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Green Building Curmudgeon

We Need Green People to Make Green Buildings Work

Most people don't know how to program their setback thermostats, a simple energy saving device that actually works. Are we just too lazy to make a difference?

A recent New York Times article about the US Department of Energy (DOE) underscores a major problem we have in reducing energy usage. An audit of DOE buildings determined that the agency could save over $11.5 million annually by properly using setback controls on evenings and weekends. Out of 55 buildings surveyed, 35 either did not have or did not properly use setback thermostats.

Based on my personal observation, wasted energy is common in commercial buildings, most often when air conditioning is set at frigid levels, requiring workers to wear jackets and even use electric heaters to stay comfortable. It seems to me that a modest amount of thoughtful building management could save enormous amounts of energy, if we only had the will to do it.

Homes are a problem, too

Residentially, we see much of the same wasteful behavior. Many homeowners do not know how to or simply don’t bother to program setback thermostats. On top of this, they leave lights and computers on when not in use, and, my personal favorite, ceiling fans activated when no one is in the room to be cooled by them. Most people don’t realize that ceiling fans provide convective cooling–they make you feel cooler when air blows directly on the skin. If you aren’t sitting underneath it, it serves no purpose. Fan motors also generate heat, warming the room slightly when they’re running. It makes me crazy to see fans running on front porches all day long with no one anywhere near them.

We have become a lazy and wasteful society. We get our power from wall outlets, and regardless of what we pay for it, the supply is endless, so we neither worry about it nor make conserve it. I know people who keep their heat and air conditioning on with their windows and doors open!

What will it take to make us change?

I have written before about energy monitoring devices, both simple and complex, cheap and expensive, that provide usage feedback, and the fact that they can help change behavior. While useful, such products just scratch the surface of behavior modification. Not only do we need to teach people how to properly manage and maintain their homes for maximum performance, we need to change their behavior enough so that they actually do the things they need to do to conserve more. Simple things, like opening and closing windows and doors to keep heat in or out, or even opening and closing blinds to control the sun’s heat, seem to be beyond the will of most homeowners. Most of us turn on heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer without giving any thought to the cost and environmental impact of our actions.

I would really like to know what keeps us from taking simple actions that can have a big impact. Is it laziness, ignorance, or a combination? As industry professionals, we must take the time to educate our clients about how to manage their homes. But what will motivate people to change their behavior enough to make a real difference? I wish I knew.


  1. John Brooks | | #1

    Good Feedback
    maybe homeowners need good feedback....
    something like a traffic light that alerts them when they could be saving Energy...
    Maybe a cash register sound effect that gets louder and louder when they are not operating their home properly...or Jaws theme music

    Maybe a happy sound when they are doing a good job...
    It would take monitors and some thought full are on to something

    Remember the example we just heard about where the German School Children were in charge of opening windows when the traffic light alerted them?

  2. Brett Moyer | | #2

    Right again Carl
    You bring up a very important point. Americans are lazy and wasteful. Programable thermostats are one of the easiest ways of saving energy, and it's a shame they are not utilized more. I think the problem with these thermostats is they are perceived as complicated and difficult to program. (imagine Grandma work trying to figure one out) Though you do not need to be an astrophysicist to program these things, most home owners are not going to take the time to pull out the instruction manual and set the controls--- ridiculous I know, but it is what it is....
    Are you familiar with the Ecobee?
    A bit expensive, but it seems extremely user-friendly, and worth the extra cost.

  3. Carolyn Allen | | #3

    Systems are the monsters in the closet
    I think we're overwhelmed. I see it in how people do their jobs. And tend to their families. And their friendships. And their possessions. And their insurance. And their education. And their faith. And their citizenship responsibilities... get the picture? Something has to give and it's the easiest thing to ignore. Energy that flows perpetually in the SYSTEM is that "easy solution". Manufacturers create the system and consumer buy into it. Literally. If all light switches were timer-based... that would be the accepted system. If all thermostats were programmable... If there were more recycling bins than trash cans ... It's the system. So let's look at the systems and see how we can make them more high-performance. Then consumers have a fighting chance to succeed! Carolyn Allen, SolutionsForGreen

  4. Rob Meyers | | #4

    The Brooks School in Andover
    The Brooks School in Andover has a monitoring system and a display that makes an emotional connection for the kids there. It's a polar bear that is either content when electricity use is low, or falls through the ice when the use goes up. Copy and paste this link in your browser for a look.

