News Brief

Collecting Stories to Improve Design

New study describes the value of occupant stories in evaluating high-performance buildings.

A building's performance depends to a large extent on the behavior of its occupants. Engaging directly with occupants to understand why they use buildings the way they do can provide valuable lessons for high performance design. 

Photo: Phil Whitehouse. License: CC BY 2.0.
You can learn a lot by simply talking to people. That’s the idea behind a new take on the value of speaking directly with occupants to understand the impact of design. In the paper “Oh behave! Survey stories and lessons learned from building occupants in high-performance buildings,” Julia Day, assistant professor at Washington State University, and William O’Brien, associate professor at Carleton University, share findings from studies that focus on how occupants interact with and use high-performance buildings.

What they’ve found is that purely quantitative forms of post-occupancy research often do not reveal the full picture of why certain design strategies are successful or not. They argue for an approach to post-occupancy engagement that combines quantitative methods of data collection, like multiple-choice questionnaires and building measurements, with in-person interviews and open-ended surveys that invite occupants to share their stories of how and why they use a building the way they do.

Investigating design

The researchers found that in many cases these stories point to the kinds of design flaws and barriers to energy-efficient behaviors that are very difficult to identify using other methods of investigation. They explain that when face-to-face with occupants, it is possible to ask specific follow-up questions when unexpected or interesting information is shared. And they argue that occupant stories “tend to be very descriptive, provide greater insight about occupant mentality, and are likely to remain memorable long after statistical results have been forgotten.”

In one study of a LEED-certified academic building, interviews with occupants revealed how the natural ventilation strategy was being undermined. A signaling system had been installed to indicate when it was thermally advantageous to open or close windows, but it was being ignored. The occupants were not aware that the signaling system had anything to do with the windows and did not even know the windows were operable.

In a study of an office space, an occupant explained in an interview that, because her office was above a busy street, she often had to choose between acoustic and thermal comfort, since closing her window to block out noise would then cause the space to get too warm. The authors note that stories like this highlight the importance of doing more than simply asking occupants if they are comfortable or not. It’s better to ask specifics about what makes a building uncomfortable.

What shapes occupant behavior?

The paper describes five basic story types based on the most common themes identified in their interviews with occupants of high-performance buildings:

  • Social influence—how behavior is affected by concerns for others’ comfort and/or the culture in a building
  • Economic concerns—how behavior is shaped by the extent to which occupants are financially affected by building performance
  • Misalignment of occupants and designer/operator—how behavior might be intuitive but differ significantly from design and operational intent
  • Lack of control—how behavior and comfort are affected by either lack of control or perceived lack of control
  • Pure discomfort—the specifics of how, where, and when discomfort is experienced in a building

The authors emphasize that occupant stories can be valuable beyond the individual building from which they are collected because they often produce higher-level lessons about design techniques and occupant behavior that can benefit the wider building community.

For more information:

Energy Research & Social Science (ERSS)

Published January 5, 2018

Wilson, J. (2018, January 5). Collecting Stories to Improve Design . Retrieved from

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