On 30 May, Timothy G. Wentz, PE, HBDP | Fellow / Presidential Member ASHRAE, gave the first of a series of three presentations over three weeks to the South African Chapter of ASHRAE. The first was on the topic of A Human Behaviour Approach to Net Zero Energy Buildings hosted by the ASHRAE Society Chapter Technology Transfer Committee (CTTC). The following is a relatively complete review of that presentation edited by Eamonn Ryan, with lectures two and three being covered in subsequent issues of RACA Journal.

A case study in San Marcos, (California State at San Marcos research conducted by R. Cialdini, et al) highlights the power of effective messaging. After failed attempts to promote energy-saving behaviours, a new campaign emerged with remarkable success. The key to its effectiveness lies in its successful messaging strategy: ‘77% of your neighbours use fans instead of air conditioning to keep cool in the summer’. This statement encompasses the three essential elements of behaviour change: speaking to the emotional side, appealing to the rational side, and shaping the path.

Timothy G. Wentz, PE, HBDP | Fellow/ Presidential Member ASHRAE.

Timothy G. Wentz, PE, HBDP | Fellow/ Presidential Member ASHRAE. Image credit: ASHRAE

The emotional aspect is described as the ‘herd mentality.’ Referring to the majority (77%) of neighbours using fans taps into the desire to fit in and be part of a community. Simultaneously, the rational aspect is engaged by explaining the practical benefits of keeping cool in the summer. By suggesting the path of using fans instead of air conditioning, a clear solution is provided, shaping the behaviour towards energy-saving practices.

This example demonstrates the power of understanding human behaviour in achieving climate and decarbonisation goals. However, it is important to acknowledge that progress in meeting these goals has been falling short. Urgent action is required to align with targets, and the HVAC&R industry must play a significant role.

Looking back at historical achievements, such as the healing of the ozone hole, provides inspiration and hope. Through the Montreal Protocol and subsequent amendments, humanity recognised the damage caused and took collective action. The result is tangible progress in healing the ozone layer. This serves as a reminder that with collective effort and the right tools, we can make a difference in addressing climate change and achieving net zero.

The Paris Accord emphasises the importance of collaboration and focusing on people, particularly their behaviour. By providing tools, training, and information, ASHRAE aims to support professionals in guiding clients towards sustainable choices and decarbonisation.

While technical knowledge is vital, it is equally important not to overlook the human behaviour aspect. Numerous books and studies delve into understanding how people think and make decisions. These resources offer valuable insights into influencing behaviour positively. ASHRAE encourages professionals to explore this dimension and expand their understanding of human behaviour, alongside technical expertise.

The global pursuit of net zero emissions has become a critical imperative, necessitating a deep understanding of human behaviour and its integration into design and construction initiatives within the HVAC&R industry. Several factors contribute to the urgency of this endeavour, including the rapid growth of urbanisation and population. As cities across the world continue to expand, the demand for energy-efficient heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration systems (HVAC&R) intensifies.

The human brain can be seen as a combination of an elephant (emotional side) and a rider (rational side) working together

The human brain can be seen as a combination of an elephant (emotional side) and a rider (rational side) working together. Image from www.freepik.com

Unprecedented urbanisation

Urbanisation is a phenomenon witnessed globally, and its impact is profound. Analysing data from Africa, for instance, reveals a staggering rate of growth in major cities. The astonishing growth per hour in Johannesburg, for instance, stands at 21 people per hour – and 77 people per hour in Lagos. This trend is not limited to Africa alone but holds true worldwide. From South Africa to the US, from Pakistan to Brazil, cities are witnessing an influx of residents while rural areas experience population decline. Understanding these migration patterns and their implications becomes vital for effective HVAC&R planning.

When we couple urbanisation with projected global population growth, the magnitude of the challenge becomes evident. According to the United Nations, the world population is estimated to approach ten billion by 2050, with recent reports marking the arrival of the eight billionth person on the planet. To accommodate this population surge, an astonishing 3 500 new buildings must be constructed daily, equivalent to building a new New York City every month for three decades. Such a monumental task underscores the criticality of the HVAC&R industry’s contributions in ensuring energy-efficient and sustainable buildings.

Analysing data reveals a staggering rate of growth in major cities.

Analysing data reveals a staggering rate of growth in major cities. Image from www.freepik.com

Buildings account for approximately 35% of global energy consumption and contribute around 38% of carbon emissions. As a result, decarbonising the built environment becomes a crucial focus for achieving overall emissions reductions. While it is essential to address other industries like transportation, the HVAC&R sector shoulders the majority of the responsibility.

