Retrofitting Buildings and Behavior

thermostatby Colin Rohlfing, LEED AP BD+C
Sustainable Director at HOK

Chicago is at a tipping point. The Retrofit Chicago program is in full-swing, “Sustainable Chicago 2015” has established a pathway forward for the city that emphasizes energy efficiency in the built environment and the Chicago Energy Disclosure Ordinance has been approved for implementation.

These initiatives have already decreased energy use in the City of Chicago and will continue to do so in the near future. However, significant reduction in energy cannot be solely achieved with “behind the scenes” building system upgrades. Sustainable principles and initiatives must be implemented and championed by building occupants from multiple stakeholder groups. The Chicago Green Office Challenge has taken efficiency to this next level; but unlocking the sustainable “power of people” is a deliberate and intricate process.

The Power of the People

Buildings designed or retrofitted to achieve high levels of performance can underperform if the implemented strategies failed to account for inhabitant behavior. When a New Buildings Institute 2008 report revealed that approximately 25% of buildings with predictive modeling indicating energy performance above code in reality performed worse than code, the green building industry redirected focus toward operations and human behavior. These findings illustrated that although new buildings were being designed and constructed to meet the latest sustainable design regulations or green building rating programs, a gap had emerged—an occupant engagement gap.

Since that report, studies from Jones Lang LaSalle, Deutsche Bank, The Rockefeller Foundation, CoreNet Global and HOK have all indicated that a focus on existing building operations and occupant behavior can provide an appropriate return on investment for building owners and tenants. These reports support the idea that effectively engaging people is the most crucial catalyst for making changes toward a more sustainable environment.

The key to occupant engagement success lies in the ability of an organization to effectively engage people and build trust. Trust and engagement are the essential ingredients that activate intrinsic values and encourage behaviors desirable for developing new ideas, increasing participation and delivering better results. All of the protocols and policies in the world will not achieve the desired results without willing, engaged participants.

A successful OEP program must incorporate one or some of the following tools


Commitment to the program and its goals should be written down and made public, and should actively involve individuals and support their perceptions of fulfilling specific actions.

Visual Prompts

Prompts should be noticeable, self-explanatory and in close proximity to where an action is to be taken, such as automatic monitor messages that encourage tenants to shut down their computers and screens before leaving the office.


Any utilized communication methods should be captivating and easy to understand; should provide goals, frame the message, emphasize personal contact, provide feedback; and importantly, must be from a credible source.


Rewards and incentives for positive behavior are often beneficial for effecting change.


Indicate expected behaviors and always encourage positive behavior.

Occupant Engagement

The HOK Occupant Engagement Program (OEP) for Sustainable Practice is an HOK-developed tool and methodology for engaging occupants, driving green practices and inspiring enhanced sustainable behavior among building tenant groups through education and outreach programs. Research has shown that behavior change is most effective when actions are carried out at the community level; in an OEP’s case—the workplace.

An occupant engagement program can save up to 30% of a typical energy bill, and nearly $10,000 per person per year in salaries and benefits if the focus is on increasing the health and wellness of the workplace. An effective OEP is a neutral platform for connecting landlords with tenants as well as a bridge between building design and performance. An OEP should be campaign style, delivered through a program of activities and workshops that are multi-stakeholder developed. Finally, OEPs are derived from the principles of community-based social marketing, which goes beyond conventional marketing practices of media advertising to help initiate desired changes in behavior.

The Case Study

HOK recently completed an occupant engagement program for a client with 4.5 million square feet of leasable space in six buildings. There were 21,000 occupants and over 90 separate tenants. Five campaigns were implemented to improve performance in energy, water, waste, transportation, health and tenant improvements. The energy campaign included changes to lighting hours, equipment use, equipment settings, temperature set point variations, seating arrangements and interior layouts for increased ventilation and light effectiveness.

During the energy campaign, tenants collectively reduced their plug load energy by 2,400,000 kWh when compared to the same period the previous year. This is equivalent to approximately $220,000 per year. The benchmarks and savings results were continuously reported to building management and the tenant green council. In addition, regular communication and feedback loops built collaboration and trust among the 90 separate tenants.

The Conclusion

While the building industry has achieved substantial energy savings of approximately 20-30% with “behind the scenes” building system upgrades, through engagement, building owners can better align building system upgrades with occupants, as well as realize further energy savings and greater return on investment.

An occupant engagement program is a simple first step toward immediate savings if financing or incentives are not available, and in combination with building system upgrades, could increase potential energy savings to 40 or 50%. Tapping into the “power of the people” will carry us beyond the sustainable tipping point in Chicago and accelerate us toward meeting the goals of the “Sustainable Chicago 2015” plan.

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