Today’s education marketplace expects that green buildings will automatically use less energy, be more healthful, and create less waste. Not true. Why? This expectation overlooks the critical impact of the people who occupy a building.
A sustainable building is only as successful as the culture of its occupants.
The culture of a place, including a school or university, is rooted in a set of values, beliefs, and habits shared by a group. Culture also includes the relationships formed around a shared mission. Campuses that invest in programs such as LEED certification or other energy conservation strategies are often surprised that they haven’t reached the desired outcomes. This is largely because occupancy is a core driver of building performance.
The key to effective change is to empower people to make sustainability a part of their everyday lives. Because of greater levels of transparency and greater opportunity for collaboration, people can connect and engage in ways previously unimaginable. This has created challenges as well as opportunities. The shift in culture, as it pertains to sustainable buildings, requires occupants to change their thinking and shift their habits to align with the larger goals. Change depends on the local context and on an individual’s reasons for taking part. Participants want to know that the effort they invest will have positive outcomes, regardless of the type of recognition they receive as a result.
Performance measures also matter, but what is at the core of participation is the intangible sense of making a difference. Oscar Wilde described a cynic as someone “who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” To avoid such cynicism, school administrators should focus on not only the quantifiable data, but also those elements that are harder to measure but are equally if not more important. Although the culture of sustainable design can be data-driven, data represents only a part of a larger perspective that leads to positive, effective change. When both elements – quantifiable and intangible – synthesize, a successful paradigm shift occurs, and desired outcomes follow.
Innovation is most successful when it responds to local culture. If students, faculty, and staff believe that their contributions will yield a desired collective outcome, they are more likely to participate. If they hear from their peers, they are more likely to listen.
A willingness to tailor strategies for change to local practices helps ensure adoption and enables groups to tolerate future culture shift and disruption. It is not a building alone or a set of guidelines that will reduce energy use; rather it is the ability of participants to adapt their behavior to a set of shared goals.
Setting specific, measurable goals can inspire the interest and engagement needed to promote a culture shift on campus. The goal-setting process offers a chance to choose major themes around sustainability, such as energy, water, transportation, food, and waste, and to develop a calendar of priorities.
From the beginning, one message has to be delivered: all goals will be meaningless unless participants believe that they can move the needle in a positive direction. There may be incentives and recognition, but in the end, people want to know that their actions have an impact.
Leadership and Internal Champions
For an occupant engagement program to be successful, facility planners must identify individuals who believe their actions can positively affect sustainable performance metrics. Internal champions with a passion for sustainable causes can make compelling spokespeople. Cultural change won’t happen without them, so it is vital to enlist such champions early on.
The connection between leadership and the internal champions keeps participation going, and provides a natural feedback loop between the front lines of the student population and all levels of university governance and operations. An internal champion encourage participation and remind people of what can be accomplished within a short period of time.
Even more important than a champion within the student body is support from university leadership. When all parts of the school populace work with one another, a new initiative can run smoothly, and a culture shift can take hold. With support from leaders, it is easier to get the word out around campus and into the classroom through advertisements or as part of the curriculum. Influence from leaders makes it easier to bring about changes in the behaviors of students, faculty and staff.
Strong messaging, initiatives and incentives help shift entrenched habits and beliefs. Gamifying participation—e.g., adding a fun, competitive element that makes the process more like a game—can foster enthusiasm and boost participation. Support these efforts by educating campus populations about sustainability best practices.
Timing is important. Try to synchronize activities with the academic calendar. If a program runs too long or starts too close to the beginning of a term, people may be inclined to ignore it. The rhythm of campus life is best suited to increments of four to six weeks. This is long enough to help participants develop new habits, but short enough to keep the goal in sight. Building and promoting a program for busy people with a commitment of as little as five minutes per week can dispel the myth that there isn’t enough time to contribute.
Students and educators are bombarded with information and appeals. Short, concise, content delivered and repeated through diverse media channels ensures that a message will not be lost. Even so, face-to-face communication is more effective than social media. When an acquaintance, friend, or colleague shares information and enthusiasm, an individual is more likely to be won over.
On campus, engagement programs need to incorporate compelling stories and strong illustrations. Getting people to embrace sustainability starts a conversation loop, no matter what the focus is. Why should I buy a Prius? How do I compost eggshells or install a sustainable floor at home? Pushing out new content reinforces the discussion.
Graphics can go a long way to convey information. People are much more likely to respond to messaging that is visually stimulating.
An equally vital component is varying how one communicates. Faculty and staff may still read emails, but students are more likely use Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or text messaging. A cloud-based platform that leverages many media channels with repeated and persistent messaging always wins out. The more closely associated a message is with the team—and with its interests and goals—the more likely it is to resonate.
Taking the pulse of a school—understanding its culture, and identifying established associations and linkages—is perhaps the most nuanced part of the process, but it is the most critical. Defining the places where people interact produces strong associations. Inviting competition between residence halls, grade levels, or other friendly rivals can inspire comradery and participation.
Challenges and Rewards
After the initial goals and metrics are identified, schools need to find ways for engagement to take hold. Gamification may involve developing ideas for challenges and creating the types of rewards and prizes that will resonate with the culture of the campus. Posting team results during competitions helps incentivize continued participation and sparks curiosity among non-participants that may pay off later.
Rewards such as gift cards can also incentivize participation. Alternatively, tying results to specific social causes can serve as an incentive while nurturing a sense of philanthropic purpose. For example, a percentage of a purchase of one item may go to clean water in Africa, and another may contribute to building a school in India.
Of course, some cultures are not conducive to team competition, and it is important to determine this before deciding what incentive to use. In these situations, it works better to invite participation and ask for volunteers.
Measuring Goals and Assessing Efficacy
A successful sustainability engagement program, one that moves groups of people toward a more sustainable culture, must find the right mix of participants and actively involve them. But it is equally important to measure the impact. Although it is difficult to quantify the less tangible goals of long-term sustainability or of improving the quality of life of a community, it is possible to rank how participants see their own engagement and efficacy. Readings from electric and water meters, utility bills, transportation surveys, waste stream audits, and other methods of measuring performance metrics are critical to demonstrating how people’s actions have a tangible impact on moving the needle.