 The Jevons paradox

Efficiency gains in energy consumption often face the Jevons paradox: ‘Improvements lead to increased energy usage due to lower costs and enhanced usability.’ The US Energy Information Administration predicts a 28% increase in energy consumption by 2040, reflecting this paradox. The decreasing cost of petrol, for example, encourages the purchase of larger vehicles with greater fuel consumption. Recognising and addressing such behavioural tendencies is essential to curbing energy demand and achieving net zero targets.

The consequences of inaction in the face of climate change are already manifesting worldwide. Rising temperatures contribute to extreme weather events, including floods, sea-level rise, wildfires, and heatwaves. Recent examples from South Africa and Pakistan demonstrate the devastating effects of heavy rainfall and flooding. The frequency and intensity of these events continue to escalate, emphasising the urgent need for swift action to mitigate climate change.

Recognising the severity of the climate crisis, the international community united under the Paris Accord in 2015. With a goal of limiting global temperature rise to below 2°C, and ideally 1.5°C, the accord received support from 196 nations, save for one. It is now crucial to translate these commitments into concrete actions. By 2030, the building sector must reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 50% to stay on track.

The path towards achieving net-zero emissions in the HVAC&R industry is faced with significant challenges. When we closely examine the outcomes of COP 27, it becomes evident that we are falling short of meeting our goals. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C seems increasingly unlikely, and even restricting it to 2°C by 2050 appears to be a formidable task. With the planet already experiencing a 1.1°C rise, the frequency of extreme events like floods, droughts, and wildfires will continue to increase.

Acknowledging the urgency of the situation, a Task Force on Decarbonisation was formed by then President Schwedler and renewed by President Mehboob of Pakistan. This is in the belief that ASHRAE must prioritise decarbonisation to align with global efforts, particularly the objectives outlined in the Paris Agreement. Decarbonisation encompasses a broader spectrum of issues than just energy efficiency, although energy efficiency remains a vital component.

President Mehboob of Pakistan outlined three pillars that serve as the foundation for ASHRAE’s strategy and approach. The first pillar is energy efficiency, emphasising its enduring significance within ASHRAE’s mission. The other two pillars are transitioning to cleaner energy sources and shifting towards electricity generated from low-carbon sources. While relatively new to ASHRAE, these pillars play a crucial role in the decarbonisation process.

The concept of net-zero energy buildings holds foremost importance in this endeavour. Net-zero energy buildings aim to have no adverse energy impact, ideally generating surplus energy to meet the needs of human comfort, building safety, and processes. Defining the boundaries of ‘zero’ poses a challenge, whether based on energy source, site energy, or monetary aspects of energy trading. To address this, ASHRAE looked to history and recognised that net-zero energy buildings have existed for centuries. For example, indigenous dwellings in rural areas, like those of the Plains Indian population in Nebraska, exemplify the concept of net-zero energy buildings. However, not every building can achieve net-zero status, as simply adding extensive photovoltaic arrays without focusing on energy efficiency makes little sense.

Net-zero energy buildings and high-performance buildings are not synonymous. Energy efficiency forms the basis of net-zero energy buildings, serving as a prerequisite before implementing renewable energy strategies.

ASHRAE looked to history and recognised that net-zero energy buildings have existed for centuries.

ASHRAE looked to history and recognised that net-zero energy buildings have existed for centuries. Image by wirestock on Freepik

Challenges to be addressed

Challenges must be addressed: net-zero energy buildings primarily measure energy flows in and out of the building, but considerations of human health, safety, and comfort cannot be overlooked. Indoor environmental quality must align with energy efficiency goals. Furthermore, existing buildings demand attention, as approximately 75% of the buildings that will exist in 2050 are already standing. To successfully contribute to global goals and combat global warming, addressing existing buildings becomes imperative.

A study conducted by two researchers from Harvard (Corporate Culture and Performance by John Kotter and James Heskett [2005]) shed light on the impact of businesses that obsessively focus on meeting customer needs. These businesses experienced a four-fold increase in revenues, seven times faster job creation, and a twelve-fold increase in owner equity. Notably, small businesses saw a remarkable 750% improvement in profit performance over the eleven-year duration of the study. These findings underscore the importance of prioritising customer satisfaction in the HVAC&R industry.

ASHRAE, with its extensive range of standards and guidelines, plays a crucial role in meeting client expectations. Addressing factors such as comfort, health, and operational efficiency, ASHRAE Standard 55 (thermal comfort), 62.1 (ventilation), as well as 90.1 and 189.1 (energy efficiency) provide the technical tools required to meet and exceed client demands. By leveraging these standards, HVAC&R professionals can enhance customer experiences and contribute to the overall success of net-zero projects.

