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The role of behaviour in retrofitting for sustainability


3D model of a globe, surrounded by buildings and trees.


Designing a new building from the ground up gives us every opportunity to make it highly sustainable, however it also means investing in a large amount of embodied carbon emissions and energy to construct them. Existing buildings often have the opposite problem – they may not perform very well, but there may be very little new embodied carbon involved in improving them.

There are some improvements to existing buildings that involve minimal embodied carbon emissions, such as addressing behavioural change. As sustainability consultants, we regularly advocate for changes around building energy use and the technology options for improving energy management and reducing energy-related (Scope 1) emissions.

Implementing these things effectively does involve human behaviour changes, such as facilities managers trading ‘set and forget’ building services approaches for the more responsive approach of engaging with energy monitoring and demand management platforms.

There could be positive changes to how occupants interact with a building – like using a touchscreen to call an energy-efficient destination-controlled lift that has regenerative drive technology installed rather than stepping into a conventional lift and pushing the relevant floor button.

How people move to and from a building is another area where changing behaviour can be beneficial if it means people use walking, cycling and public transport, as opposed to driving a car. The relatively minor works of retrofitting active travel amenities including showers and lockers and changing facilities will enhance the attractiveness of this option.

Hybrid work is another change that has a sustainability dimension. When people spend part of their working week at home, energy use in an office may decrease over the week as fewer people means less heat load inside the building, less lift use and less lighting if occupancy sensor systems are installed. It also means people generate less waste! On the flip side, we are seeing that people are valuing the social aspect of the workplace more when they do have time in the office with colleagues, so there is a wellbeing aspect coming into play there too.

Office lunches and on-site catering also offer a sustainability opportunity through encouraging reduced meat consumption. The livestock industry is a major source of global carbon emissions, including methane, which has a higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide. While I come from a vegetarian cultural background, some people may be unfamiliar with meatless options so giving them a taste of how delicious vegan or vegetarian food can encourage embracing a diet that is lighter on our planet.

Catering for wellbeing

I often suggest to clients also that they look at adding communal gardens with edible plants to their buildings and public areas. This is beneficial on multiple levels – aesthetics, reducing the urban heat island effect, encouraging social engagement and contributing fresh produce for health and wellbeing to people’s diets. Spending time in a garden also has health benefits including gentle exercise and reduced stress from time spent among the greenery. Gardens can be quite compact also, which means they can be retrofitted almost anywhere there is some level space and some sunlight. The starting point for any improvement, whether it is to the physical building or to people’s behaviour, is analysing existing conditions and then designing interventions to suit them.

For example, where we are retrofitting for improved wellbeing and improved lighting energy efficiency, daylight simulations are carried out. We also look at the floorspace, which areas of that floorspace are the most occupied spaces, and evaluate how much daylight enters the building, where it enters and when. Then artificial lighting can be designed to complement natural light, and control systems including Bluetooth-enabled systems can be introduced so occupants can support their individual comfort needs by tailoring lighting levels including controlling automated blinds.

Modelling for daylight, thermal comfort, indoor environment quality, energy use, climate and other features of a space or place helps us make informed decisions around design measures to improve a building. It also gives us a sound basis for designing passive solutions wherever possible that improve the building for occupants with measures that also reduce overall energy use.

Fitout made (sustainably) fabulous

Other ways we can retrofit for sustainability include decisions made when designing a fitout for a tenant. Modular and dynamic fitouts mean spaces can be adaptable as needs change, and also mean the materials can be repurposed to another fitout or use in future. The whole area of circular economy is something we should be considering wherever possible, because for the circular economy to grow more people need to be participating. At this point, there is no specific tool or platform that helps people understand the sourcing part of the circle so their project can be circular.

But if we look for opportunities and monitor where materials are becoming available, and how they can be re-used in buildings or projects this market could be expanded which would reduce supply chain emissions and ensure non-renewable resources are put to use more responsibly. The whole area of waste and circular economy is at its root about behaviour change and a shift in thinking.

Ultimately the degree and type of sustainability features we retrofit comes down to two things – budget and motivation. Abundant motivation can often compensate for limited budgets, and large budgets can achieve things even where there is limited motivation.

That said, everyone needs to be motivated about improving our built environment because how it performs affects all of us. We cannot limit our thinking to single buildings, we have to consider the neighbourhood, the city, the nation and ultimately, the entire planet.