| 03.20.2018

Better buildings, NASA style — UI doctoral candidate connects conservation, people at NASA Ames


For the environmentally conscious, energy saving measures such as low-flow showerheads and compact fluorescent light bulbs have been a popular and affordable way to reduce one’s environmental impact. 

But what if people could do more? What if a building could be designed that utilized every conceivable energy shortcut, from strategically placed windows and computerized climate controls to solar panels and bioswales to filter rainwater runoff? And if this building could be built, what would people think about working inside it?

Angela Vanhoozer, a doctoral candidate in the University of Idaho Environmental Science Program, has spent the last three years finding the answers to these questions at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Her research has focused on the human side of eco-friendly design by analyzing feedback from nearly 200 workers at Sustainability Base, a $20 million office building with state of the art technology.

“There’s sort of a relationship going on there, where you’re looking at the physical environment, people’s satisfaction, comfort and how things have changed for them since they moved from wherever they were on base in those old Army barrack-type offices to this new facility,” Vanhoozer said.

Sustainability Base is impressive, but the change in office space wasn’t always welcome. Vanhoozer said at first, much of what determined the various office workers’ outlooks had to do with the type of environment they had been in before they were relocated. Cubicle workers didn’t notice much of a difference, but the move didn’t sit well with those who had private offices and now found themselves in a shared space.

Feedback about the energy saving measures was generally positive, but the project was not without hiccups.  Some workers weren’t happy about the lack of control they had over basic things, like opening and closing a window shade or adjusting the thermostat, which are controlled by a central computer system and thousands of sensors throughout the building.

Vanhoozer said it can be difficult to account for what building occupants do when developing these types of control systems, despite attempts to better quantify the human element and anticipate what they want.

“We want interfaces between supervisors and the web, but as far as what building occupants can control, there isn’t a whole lot there,” Vanhoozer said. “There’s just one relationship that’s a direct relationship that’s also directly related to the supervisor, because it’s a hierarchical organization.”

Vanhoozer also kept an eye out for ways that human activity might come into conflict with the various energy saving devices. For example, one way Sustainability Base keeps heating and cooling costs to a minimum is by using a negative pressure system around the entrances, so that when a door is opened, air from the outside moves into the building instead of being forced out. Unfortunately, this also makes the doors so difficult to open that workers opted to hit the handicap button, causing the doors to stay open long enough to undo any benefit the system may have provided.

“It’s kind of like the ideas are right, and then you have the practicalities,” Vanhoozer said. “I’ve been picking up on those things and documenting them, because people are telling me about them and so I get to listen to people’s stories.”

But technological innovation isn’t the only way Sustainability Base tries to conserve energy. During the course of her research, Vanhoozer found that people who worked at Sustainability Base became more aware of different ways to save energy in their own homes, and were more motivated to make changes in their lifestyles.

Generally, people were limited by costs or by circumstance — only one person actually installed solar panels at their house — but there were many more people who would have if they could have afforded to, or if their house had been in a location with access to enough sunlight for the panels to make a difference. More commonly, workers stuck to basic means of energy conservation, like better energy use habits or swapping out older light bulbs for more efficient ones.

While this change looks promising, Vanhoozer said the results may also have been limited by the lack of manual controls available to workers, since they would have fewer opportunities to form habits that they could then take home with them. Transferability was also a problem, since some of the energy saving measures at Sustainability Base were designed for a 50,000 square foot office and could not easily be adapted for home use.

“What this tells you is, in a general sense, people are responding positively in terms of conservation,” Vanhoozer said. “All of the results indicated a positive direction, it was just a matter of whether it was statistically significant at this point.”

Vanhoozer said the type of people who participated in her research may have influenced the results. Many of the workers she spoke to, who are highly educated and live in the more progressive San Francisco Bay Area, scored in the 80th or 90th percentile when screened to see how sensitive they were to energy issues and the environment.

“There’s definitely limits to generalizability here,” Vanhoozer said. “You’re talking about a population that’s already highly attuned to these kinds of issues and are, for the most part, accepting. You have to keep the population in mind.”

Sustainability Base is still being fully brought online, but Vanhoozer said NASA may expand and do more conservation projects in the future. Since NASA developed much of the technology that is now being used to monitor climate change, Vanhoozer said it only makes sense for the administration to continue research in that field.

As for Vanhoozer, now that her research is over, she’s still planning her next move — she might take a vacation or she might jump right back into the workforce.

“I don’t mind working for an architecture firm and doing post-occupancy evaluation and research, but my first love is the actual design, and I’m particularly interested in green roof and living wall systems,” Vanhoozer said. “It depends on whether or not the value added that my skillsets would bring to their firm would be a good thing.”

Daniel Durand can be reached at arg-news@uidaho.edu

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