  5. Chuck Tackett | | #5

    Brooks School video
    Rob - that's a great clip, Thanks. It seems a bit childish but it's amazing how well the students have responded to it. Public competition (the joy of public success or fear of humiliation) can be a good motivator. I could see city managers and politicians using both to hype their community and, eventually, provide a revenue stream. That's a bit cynical but some form of regional public monitoring and competition of the community within that region might be advantageous.

  6. Craig Whittaker | | #6

    people respond to incentives
    We had this conversation at a sustainability meeting in our city yesterday. We believe that the only way to create the cultural change in the U.S. is to provide financial incentives. Cities can have contests for the 'greenest' business, and the businesses can offer financial incentives to the employees if the win (which they all will through reducing consumption of resources). Make it fun, provide rewards, and the American people can be re-trained from the gluttonous 90s.

  7. Shawn Nelson | | #7

    Alternative View
    "Is it laziness, ignorance, or a combination?" Could it be that people are busy living their lives? Could it be that people prioritze spending time with family, have hectic work schedules, try to volunteer in their community, and occassionally want to see friends. Instead of mocking them, we should be sympathetic. They are busy and cannot possible pay attention to every detail around them. You live this green stuff. They don't. Maybe instead of assuming people are bad and always trying to change them, why not try to understand people and deliver solutions that meet their needs? As an example, we could keep pushing setback thermostats as a tool that bad people (lazy and wasteful) choose not to use - and you don't want to be a bad person, do you? Or, we could explain that setback thermostats can be used to provide comfort for your family and convenience for you - you don't have to think about it. Oh, also, I forgot to mention, it will save you money. Oh, and also, it might help a little with global climate change, if that matters to you. Don't lead with climate change. Lead with the needs/wishes/desires of the individuals. Respect people. This doesn't exclude educating a client, rather it puts it in the proper context. It is the job of a building/remodeling professional to deliver value to the client, not the other way around!

  8. Michael Anschel | | #8

    You got Served?
    Shawn makes a good point but is responding to other commentators not the post which says quite clearly that Remodelers need to take the time to educate consumers. The REAL problem is that geeks are pushing green when it should be SALES PEOPLE at the front lines. Consumers are emotional creatures, salespeople know how to manipulate them and can determine if they will respond to the comfort, savings, or carbon argument for conservation.
    Now, if DOE would get their act together and hire smart, industry savy proffessionals who are proposing to address this from a sales perspective not a geek perspective (and I can geek out with the best of them), then perhaps remodelers would be given the proper tools to interface with the consumer to get the job done. But until DOE takes this seriously we might as well forget it.

  9. ijustinj | | #9

    Is it laziness, systems, alternative views, or what?
    I have to agree with Carl's post for the most part, however "curmudgeonly" it may be. He has been in the business of building, remodeling, and assessing homes far longer than my paltry 13 years. While I do not intend this to be a diatribe against homeowners, they do tend to be lazy. I have worked closely with them in over 20 states and have seen homeowners repeatedly ignore maintenance issues, operating instructions, and well intentioned advice. It is not a matter of being confused but more one of taking the path of least resistance. Do I give the operation of my house the attention it deserves or do I call "the warranty guy?" Jaded maybe, but every bit the truth.

    Regarding set back t-stats. they may have a place in older homes with over sized HVAC systems but they generally do not function well in a properly (right-sized) designed system. A right-sized system is sized to closely fit the peak loads of the house. To set the temperature much higher than normal on a hot summer day will mean that by the time you get home from work, the a/c will take a very long time to cool the house down again. Much too long to satisfy the average homeowner resulting in a warranty call. An improperly sized system, which has been the norm far longer than I've been around, is capable of throwing a lot more cold air once you get home but you will end up with a cold and clammy house because the humidity is not dealt with.