Net-zero buildings offer a multitude of benefits that can be effectively communicated to clients. Firstly, these buildings have lower environmental impacts, aligning with the growing emphasis on sustainability. By significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, net-zero buildings contribute to a cleaner and greener future. Additionally, they provide tangible economic advantages, including lower operating and maintenance costs, which directly benefit building owners and occupants. Moreover, net-zero buildings exhibit improved resilience to natural disasters, offering a safer environment in the face of increasing calamities. Enhanced energy security is another key advantage, aligning with the objectives outlined in the decarbonisation goals signed by various countries.

To successfully guide clients towards net-zero energy buildings, it is essential to understand their decision-making process. Human behaviour plays a crucial role in shaping these decisions, and the framing effect provides an insightful perspective. In an experiment conducted by an Italian researcher Benedetto de Martino, participants were presented with two options involving a monetary reward. The majority of participants chose option two when framed as keeping USD20, rather than taking a gamble with a 40% chance of winning USD50 or losing everything. Intriguingly, when the options were reframed with a slight change in wording, participants shifted their preference to option one, even though the choices remained identical. This demonstrates the powerful influence of language and framing on decision making.

Armed with this understanding of human behaviour, HVAC&R professionals can effectively communicate the benefits of net-zero energy buildings to clients. By highlighting the economic advantages, environmental impact, resilience, and energy security, professionals can empower clients to make informed decisions that align with the decarbonisation goals of their respective countries. As the industry continues its pursuit of net zero, fostering strong client relationships and delivering on expectations will be the key to achieving success and driving meaningful change.

 Meeting client expectations and ASHRAE standards

Building long-term relationships in the HVAC&R industry is key to success, and meeting client expectations is at the core of these relationships. Harvard researchers discovered that businesses focusing obsessively on customer needs experienced significant improvements in revenue, job creation, owner equity, and profit performance. ASHRAE provides a range of standards and guidelines, such as Standard 55 for comfort, Standard 62.1 for healthy environments, and Standards like 90.1 and 90.11 for economic operations. These technical tools empower industry professionals to meet and exceed client expectations.

Human decision-making processes are influenced by our brain’s wiring. Studies conducted across different demographics and cultures demonstrate that humans tend to perceive losses differently than gains. This knowledge is crucial when crafting proposals or writing change orders, as understanding how clients interpret information is key to successful communication. Contrary to the myth of purely rational decision-making like that of Mr Spock from Star Trek, human decision-making is a complex interplay between emotions and rationality. A notable case study involved research conducted by neurologist Antonio Demasio in Italy who removed a tumour from a patient’s brain, resulting in the loss of emotions akin to Mr Spock. However, the patient struggled to make decisions, highlighting the necessity of engaging both the emotional and rational sides of the brain for effective decision-making.

The human brain can be seen as a combination of an elephant (emotional side) and a rider (rational side) working together (Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia, The Happiness Hypothesis). The emotional side, driven by instinct and seeking short-term gratification, often overrides rational decision-making. The rational side calculates, deliberates, and thinks long-term. Understanding this dynamic allows HVAC&R professionals to guide clients towards making informed decisions. Social proofing, or herding behaviour, is another aspect to consider. Humans tend to rely on the actions and decisions of others, and by leveraging this tendency, professionals can shape client behaviour effectively.

Research conducted worldwide has consistently shown that regardless of birthplace, age, or gender, human brains are wired to treat losses differently than gains. This understanding is particularly significant when communicating proposals, change orders, or scopes to clients. Recognising that clients inherently prioritise avoiding losses can help in effectively conveying the benefits of sustainable choices.

When it comes to achieving net-zero targets, understanding the composition of our brains becomes crucial. The rational conscious mind, analogous to a calculator, is the newer and smaller part of our brain, while the subconscious emotional part, akin to a supercomputer, has been around since the beginning.

To shape behaviour successfully, it is essential to speak to both the emotional and rational sides of the brain. Additionally, creating a clear path towards net-zero goals is crucial. An excellent example of this approach is the revamped ASHRAE Building EQ programme, which incorporates the concept of a ‘herd.’ By eliminating traditional grading systems and establishing a scale with the herd at the top, outliers are motivated to improve and aspire to become leaders of the herd. The programme also addresses the energy gap between building design and operation, acknowledging the role of human behaviour in energy consumption.

In conclusion, the HVAC&R industry’s transition to a net-zero future requires a deep understanding of human behaviour. By recognising the brain’s tendency to treat losses differently than gains, acknowledging the interplay between emotions and rationality, and shaping the path towards sustainable choices, professionals can effectively guide clients and building users towards achieving decarbonisation targets. Shaping behaviour is a powerful tool in the journey towards a sustainable and net-zero future in the HVAC&R industry.

Register for free to gain access the digital library for RACA Journal publications