The missing brick in green buildings: The occupant

A building can never really be green if the people inside it aren’t. Building owners need to give their occupants a nudge in the right direction, experts said at a recent Building and Construction Authority event in Singapore.

When CapitaLand Commercial Trust (CCT) removed almost all wastepaper baskets from their offices in a drive to go paperless, staff brought in plastic bags to use as makeshift bins and hid them under their desks. Some even stuffed waste paper into their pockets, disposing of it when they got home.

Sharing this experience during the International Green Building Conference (IGBC) at the Sands Expo & Convention Centre, CCT chief executive Lynette Leong recounted how difficult it was to change the behaviour of building occuptants, even in an environmentally-friendly building.

“It was very difficult at first. People came in and they didn’t know where to throw waste paper,” said Leong, who took over as CEO in 2007. “They initially brought in little waste bins, but slowly and progressively, people started to get used to it. They don’t produce so much waste anymore.”

The tough task of changing occupant behaviour in a green building was discussed extensively at the BCA Breakfast Talk for CEOs on the morning of 14 September, shortly after the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) announced a new Behavioural Change Pilot Programme to encourage building users to adopt sustainable behaviour.

An agreement between BCA and the Singapore Green Building Council (SGBC), the programme will involve ten organisations over a two-year period, in phases. Customised behavioral change campaigns will be developed for these organisations.

According to BCA, overseas experience has shown that such a programme can lead to energy savings of about 2 to 3 per cent, depending on the size of the organisation and its own particular sustainability journey.

Since the launch of the Green Mark scheme in 2005, Singapore has had 3,100 buildings “greened”, or more than 34 per cent of the entire building stock in the city-state. However, beyond green technologies and hardware, government leaders and sustainability experts are increasingly focusing their attention on the softer factors, such as occupant behaviour.

Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor, who spoke at IGBC, said that greening a building is only “half the battle” given that building users are responsible for about half of the total electricity consumption, according to BCA’s data.

Besides energy savings, water use and waste generation levels are also indicators of how green a building is.

The bottom-up approach

Editor-at-large at The Straits Times Han Fook Kuang moderated a panel attended by BCA CEO Hugh Lim, CCT CEO Lynette Leong, National University of Singapore (NUS) president Tan Chorh Chuan and Global Action Plan senior partner Chris Large.

For CCT’s Leong, while it is hard to get staff to reduce paper waste, it is even harder to change the behaviour of their tenant clients. CCT’s diverse portfolio includes Raffles City Singapore, Capital Tower and Bugis Village.

“Getting our tenants to do the same is a lot more difficult, because you can’t tell them what to do. They are the ones paying us the rent,” said Leong, adding that sustainability may not be part of the tenant’s agenda.

“So, we go for the low-hanging fruit – those that have a sustainability or CSR programme. That’s where we engage first, then we use them to influence others,” she said.

One of CCT’s more interesting green initiatives is the Eco-Challenge race, held annually since 2012. Comprising of physical races and games in the central business district, it promotes greater awareness of environmental issues among its office tenants.

Some panelists discussed taking a bottom-up approach as an alternative to top-down directives. BCA CEO Lim said that there are limits to how far a top-down, rules-based approach can go, and the government is willing to support more ground-up initiatives.

NUS president Tan shared one example of where a bottom-up approach had worked: The implementation of monetary charges for plastic packaging in NUS.

Tan said that at NUS, a few environmentally-conscious NUS students had been very upset about the excessive use of plastic bags in canteens and retail shops.

“They did surveys, they talked to other students, they talked to retailers and managed to get everyone to accept a 10 cents charge for every plastic bag we use,” said Tan. “Had this been a top-down decision, I think the president’s term would have been a lot shorter. But because it is a peer-to-peer thing, it carried and it has continued to this day.”

NUS students have also created a “buffet response team” to help finish excess food left behind at conferences and seminars.

“You have 500 students on [messaging app] Telegram and if you think you can’t finish the buffet, you notify one of them and a group of suitably hungry students will come down and help you finish the buffet,” said Tan, to laughter from the audience. “It reduces the amount of food waste you generate. And it helps to feed our students. I think they are quite happy with the solution.”

Nudging with tech

Tan and Lim spoke about the use of technology to influence occupants’ behaviour.

For example, NUS has conducted a study with water facilities board PUB to analyse the impact of a flow meter – a device that records the volume of water that is dispensed – on bathing behaviour. According to the study, people reminded by the meter save about 2 to 4 litres of water per shower, shared Tan.

Lim, who used to serve as chief of staff in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), recalled that military camps used to be charged with one energy bill even though there are many units within each camp. To understand the consumption patterns better, the SAF placed meters at each individual unit.

To change organisational behaviour more effectively, Lim argued that tenants and building owners need to recognise “what’s in it for them”. These downstream benefits can take the form of improved health and well-being of occupants, instead of only BCA incentives, said Lim.

One member of the audience asked Leong if greening buildings would lead to higher rental yields. In response, Leong said that rental revenue could not be generally attributed to green buildings.

However, green buildings are more marketable and downtimes are often reduced, she added. In addition, greening buildings allows landlords to reduce their operating expenses through energy savings.

“While we have not increased our topline, what we can see is a reduction in operating expenses,” said Leong, adding that this eventually translates to higher profit margins.

Eco-Business is producing a special e-newsletter featuring stories on the proceedings at IGBC 2017, kindly supported by City Developments Ltd and the Building and Construction Authority. Sign up to receive the newsletter here.

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