The Impact of Occupant Engagement

Goal: Engage users throughout the design process to decrease annual energy consumption


Occupants of identical buildings can affect annual energy consumption by as much as 400% based on their unique use of a space

Achieve a 30 kBtu/ft2 Energy Use Intensity (EUI)

Shared Staff Team Rooms create a 7% Energy Savings


If buildings continue to use as much energy as they do today, carbon neutrality will remain an elusive goal as global energy demand increases at a rate that outstrips expanding renewable energy production. Occupants of identical buildings can affect annual energy consumption by as much as 400% based on their unique use of a space. Hence the conventional wisdom that net zero energy (NZE) should start with load reduction, while true, tends to overlook the most important energy reduction strategy—instilling occupant commitment to achieving NZE performance.

Understanding how occupants use a building, and gaining their commitment to energy conservation goals, is key to the performance of that building. When design concurrently meets users’ programmatic needs and supports energy conservation a culture of positive energy behavior is created.

In the existing schools at KOCSUS almost every classroom had its own mini-kitchenette including a microwave, coffee maker, mini fridge, etc. We wanted to eliminate the excess equipment because it uses so much energy but we couldn’t just tell the users “Sorry, you will no longer have this amenity.” We asked the teachers why they felt they needed all that equipment and listened to the answer: There was only one staff room and it was too far away - up to 700 feed in some cases. The teachers needed to be near the classrooms to supervise, and the schedule did not allow them to get to one staff room.

One of the main things we heard when asked what they imaged for their new school was a building that fostered collaboration amount the staff despite working in different classrooms. To meet this vision, we developed a design that includes small clusters of classrooms with a single staff room within the cluster. .This room provides a kitchenette that is close-by and easily accessible for all staff in that cluster.

Occupants of identical buildings can affect annual energy consumption by as much as 300-400 percent based on their unique use of a space. Understanding how occupants use a building, and gaining their commitment to energy conservation goals is key to the overall performance of that building. When design concurrently meets users’ programmatic needs and supports energy conservation a culture of positive energy behavior is created.

Energy Use Intensity (EUI) of a Typical School, KOCSUS, and KOCSUS + Occupant Engagement


Arrowstreet’s 8-step approach to user engagement

1. Plan

The first step is to create an adaptable plan of engagement that spans from the pre-design phase through post-occupancy. During the feasibility study meet with as many stakeholder groups as possible (We met with more than 30 groups for KOCSUS). During schematic design establish an NZE Champions to provide insights about what would work the group they represented. Next they shared information with their peers to build enthusiasm and achieve total group buy-in.

2. Educate

It is necessary to educate occupants on what is NZE, and why NZE is important for both the project and the global community.

3.4.5. Know, Ask, Listen

These steps are grouped together because they are not linear. Get to know your occupants through observation, storytelling, and visioning. Ask participants to imagine the possibilities of their new space. Listen and repeat back what you heard to be sure feedback was clearly understood. Don’t be afraid to ask the same question in different ways until you feel that you have teased out the root of the answer. The most effective way to perform these steps is through face-to-face interactions with the occupants.

6. Respond

Let occupants know what you learned and what the design implications might be based on the feedback collected through steps 3-5 in a digestible, sharable document.

7. Prioritize

Projects have site constraints, construction budgets, and other factors that may limit how many of the design solutions can be incorporated into the project. Understand what the energy impact of each solution is and how closely the solution aligns with other goals of the occupants. Then prioritize which elements to implement.

8. Repeat

Engagement does not stop after design. Once the building is occupied, communication needs to be ongoing to ensure everyone knows how to use their space. Frequent re-training, and real-time energy displays can be used to promote mindfulness.


Additional Insights

Team: Arrowstreet, William Rawn Associates

Location: Cambridge, MA

Client: City of Cambridge

Awards: First Net Zero Emissions School in Massachusetts

What is the difference between Net Zero Energy and Net Zero Emissions?

There are several different definitions that are used for Net Zero Energy buildings. Late in 2015, the US Department of Energy came out with a definition to help create a uniform language. The DOE definition states: “An energy-efficient building where, on a source energy basis, the actual annual delivered energy is less than or equal to the on-site renewable exported energy.” Simply put the building generates enough on-site renewable energy (like photovoltaics) equal to the amount of gas, electricity, or other fuel the building uses to operate.

Net Zero Emissions buildings are similar to Net Zero Energy buildings but they go one step further to eliminate carbon emissions by having no combustion of fossil fuels on site. All of the energy used is through electricity.

What is EUI?

Energy Use Intensity (EUI): the metric used for measuring energy use in buildings

  • units are kBtu/sf/yr

  • It is a way to compare buildings of the same type, such as schools, even though they may be of different sizes. You can think of it as similar to MPG for fuel use in cars.

Read more here.

How to Calculate EUI:

The King Open Elementary School and Cambridge Street Upper School (KOCSUS)

The first Net Zero Emissions school and largest Net Zero building of any type in Massachusetts. Arrowstreet led the programming effort which included multiple rounds of discussion with more than 30 faculty, staff, city agency, and community groups, engaging the school user groups to understand each school’s educational goals, space needs, and adjacency requirements.