Ken’s View: Diodes and Artisanally Distressed Cellphones

It was encouraging to note what may be a subtle shift to emphasize human factors—not just energy savings—at the recent Greenbuild conference and expo.

One education seminar in particular featured a story of two Colorado schools—one a spanking new LEED-certified building and the other an older building without all the green bells and whistles. Guess what? The older school performed better energy-wise than the LEED school.

We’ve all heard critical stories about energy-efficient buildings that failed to live up to their projected energy-saving potential. What happened? Apparently, people happened. At the older school, a “charismatic” custodian with a decidedly green bent got other members of the school community to buy into his vision of energy saving and environmental responsibility. According to the story, he was even invited to sit on the schools “green” committee, otherwise comprising teachers and administrators. Generating community involvement and enthusiasm apparently made more difference than green technology alone.

Perhaps in a related shift, there were a number of seminars that focused on the health and wellness aspects of green design and not just cost and energy saving. One presenter commented that one wouldn’t have seen this emphasis a few years ago. There were even sessions on biophilic design, circadian rhythms, mindful design, and cognitive design, side by side with discussions of the Internet of Things (IoT).

I know, it sounds a bit New Agey but, after all, this was California, where you can get an “artisanally distressed cellphone” among other things. Nevertheless, I think health and wellness have always been a subtext of the green movement, but they seem to be moving more to the fore in recent years.

In other areas, green assumptions are being turned on their heads as well—by technology. One educational session was provocatively titled, “Diodes and the Death of Daylighting as an ECM.” It turns out the presenters predicted no such thing. Not exactly, anyway. Daylight, they contended, would be not so much an energy-conserving measure due to the low energy use of LEDs, but it would continue to be practiced for other reasons, namely the health and wellness benefits of light and view.

In another oblique nod to the human factor in green initiatives, one of the conference presenters said he favored a passive daylighting approach rather than a technical, mechanical one—because technology often fails or those pesky humans find a way to mess with and subvert it. In other words, ignore the human factor in your design at your own risk.

That suggests another point: If you’re going to introduce changes, technological or otherwise, into spaces occupied by humans, then a little education and orientation may be in order. Don’t just build it, and when they come, leave them to figure it out.

Young children are drilled from day one how to behave in school. Line up single file, no running, shouting, pushing, etc. Or at least they used to be. With new open-office spaces, perhaps the same sort of indoctrination is in order. Some people seem to talk as though they were at home in their living rooms, loudly carrying on private conversations that no one wants to hear. The other half, wanting more privacy and not wanting to disturb colleagues, will talk less, thus subverting the intended collaborative atmosphere. Some have even suggested that open offices tend to make people less social. Imagine that.

Another interesting learning situation was the elevators at my L.A. hotel. They had a new-fangled card reader outside the elevator where you swiped your card and selected your floor before stepping into the elevator. Visitors could select public floors, too, without swiping a keycard. Instructions were thoughtfully posted for hotel guests, but no advice was provided for visitors to public areas. The result was that visitors would step onto the elevators and be stymied by the lack of floor buttons to push. The look of consternation on their faces was amusing the first time, but it became an irritation to guests who knew the drill and had to shove the visitors off the elevator and into the arms of hotel personnel assigned to explain the whole thing. Improved signage would have helped, even though some people never read signs. But some do. The assumption seems to have been that everyone knows how anything as common as an elevator works. But that’s clearly not the case any longer—because elevators have changed while we weren’t looking.

I’m not suggesting that change is always unwelcome, but maybe those so enamored of disruptive technology could be, well, less disruptive and devote a little more thought to explaining their game-changing gizmos to the end users expected to embrace them.

— Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor

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