Although the extent of your knowledge about Kazakhstan may come from the movie Borat, the country has some energy ideas that are “very nice,” as the main character might say. Kazakhstan is about 4 times larger than Texas, but I bet most people can’t locate it on a map.
My recent trip to its capital city of Astana allowed me to see a world of contrasts that has applications for all of us to consider. Read on to learn the impact of culture on behavior, energy pricing, and building design.
Challenging the Norm
Astana had an old part of the city as well as a new section. The old, Soviet-era portion had above-ground district heating pipes all over the city, partly because this is the second coldest capital city in the world. For people who grew up in this system where housing and heat are supplied by the government, it is common to take heating for granted. In many buildings, there were no controls. If people were hot inside, they would open the window, partly because there was no penalty for doing so. Heating was an overhead expense paid by the government.
Although this social norm is being slowly transformed, I found that most of the people I met were accustomed to higher interior temperatures than I. I was teaching in several rooms where the temperature was about 80 degrees and no one had a bead of sweat on their foreheads! This experience has called my own norms into question. I wonder what building occupants in the U.S. could tolerate. What could they get used to? An example of possibility is in Hong Kong, where 5 years ago, a “no tie” policy was instituted in many government buildings, subsequently causing users to raise interior set-points to save energy. It has become the new norm and people are used to it. I am not suggesting that you should simply raise your interior set-point, but the experience opened my thinking about what is normal and caused me to question it.
A Culture of Conservation
Kazakhstan’s transformation from communism to capitalism offers a good insight to pricing-based behavior. For example, when the district energy system was sub-metered and individual buildings had to suddenly pay heating bills, many building owners became talented at gaming the system (such that the newly installed meters would malfunction or not record, thereby minimizing the bill). The professionals I worked with were very astute at seeing ways to cut corners (some were eventually hired by the meter company to design more tamper-proof equipment). I admired the skill. It reminded me of when I was a college student and would game the system to get free food.
This contrast in behavior still exists for me, because I have noticed that I will eat more when at a buffet vs. a regular restaurant, probably because the second helping is somewhat free. In applying this concept to energy, I wonder how we can more effectively apply sub-metering to motivate conservation. I see opportunities for improvement in any building, factory, or store where energy consumption is considered an overhead expense. People will rarely conserve energy if they are not directly paying for it.
Management and Modernization
The new part of the city represents a large investment and contrasts any Borat-plagued notions that you might have. Astana is the new capital and shares many similar traits with the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It has a beautiful symmetry of literally golden senate buildings adjacent to blue glass-lined commercial centers. From the Akorda Presidential Palace you can stroll westward through large public squares and pass modern buildings, apartments, museums, and a 3,500-seat concert hall.
At the end of this mile stroll, you will find the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center, which is essentially the world’s largest translucent tent. It encloses an area larger than 10 soccer fields and is designed to represent the shape of a Mongol hat. You enter into the lower part of the hat and find a four-story shopping mall. The fifth floor is an arcade for kids with amusement park attractions and even a river with a log ride. The brilliance of this design is that on the top level (where the heat rises to 90 degrees and higher), there is a private beach club with extra sand for a volleyball court. There was also a medium-sized wave pool as well as a separate pool and bar for adults only. The building’s impressive design points to engineering with controls. The building also has a striking lighting system.
Although most of the new city is spectacular, I did notice a mistake that can serve as a warning for building designers. Along the primary marble and glass-lined shopping sidewalks, I found condenser units blocking views from many high-end cafes and the ability to window shop. Most of this equipment was installed after the buildings were constructed, likely in order to reject some unexpected internal heat. It was so odd to see such nice buildings marred by relatively ugly equipment, which was connected with wires penetrating through a chipped-out hole in the marble facade. It was the contrast that made it noticeable and I am sure that when doing future projects, this building’s designers will try to avoid locating equipment like this along the prime real estate.
More important than any technical contrast mentioned above is the ability for humans to deal with vast levels of difference based on accepted societal norms, which can be adjusted. You can adopt this mindset to transform your own buildings.
In closing, I want to acknowledge the wonderful people that I worked with in Kazakhstan. They showed incredible cooperation despite being so close to the current international conflict between Russia and the Ukraine. It is an interesting situation to be teaching alongside a “pro-Russian” and “anti-Western” translator (as he described himself) and a class partly filled with professionals who have families in the Ukraine or other areas that have lived through wars for decades. Some of these people have fled their homelands and started over in new countries. Although many of us have stood on opposite sides of political fences, I felt tremendous respect between the group’s members. We were able to work toward a better energy future.