Building the future: A realistic grasp of human nature would create savings in buildings’ energy consumption

It would be ideal if people understood how buildings’ systems worked and were motivated to use them as intended. However, this is not the reality: people have a poor grasp of how systems work and use them sub-optimally.


Many view radiator thermostats as valve-like devices, without understanding the related meters or adjustment functions. The use of thermostats is characterised by misconceptions, which can easily lead to unnecessary energy consumption. What is more, the symbols used on thermostats are misunderstood; office workers in particular are unclear about what thermostats affect. Of course, thermostats do not provide users with understandable feedback telling them that their requests have been received and are being handled by the system.

Human behaviour is unpredictable

People use systems very passively. Most office blinds are left down all or most of the time. Around a third are never touched. Lighting is often left on needlessly. According to a survey, some 60 percent of lights are left on in European offices during the summer. Lights are typically switched on upon entering a room, but are not switched off as the amount of natural light increases. In many cases, all lights are switched on despite the fact that less light would suffice.

Most computers are left on continuously. Studies of offices have shown that up to 60% of computers are left on overnight. A range of explanations are given for this: the slow startup of machines, the pointlessness of switching them off, the small amount of power consumption in question, simply forgetting and misunderstandings, and the idea that shutting a computer down shortens its useful life.

People go for the easiest and fastest option. They do not behave in a logical, proactive or long-term manner. A building’s user is unlikely to react to minor discomfort, but acts frantically when discomfort reaches a peak. In such cases, conditions must be restored to a pleasant state immediately. If the settings are changed, they tend to stay in that position until the next ‘crisis of discomfort’.

However, people’s behaviour should not be regarded as irrational. It is more a case of a desire to restore comfort as soon and easily as possible without further reflection.

It is clear that people’s behaviour has a major impact on the energy consumption of a building. Various information campaigns have been held with the aim of changing behaviour, with varying results.

Building should accommodate people, not the other way around

It would be ideal if people could be taught the principles of how a building works. But this idea doesn’t even get out of the starting blocks, since busy office workers are hardly likely to enthuse about such training. The technical systems of many buildings are highly complex: understanding how they work cannot be set as a requirement for using them. Of course, a car can be driven without knowing much about how it works, since its controls are well-designed and easy to understand. A buildings’ system should be just as intuitive, but we are a long way from this.

We could adopt a different approach, rather than trying to instruct people on how to use a building and motivating them to save energy. We could make buildings as ‘behaviour-proof’ as possible. In such a case, people’s behaviour would not have a major impact on consumption, and inappropriate use of a building would not increase energy use.

Criticising users is therefore the wrong approach. I would not engage in finger pointing. While it is certainly worth teaching and motivating users, it is also clear that such users have little enthusiasm for using precious time to learn how to use a building.

The solution lies elsewhere, particularly in designers understanding how a building’s users think and behave – and creating solutions on this basis. Designers are often too optimistic about the use of a building, even assuming that users are like ideally and optimally functioning machine parts. In fact, users need freedom more than demands, particularly when required to be efficient and creative in their work.

The following three principles could serve as a guideline for improving energy-efficiency on the terms of a building’s users:

  • We cannot assume that users have the necessary information for using a building as intended. Although some do have sufficient know-how and skills, we must not design solutions accordingly.
  • We cannot assume that users are motivated to save energy (particularly at work). While some are indeed highly motivated, we must not design solutions accordingly.
  • We cannot assume that users will actively engage in energy saving. Even if some do, we must not design solutions accordingly.

We must therefore understand that people do not behave optimally with respect to buildings. People are people and buildings should accommodate them, not the other way around.

From the perspective of energy efficiency, the solutions favoured must be based on a realistic notion of human nature.

This issue is considered in greater detail by the following scientific article:

Karjalainen, Sami. 2016. Should we design buildings that are less sensitive to occupant behaviour? A simulation study of the effects of behaviour and design on office energy consumption. Energy Efficiency 9 (6): 1257-1270.

Sami Karjalainen VTT

Sami Karjalainen
Senior Scientist

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