Energy and Sustainability in the Built Environment

Some musings I had on energy and sustainability in the built environment.

Energy consumption is notoriously difficult to understand for the average lay-person. We have some intuition about how our practices and actions affect the energy we use, but this is abstract and difficult to pin down.

For example, I once had a conversation with a colleague where they suggested I shouldn’t turn the lights off in the office, because it takes more power when they turn on again. While it’s true that fluroescent lighting does ‘spike’ in its energy use with the inrush current as the incancescent bulbs ‘arc’, I could see how my colleague vastly over-estimated the amount of energy that was used at that phase. It’s difficult to intuit.

There’s been a few attempts in research to quantify the energy used by appliances, particularly within the so-called ‘smart home’ domain. For a while, the idea was that we should provide interfaces to energy consumers, to help them understand the amount of energy used through their actions in the home, such as doing washing, watching the TV, or cooking.

Yolande Strengers’ 2014 interactions article Smart Energy in Everyday Life [1] (known as the “Resource Man” paper) pointed out the folly of this idea. Most people aren’t interested in monitoring and rationalising their energy consumption. Instead of a problem of interface design, we now see this as part of a much wider issue: Brynjarsdöttír’s paper on designing for persuasion [2] discusses how our idea of sustainability was narrowed through this, to only consider sustainability as an optimisation problem.

This is really an open question– if we’re looking at energy in buildings with a view to making it more sustainable, what are the other things we can do? There’s so many different angles. Embodied energy and waste, for instance: is the plastic pattern layer on the glass panels on the fascia of my last workplace, the Urban Sciences Building (Newcastle University), biodegradable? I doubt it. During the coronavirus pandemic, the national grid in the UK has been producing far fewer CO2 emissions as energy production is down. Is the answer, then, that we should all be working from home if we want to cut greenhouse gas emissions? Or are there more variables in the picture?

Our conception of the ‘smart’ building lies entirely in the inbuilt data and information networks that building contains, with a view to managing its energy use. That’s not suprising: companies (like Siemens, etc) have BMS systems to sell which fill this need. My thesis argues that this focus on energy is a limited vision, and that perhaps smartness should come from the occupants, rather than the environment.

[1] Strengers, Y. 2014. Smart Energy in Everyday Life: Are you Designing for Resource Man? Interactions.

[2] Brynjarsdóttir, H., Håkansson, M., Pierce, J., Baumer, E., DiSalvo, C. and Sengers, P. 2012. Sustainably unpersuaded: How Persuasion Narrows Our Vision of Sustainability. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’12) (2012), 947.