Building in sustainability
Sustainability must be holistically planned and built into a project from the early stages in order to realise long-term benefits.
Numerous research projects and studies undertaken by universities and others have repeatedly shown that low carbon, high performance buildings can contribute directly to the bottom line for organisations, not only through increased asset value and lower running costs, but through improving the indoor environment quality for occupants and their productivity.
In fact, a US study (Improving the Health of Workers in Indoor Environments: Priority Research Needs for a National Occupational Research Agenda, 2002) quantified the financial losses from poor indoor environments in the tens of billions of dollars per year– in the US alone, through absence from work, reduced work performance and increased healthcare costs.
In Australia, the HASSELL-designed 6 Star Green Star rated Medibank Place in Melbourne and SA Water House in Adelaide are exemplars of sustainability, resulting in multiple benefits for the organisations as well as the people working in the buildings. In the case of SA Water House, post occupancy studies have shown a 30 percent reduction in sick leave, an increase in graduate applications from 150 to 440, a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a 70 percent reduction in water use.
So why aren’t more projects taking advantage of these benefits and what makes projects like Medibank and SA Water House the exception rather than the norm?
The simple answer is that they had these requirements built in from the beginning of the project. Sustainability, health and wellbeing were primary project drivers and key brief requirements. Sadly, many other projects miss out on these benefits because sustainability, health and wellbeing were considered too late in the procurement process, or those making the decisions were not aware of the multitude of advantages.
Despite the significant academic research effort in this area, much of the evidence remains locked up in academic journals inaccessible to industry. Also the sheer volume of the research means people do not have the time to sort through, analyse and consider which research is pertinent or applicable. Significant gains could be made if relevant evidence was used to inform decisions at the initial stages of a project where the early decisions typically have the biggest impact on the success, or otherwise, of a project.
So how do you get more projects building in sustainability from the beginning? This is one of the aims of a new multi-disciplinary research collaboration called Closing the Loop. This three-year project will connect the wealth of evidence that exists for high-performance buildings with front-end decision makers. It will inform how best to capture better occupant health and productivity, as well as low carbon outcomes, through industry focused outputs to help create the next generation of high performance buildings.
Closing the Loop
Closing the Loop is part of the Cooperative Research Council (CRC) for Low Carbon Living. The government-funded CRC for Low Carbon Living connects key property, design, building and policy organisations with leading Australian researchers. Through a series of research projects it aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the built environment and drive higher- performance buildings in Australia.
The Closing the Loop research project is led by an industry-based steering committee with representatives from HASSELL, AECOM and Brookfield Multiplex as well as academic advisors from UNSW and Curtin University. The project outcomes will be practical and able to be applied directly by the property, design and construction industries. Two key focus areas for the project are:
- The development of a framework for systematic evidence review of built environment studies, and;
- Evidence based decision-making tools and processes to assist teams to get the right evidence in the right form to the right people at the right time in the decision making process.
Navigating the evidence with a systematic review
In an age of information overload, we are getting busier and busier and there is little time to comprehensively comb through all evidence when making a decision. In addition, comprehending the methodology section of an academic article is complex. A systematic review is a process of identifying, analysing and synthesizing large bodies of complex evidence. This type of work has been done in healthcare design to understand what types of hospital designs impact patient healing outcomes.
Another example is the What Works Network in the UK, which has been established to analyse bodies of evidence to inform policy decisions. An exhaustive review of evidence for benefits of low carbon, high performance office buildings will be conducted as part of this research. The aim of this process is to understand what evidence currently exists, what subjects the evidence concentrates around, and classify the strength of that evidence.
By the end of the project the intention is to disseminate this information to industry through an online platform, which can be regularly updated so that it becomes a central knowledge hub. This process will help industry comprehend and understand articles that they would otherwise not be able to access or have the time to read through. Outcomes from the systematic review will be also be used as part of the research into evidence based decision-making processes.
What is Evidence Based Decision making? Why is it important?
Evidence-based decision-making refers to the process of using the best available evidence from both research and practice to make a decision. In the context of the Closing the Loop project, it involves considering and evaluating scientific research and practitioners expertise, together with the local context and the stakeholders involved. This doesn’t mean that building projects haven’t relied on any evidence until now. Architects have been relying on
physics, engineering and many other evidence-based disciplines. However, the fields to be considered should be expanded in order to improve the wellbeing and productivity of the occupants.
Evidence-based practices have shown to result in higher quality decision-making. There is an increasing body of knowledge that can inform and guide decision makers, yet it is not a common management practice to refer to it. Many studies have found that managers are often relying on their own gut feeling or on previous personal experiences, without evaluating other sources of information. This happens for several reasons. Partly it is due to a lack of awareness of the relevant body of research.
Additionally managers can feel overwhelmed with all of the available data and have difficulties evaluating it or knowing how and where to intervene with it. But interestingly it is also due to irrational behaviours, like underestimating its relevance if it is not aligned with existing beliefs, and basing the level of confidence on the consistency of the information at hand, rather than by the quality of it.
Relying too much on intuitions might be a problem as more studies are shedding further light on the influence of various cognitive biases and are advising sceptical approach. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, despite what people think, they often recall experiences quite differently to how they actually happened, and even if remembered correctly, trying to make sense out of a past experience can easily lead to assuming a causal relationship that never actually existed, hence building up an illusion of expertise.
Secondly, there is the issue of being limited by bounded rationality, which means that people can only process and consider a limited amount of information when making a decision, and when selecting what information to consider they are influenced by availability bias, a mental shortcut that makes them rely more on those examples that come more easily to mind due to a recent exposure. So without realising it people will overestimate the probability of a certain outcome if they have recently experienced it or thought about it. Relying on additional sources of evidence like scientific research would mitigate these pitfalls and guide decision makers towards more efficient solutions.
By understanding how to overcome some of these cognitive biases, evidence based practices can by fostered, ultimately improving the health and productivity of the occupants as well as the sustainability of the building. Various evidence based decision-making processes will be studied as part of the project to understand key actors and influencers, and where and how evidence based decision making can be effectively introduced.
The Closing the Loop project through its large-scale systematic review of existing evidence on green building will help to synthesize the complex array of existing research. It will also investigate evidence-based decision-making processes to assist teams to integrate key evidence into decision-making and help build sustainability into projects.
This article, which appears in the February/March edition of FM, was compiled by Dr Samantha Hall, Brett Pollard and Christian Criado-Perez. Dr Samantha Hall is a post-doctorate researcher at the University of New South Wales; Brett Pollard is principal and head of knowledge and sustainability at HASSELL; and Christian Criado-Perez is PhD researcher at University of New South Wales.