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Occupant Behavior Affects Window Performance, Overall Efficiency

Posted By Tom Herron, National Fenestration Rating Council, Friday, October 17, 2014

High-performance windows, doors, and skylights can make our homes and buildings more comfortable and energy efficient, but maximizing their contribution depends on occupant behavior.

It’s easy to overlook the role people play in contributing to green building and sustainability. When we think about high-performance structures, we often focus on design, construction, and technology. With Americans spending 90 percent of their time indoors, however, the way people interact with these structures is also important for improving overall building performance.

In hot sunny climates, for example, measures that reduce energy consumption yet sacrifice comfort are unlikely to achieve their intended results. This is because occupants generally act to override their discomfort. For example, they may draw the curtains across high-performance windows on a sunny day and turn on the lights to avoid glare.

Considering the building’s orientation during the integrated design process, however, can lead to better solutions. For instance, planting deciduous trees or shrubs near windows and installing canopies or awnings helps harvest (free) daylight while controlling solar heat gain and glare.

Similarly, installing windows with Low-e coating can improve occupant comfort and energy efficiency. These are ideal for heat-dominated climates because they preserve visible transmittance. They also reduce solar heat gain and glare. If you need a solution for an existing home or building, window films are a good option.

Another example of building occupants acting to override their discomfort occurs during the winter. People sometimes raise the thermostat and open multiple windows so they can enjoy fresh air without getting cold. Although rare in hot climates, this may present a challenge between December and February, when nighttime temperatures dip below 40 degrees.

A more effective solution is installing operable windows, which allow natural ventilation and prevent Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from accumulating. Operable windows also provide an important psychological benefit – the feeling of control over one’s environment.

The bulk of our energy consumption comes from seeking the balance among comfort, energy efficiency, and good indoor air quality. E
ncouraging more interaction between occupants and the built environment helps them better understand how their actions affect their surroundings and their utility bills.

In the future, the highest-performing buildings may not be those that initially exceed code. Instead, they may be the ones that provide an engaging environment where occupants share responsibility for managing energy consumption.

In fact, making buildings perform better depends on educated and committed occupants who proactively interact directly with the buildings they inhabit. While ever-expanding technology will continue providing new ideas, tools, and equipment for making improvements, our actions are what ultimately get the job done.

As Kathryn Janda of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University said in her
paper of the same title, “Buildings don’t use energy – people do.”

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