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Construction Corner: Paper exposes bloopers of high-efficiency design

Korky Koroluk
Construction Corner: Paper exposes bloopers of high-efficiency design

We all make bloopers from time to time.

Sometimes even experts make them, which often leads critics to sneer whenever they hear the word “expert.”

I mention this because an academic paper landed on my desk a few days ago, detailing the many ways experts have erred when designing high-efficiency buildings.

Many researchers know that quite often these new buildings aren’t used as intended. Sometimes the occupants, through no fault of their own, end up wasting energy simply because they don’t understand how to use a building.

Researchers have known this for a long time, but Julia Day set out to learn why.

Day teaches at the school of design and construction at Washington State University. She was joined in her research by William O’Brien, from Carleton University in Ottawa.

They recently published a paper in the journal Energy Research and Social Science. It contains some howlers.

In it, Day says she has seen people taping motion-sensor light switches to keep their lights off. She’s seen people putting a popsicle on a thermostat to turn on the heat.

People can get pretty creative, she says, “but why not design it so they can use it in the first place? We need to create environments where people can be productive.”

The study involved a lot of one-on-one interviews asking open-ended questions. That encouraged people to talk about their gripes. That’s how it was discovered that a building had a signaling system to tell occupants the best times of day to open or close windows to take advantage of natural ventilation. But none of the occupants knew what a “signaling system” meant. And none realized that the windows could be opened or closed. No one had told them.

In a residential building, a wall of translucent glass was installed between a bedroom and the common area of an apartment. The intention had been to create a sense of openness. But while the glass was translucent, it didn’t stop people from making out somewhat blurry forms inside the bedroom. So much for privacy.

In that same apartment, there was an array of switches on one wall. One of them was the master switch that cut power to all receptacles, but none of the switches were labelled.

Researchers found a remote weather station that had lights controlled by motion sensors to save energy. But the people in the station needed to be able to turn off interior lights so they could see out into the darkness to make their observations.

“We found out the employees would have to sit still for about 15 minutes for the lights to go out,” Day wrote. She said at one point, just as the lights went out, “someone sneezed, which turned the lights back on.”

So they had to sit still and wait for another 15 minutes so they could get on with their work.

Day wrote that “researchers often ask ‘why,’ ‘how many,’ and ‘how often,’ but often neglect to ask the ‘why’ questions in energy-related research.”

We’re all guilty of occasional bloopers. When you’re a journalist, they’re out there for all the world to see. The reactions they bring can be amused, angry, resigned or sarcastic.

I recall the time many years ago when, as a young reporter, I wrote an opinion piece that at least one reader took exception to.

I’ve long since forgotten what I wrote that irritated the reader, but I’ll never forget the reaction. It was masterful.

A few days after the piece appeared in print, I received an envelope in the mail. Inside, wrapped in a clipping of the offending article, was a small pad, perhaps 12 centimetres long and not more than a centimetre wide. It was thin, only a dozen or so sheets. And printed in tiny type atop each page were the words “Scratch Pad for Narrow-Minded Bastards.”

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to

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