    So which is better? the right-sized system of course and for the logical reasons. I won't go into the science behind it as I am digressing from my point. Set back t-stats are so often called out by so many as an easy way to save energy when they in fact are not if you know the science behind HVAC. Remember the house is a system. The ankle bone is connected to the shin bone, to the knee bone etc. The effects of one change must be considered across the entire system.

    Let's all band together to make the homeowners have a fighting chance at succeeding! Well that's a great concept but flawed. It's not the reality. I strive to help my clients every day, on every project. I pass along my knowledge and instruct them how to apply it. Doesn't stop them from ignoring it because it costs too much or because their competition is not doing it (So why should I?). People like Carl and myself have been fighting this "Green" battle for years, way before "Green" became the nauseating buzz word it is now. I love the battle. I live for the battle mind you but I came to a conclusion some years ago. We are not going to save the world, win the battle until there is a fundamental change in the mindset of the country's homebuilders and homeowners. The change will come, It's slowly happening but it ain't there yet. I'll tell you one thing, a bamboo floor will not solve the problem. Just sayn'

  10. ijustinj | | #10

    RE: You got Served?
    Hey Mikey, you aren't thinking of the ICF folks are ya'? They do a bang-up job.

  11. Michael Anschel | | #11

    You got Served?
    I was directly commenting on the DOE Retrofit Build America proposal that is so absurdly not in sync with the remodeling industry that in writing our proposal there were numerous hair pulling sessions. It is hard to watch 25 million dollars go flying off to develop systems that are unsuitable for the remodeling industry when we could do so much better.

  12. Shawn Nelson | | #12

    Re: You got served
    Michael, I did not respond to any commentators and quoted Carl twice. I noted that educating clients is appropriate, and I will add good/professional, but not if it means educating them that they are "lazy and wasteful" (to quote Carl again). I agree with your assessment of sales vs. geek to the extent that sales is focused on learning and meeting client needs and is informed by solid knowledge from geeks. They can be combined, but I will agree usually are not.

    To go further, and address ijustinj, I agree education is limited ("flawed"), which is why it appears like a good busines opportunity to go beyond education and to help homeowners by providing appropriate services. Make it so they don't have to think about it, to the extent reasonably practical, or maybe beyond if we can be creative.

  13. Expert Member
    Carl Seville | | #13

    Thanks guys
    It's fun when I strike enough of a nerve to get this many comments on a post. I appreciate that Shawn, as a businessman, has to be nice to his clients. If he wasn't, he would be challenged to stay in business. Thankfully, not only do I not have to be nice to homeowners, I believe that my job description (curmudgeon) actually of requires me to be abusive. If I change a few minds through my methods, all the better. I am not worried that my style will cause anyone to be more wasteful than they already are. We each have our techniques, and working together we can, hopefully, create some meaningful change.

  14. Kristin Kowler | | #14

    Transcend abuse with creative communications
    I can't speak for all homeowners. But I can speak for me and many of my neighbors. "Abuse" triggers defensiveness. And no matter how right you are, it will not further your cause. Shawn is correct -- it is the role of the building professional to educate clients on the options that are available to them. And help them make decisions that fit their values. I know many homeowners who look for ways to save energy and tread softly on the planet. People buy the same thing for different reasons. The key is to discover what people value – for some it's money, for others it's the environment, or status, or superior design, or world peace. Frame the conversation in terms of what's important to the buyer.

    Oh, and as for ceiling fans. I remind my teenagers almost daily to turn them off. You may be frustrated but keep in mind there are many people out there who are neither lazy or ignorant, and it's their voices in the marketplace that will help change the attitudes of their friends and neighbors. Consumers are constantly educating one another. Consider simple ways to communicate big ideas. For example: Seafood Watch created a seafood guide that I have posted on my fridge. It reminds me which seafood choices are "best."
    More importantly, it educates my friends and family. As they are looking at our "gallery" they also learn about stewardship of the ocean. Educating kids is another way to educate adults. Consider producing learning materials to be used in congregations and schools. Many faith-based communities are particularly interested in saving energy for all kinds of reasons. Including stewardship of the earth. Sounds pretty woo-woo, I know. But you can find all kinds of ways to educate people that go way beyond abuse.

