensory buildings and the vast potential that seamless automation could bring.

Knowing what is happening in our buildings on a granular basis goes beyond energy and health—it has a huge impact on safety. What if these sensors could predict fires before they got out of control? What if police could enter a building and instantly know who is armed and dangerous? IoT has the potential to unlock extraordinary portfolio value by making the invisible visible, enabling solutions to a vast array of problems.

Using the analogy of the Moon Shot to refer to both the trajectory of the rocket from the Earth to the moon, as well as the 9-year creative process to engineer the journey, John noted that 90 percent of the trip was course correction. The same rings true for the building automation industry. Building owners, operators and occupants all want the capabilities that building-wide IoT offers. But significant industry transformation is required—from both buildings systems and automation technology—before our buildings can be as agile as our smartphones.

About the authors

Urban Green Council
Dedicated to transforming buildings for a sustainable future.