Schools and Building/User Interface

Oct. 28, 2009
Interaction with the building and its systems is the leading edge of this wave. Moving past static learning spaces and beyond visible sustainable building features, some schools are using the building as an active part of the curriculum.

The way the world works is changing. New technologies have crept into every facet of daily life, from talking GPS systems in our cars to the sea of applications dotting our iPhones. It’s evident that today’s students need a different education than they did 10 years ago. To adjust to these new needs, K-12 schools, community colleges, and universities are exploring the role of learning environments in helping students adapt to an expanding technological frontier, and designing and constructing facilities to empower them to lead the charge.

Living Laboratories
Interaction with the building and its systems is the leading edge of this wave. Moving past static learning spaces and beyond visible sustainable building features, some schools are using the building as an active part of the curriculum. In these facilities, students become engaged with their surroundings by conducting energy audits and analyses that facility managers can use to make performance upgrades. Younger students are stepping up to the plate to service and run systems, which shifts the focus from lectures on renewable energy, for example, to actual participation with the renewable-energy systems.

This process turns abstract concepts into first-hand learning experiences, and it accomplishes something more: It teaches students that the building around them is a complex system, and that they have a role in its function.

Technologically Savvy
This lesson applies to those in commercial buildings as well. Design has advanced far beyond the understanding of most occupants, and the disconnect isn’t without consequence. New lighting systems frequently baffle users as they struggle to switch on lights that are driven by sensors. Sophisticated blinds are useless against glare if occupants don’t know how to raise and lower them. Even hand washing can be a challenge with some modern faucet fixtures.

Facility managers can draw from the initiative of schools and use technology as a learning opportunity. In addition to confusion over how to work the systems, few people have a genuine understanding of what the systems provide. Concrete examples engage the imagination and teach people about the ramifications of our actions, which will further promote correct systems’ use.

  • Provide users with easy-to-read cheat sheets on how to use the systems, and add sound bytes on the value the systems brings.
  • Place signs near the systems. For example, post instructions above the dual-flush toilet, and include the number of gallons of water the fixture will conserve over the course of a year.

A little education goes a long way toward saving frustration and money. You’ll reduce the number of facility response calls generated by confused occupants, and you’ll avoid inadvertent misuse, which allows your staff to make better use of their time. Proper use of the systems also will enhance their longevity and performance, which saves on repair costs and utility bills. Over the long term, you will gain significant energy, water, and materials’ savings, which benefits the environment and your bottom line.

Passing the Test Consider trying out systems before you commit to incorporating them throughout your facility. Install one dual-flush toilet in each of the restrooms or put a lighting system only in one room. A single system can inspire curiosity. Ask for feedback from occupants to get them involved in learning how to use the system. The feedback may actually lead you to try out a different system (or confirm that the selected one is user friendly). By the time you install the system throughout your facility, you have the advantage of occupants who are already familiar with how it works.

Out of Sight Visibility is also a major factor in how people respond to their surroundings. When systems are hidden behind sheetrock, occupants have no inclination to interact with them. Simply placing components in plain sight makes people more aware of the network of processes that need to take place in the building and get them thinking about their role and involvement. Prominently featuring building systems has most often been implemented during new construction, but it can also be done during a retrofit.

Exposing systems raises questions of aesthetics, but it can be done creatively. A cutaway is an interesting solution. The Charles Dickens Elementary School in Vancouver, BC, made its geothermal system visible through a cutaway in the wall. In addition to heightening occupant perception, openly displayed systems reduces the need for building materials and can make future renovations easier because you don’t need to tear down a wall to access them. If you want the option to hide them from view on occasion, consider adding a set of panels that can conceal them.

You can also use technology for visual cues to increase awareness and guide user interaction with the systems, such as a device linked to a daylighting sensing system or temperature sensor. Placed near a light switch or window, a green light lets occupants know that conditions are right for them to turn on the light or indicates that they can open a window.

With enhanced building performance, increased cost savings and more satisfied and knowledgeable occupants, connecting the dots between users and building systems in a meaningful way is an idea that brings superior value well beyond the classroom.

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