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Energy Use in Buildings: What’s Culture Got to Do with It?

Encouraging energy efficient behavior in buildings is best accomplished when managers respect local culture. (Photo: Joshua Damasio/ Flickr)

When the March 11, 2011 earthquake in Japan caused a series of energy shortages throughout the country, the national government recommended that office buildings cut back on air conditioning during the summer months in order to reduce power usage. Through a campaign called “Super Cool Biz,” the government encouraged office workers to adjust to this change by wearing cooler outfits, like short sleeve shirts. Many businesses embraced the campaign—the Peninsula Tokyo Hotel, for example, implemented new uniforms for staff and set the office temperature at 24 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit). As a result of this measure, the hotel reported reduced energy consumption by 11 percent.

Though radical, “Super Cool Biz” is just one example of how cities and building owners can save energy by implementing programs that aim to influence occupants’ behavior. Moreover, behavioral strategies are not only cost effective, but are adaptable to virtually all circumstances. Building owners worldwide do not all have access to the same technological solutions, but they all interact with building occupants. And unlike many technology measures, these behavior-based strategies do not require high upfront capital investment or significant technical expertise, thus making them accessible to managers and owners without a lot of resources at their disposal.

Behavior-based energy efficiency programs work best when they take local needs and expectations of occupants into account. Therefore, achieving success through behavior-based energy efficiency requires understanding the critical role that local culture plays in how individuals and communities consume energy.

Understanding How Culture and Social Norms Affect Energy Consumption

Culture can be loosely defined as the set of values, habits, and beliefs shared by members of a society. And while there are some cultural universals, they are expressed in wildly diverse ways. What works for Topeka may not be right for Tokyo. Workplace attire, the number of workdays in a week, and length of the working day are just a few examples of cultural differences that affect energy consumption in buildings. Social norms are the ways people express the values of their culture when interacting with one another. Social norms also differ from one country to another, because they are socially constructed cues we take from observing one another. Understanding what motivates building occupants – including what can motivate them to change – is the first step to lower-cost, behavior-based energy savings.

For example, one study found significant differences between the norms that motivated Japanese students to take environmental action and norms that prompted action from American students. According to the authors of the study, in Japan, subjective norms rule, meaning that actors who ‘share a relationship’ with one another are more effective at getting people to change their behavior. Meanwhile, in the United States, descriptive norms drive behavior change, such that actors sharing the same ‘category membership’ with each other are the most effective messengers. This may seem abstract, but it offers us a recipe for applying behavioral research findings in a very concrete manner: In the United States, research has shown that peers are most effective at communicating key messages about energy given the local norms, whereas in Japan, research has consistently shown that employers might be the best people for this role (a principle borne out by the Peninsula Tokyo Hotel example discussed above). This is just one way of taking culture into account when devising effective occupant engagement programs for buildings.

Choosing the Right Intervention for the Local Context

Behavior-based strategies that are sensitive to local culture are better equipped to solve location-specific energy challenges. In some countries, grid stability is an ongoing concern, with shortages and blackouts a way of life. Behavioral adaptations, such as changing work schedules to avoid occupancy during peak hours, as the traditional siesta hour used to do, can help improve local energy resilience. In locales where the automation of building systems is cost effective, building owners and managers should take care that systems settings are not ‘culture-bound’, or use programmed settings based on the culture of the manufacturing country; rather, owners should take into account local practices for higher savings and greater occupant satisfaction. For example, a savvy building manager might want to take advantage of common prayer times, when people leave the building en masse, and automate cooling setbacks for those periods.

Similarly, technological innovations work best when they are implemented in ways that take note of local values. Consider, for example, that studies conducted in the United States show that devices providing feedback about a building’s energy consumption have been used to promote effective energy savings, but in India, the same devices were seen as wasteful, unhelpful additions. Indeed, one study found that in India there is “a strong reliance on doing things manually” as a means of conserving energy. Implementing efficiency measures may appear socially neutral, but culture always matters.

When designing behavior-based efficiency programs, it can help to look to traditional practices and values for inspiration. Building owner and managers may also find energy saving ideas by drawing upon local architecture, such as in the example of Masdar City in Masdar, Abu Dhabi, UAE. This city’s design was “inspired by traditional Arabic architecture. By which they mean features such as ‘narrow, shaded streets,” which channel breezes, and “traditional air cooling towers” for buildings that have been implemented for centuries.

Cultural anthropologists and others have repeatedly found that local and indigenous knowledge is an essential form of capital that plays a key role in sustainable urban development. Decision makers looking to improve building efficiency should also look to local culture as a resource.


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Susan Mazur-Stommen is Principal and Founder of INDICIA Consulting, LLC. She is also a contributing author to WRI’s forthcoming guidebook for cities on implementing building efficiency strategies in their communities.

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