  15. Expert Member
    Carl Seville | | #15

    Regarding "abuse"
    I guess I see my abuse more as a manner of teasing. In any case, I still stand by my methods, and I am not worried that my style will cause anyone to be more wasteful than they already are, and, hopefully, it will nudge some people towards conservation. I appreciate the fact that those of you who appear to be offended by my (admittedly) poor manners still manage to read and comment. In all seriousness, thanks for making the effort to engage in conversation.

  16. tony zimmerman | | #16

    Narrow Minded Answers
    First let me say no one who responded is narrow minded, but the answers seem to be. There is no 1 single right answer. You all hit on varying points that are valid. However each idea by itself is incomplete and flawed. When tied to gether we start to see the bigger picture, and much like a puzzle we can start to put the pieces into place. We need better education on all levels with childish and grown up approaches so we reach the broadest audience. We need better educated sales people who can promote the benefits and cost savings of green products. We need to learn not to shove green down peoples throats, but creatively come up with ways to incentivise green decisions, and that should NOT be with money given away in hopes of changing consumerism habits. We need better governance with an emphasis on environmental protection. We need to engage in conversation that promotes green efforts. We need better public awareness of local green products and services that promotes the advantages, green is good unless you don't know what is truely green or where to find it. We all need to become involved in community action groups so those with busy family lives and limited resources can benefit from our efforts. We need to be creatively looking at how to help our policy makers locally, state wide, and nationally, create a greener economy. Let's do our part no matter how big or small and become a part of the finished puzzle. Together, yes we can!

  17. GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #17

    It seems that no one has
    It seems that no one has recognized what I think is the most important point you made, Carl. That is, commercial buildings are designed, built, and managed so poorly that they waste enormous quantities of energy. There's a lot of low hanging fruit here.

    On the issue of psychology, it drives me crazy, too, to see fans running with no one to feel the breeze. I do my part to educate people about how fans actually make a house warmer, but the real issue is deeper than ignorance or laziness. Those of us who can't sit at the table and eat dinner knowing that there's a light on in the bedroom have a different focus.

    For two decades I was married to someone who was the greenest shade of green, and there was never any tension in my life about this issue. Recently I got married to someone who doesn't have the same focus, and it's been interesting to observe that she and my 17 year old stepson just don't notice things the way I do. I've gotten them over thinking that leaving all the ceiling fans on is a good idea. Now when they leave the fans on, it's just because turning that switch off doesn't mean as much to them as it does to me.

    The issue then is that if you don't feel compelled internally to save energy, there are no (or minimal) external consequences. Until the price of electricity goes up significantly, this will continue to be the case.

    And of course, there's Jevons's Paradox (, which states that the more ways we find to be efficient with use of a resource, the more ways we'll find to use that resource up even quicker.

  18. GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #18

    Re: Is it laziness, systems, alternative views, or what?
    Using programmable thermostats to set back the temperature in a house with right-sized equipment saves energy, too, and isn't the inconvenience you imagine, Justin. When you set the thermostat to 85, say, for the middle of the day when you're gone, and it's programmed for 75 degrees at 5:30 pm, it kicks the AC on before 5:30 so that by the time you get to the house, it's already at 75.

    Manual setbacks work, too, though it'll take longer to bring the house back to the desired temperature with right-sized equipment. If the house has a good envelope, however, it won't be fighting against the ungodly amounts of heat loss or heat gain that are typical in conventional homes.

  19. Alison Kendall | | #19

    Living Low tech in France
    I'm on sabbatical in the south or france and I'm amazed at the number of things Californian's assume are essential that are just not included in homes here, and that mean that you simply have to be more active and attuned to weather and nature. It gets very hot for about 6 hours a day, but people just close the shutters and their double paned windows, then open them at night to let the cold air in. Ceiling fans are also used, but no one has air conditioning in their homes. Likewise no dryers...everything dries in an hour on the line anyway.

  20. Aleister Crowley | | #20

    I saw the PPT of DOE it's
    I saw the PPT of DOE it's nice project according to in recent news Washington D.C. - Underscoring his commitment to strengthen and streamline the Department of Energy's operations, Secretary Steven Chu named Jonathan Silver Executive Director of the Department's loan program office.
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