The Human Element

By Lorne Bell

At a mindfulness retreat in upstate New York, industry and city leaders are rethinking their green building approach.

Steven Bluestone is not someone you would peg as a tree-hugging, green crusader. Yes, the 58-year-old real estate developer majored in solar energy systems. And yes, since 2008, all of his buildings have incorporated extensive green design, but Bluestone is one of New York City’s most prolific builders, a partner and third-generation leader in the award-winning Bluestone Organization.

The Garrison Institute offers a natural setting for contemplation with its tranquil, park-like setting, gardens, gazebo on a bluff by the river, and many walking paths.

Since his grandfather founded the firm in 1927, the company has built more than 10,000 housing units across the city. For Steven Bluestone, building green is part of a healthy bottom line—which is why he accepted an invitation to the 2014 Climate, Buildings and Behavior symposium hosted by the Garrison Institute, a mindfulness retreat and former monastery in rural Garrison, New York. First held in 2009, the three-day event attracts some 70 developers, building owners, property managers, and city leaders from across the country. Instead of focusing on technologies, attendees take a more contemplative approach to their work.

“At one of the other conferences I go to, a renowned building scientist said to 300 energy conservation experts, ‘We’ve figured out how to make a great building, but what we don’t have figured out and really need to work on is the occupants of the building,’” says Bluestone. “The Garrison Institute conference is about changing people’s behaviors and attitudes.”

As part of the Institute’s Climate, Mind and Behavior program, which addresses behavioral obstacles to combatting climate change, the Buildings symposium looks at the human links between design and policy predictions and actual outcomes. Speakers draw on behavioral science to help leaders figure out why their initiatives fall short on energy and cost savings.

Left: Gregg Thomas, division director of environmental quality at the Denver Department of Environmental Health. Photo by Mark Osler. Right: Attendees take a more contemplative approach about changing people’s behaviors and attitudes.

“Even the most well-designed building doesn’t necessarily operate at that level when you come back in three or four years,” says John McIlwain, the program’s director and a former senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.–based Urban Land Institute. “How do you get contractors to really commit to making the building sustainable? As an owner, how do you train your management staff to use the systems and operate the building efficiently? And what programs and incentives are most successful in getting residents to use the building in a way that reduces its impact on the environment?”

In 2008, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) released a study of 121 Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)–certified new construction buildings. USGBC wanted to identify discrepancies between energy model predictions and actual energy consumption. The results indicated that while average LEED building energy use was 25 to 30 percent better than the national average, 25 percent of projects performed “significantly worse” than design models predicted.

One of the first challenges to improving those numbers is encouraging designers and developers to follow up on their projects. According to architect Z Smith, principal and director of sustainability and building performance at the New Orleans firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, that process can be like looking behind the fridge. “As long as no one is suing them,” says Smith, designers have traditionally taken a hands-off approach.

Above: Z. Smith, principal and director of sustainability and building performance at the New Orleans firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple.

Above: Z. Smith, principal and director of sustainability and building performance at the New Orleans firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple.

Smith, who is also an adjunct professor of architecture at Tulane University, spoke at the 2013 Climate, Buildings and Behavior symposium. His presentation, “Seek Comfort, Achieve Performance,” examined his firm’s efforts to follow up on green design projects years after their completion. Although many of the buildings’ energy use figures met prediction model numbers, others did not.

The firm’s first LEED project, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research laboratory in the Florida Keys, was completed in 2006. Initially, the building achieved its predicted energy use intensity (EUI). Two months after it opened, however, the building’s EUI doubled. Shortly thereafter, it doubled again.

What was the problem? Smith and his colleagues had to consider the entire human chain: architects, energy modelers, engineers, contractors, building operation staff, and occupants. In this case, the spike was due to an imperfect software update, a follow-up visit from an untrained technician, and misconfigured electrical wiring.

Similarly, Smith says, prediction models may not anticipate the popularity of a LEED-certified space. As the building’s hours are extended to accommodate more people, energy use goes up. The design is still efficient and the building is a success, but the prediction model is based on old assumptions.

“I’ve seen buildings break at each of those points in that great chain of connection,” Smith told his audience. “It’s not good enough to find someone to blame. What’s more interesting is to find out what happened and how to change that.”

From a business perspective, identifying and remedying those “breaks in the chain” can bolster a firm’s reputation and improve costs for developers, owners, managers, and tenants. Smith points to a growing list of green design firms that are recognizing the value in gathering postconstruction data.

At the municipal level, that holistic approach can have significant implications for city budgets and the environment. Gregg Thomas, division director of environmental quality at the Denver Department of Environmental Health, attended the 2014 symposium.

“As a city, we tend to budget year to year. But we own these assets for 50 years,” says Thomas. “So when you get beyond tax revenues, [high-performing buildings] save you money in the not-too-distant future.”

Thomas, of course, is not in the business of green building design or development. As a city leader and former meteorologist, his focus is on crafting sound environmental policies that will be embraced by developers and the public. For him, the symposium is a place to gather best practices from other city officials and social scientists—practices that take human behavior into account.

In 2014, Thomas listened to a range of speakers, from real estate professionals to sociology professors to meditation instructors. Topics included “The Power of Conversation: A Human-Centered Approach to Engagement” and “Tracking and Rewarding ‘Positive Impact’ Behaviors.”

After the symposium, Denver received a foundation grant to address energy use in large commercial buildings. According to Thomas, those buildings account for one-third of the Mile-High City’s overall energy use.

In the past, environmental policies that relied on voluntary participation resulted in only a 5 percent participation rate across the city, far short of the numbers needed to have a significant impact. So Thomas and his colleagues used insights from the Garrison Institute to identify stakeholders and include them in the policy-making process. Now, after eight stakeholder meetings, Denver will implement a collaborative plan to reduce commercial buildings’ energy use.

“The intent is to make sure that we have a broad base of support to fall back on,” says Thomas.

The Garrison Institute held its last Climate, Buildings and Behavior symposium in 2014, but several proposals are being considered to bring the event back in 2017. McIlwain says that amid an onslaught of dire climate change news, addressing human behavior is vital.

“Simply telling people how bad it is freezes them,” says McIlwain. “There are a lot of things moving in the right direction, and a sense of hope is an important aspect in getting people to continue to be engaged in the issue.”