Study: Build Green to Behave Green
Most people instinctively yell in a stadium and whisper in a library or church. So why wouldn’t they act more environmentally responsible in an eco-friendly building?
It turns out that they do, a new study suggests.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia are reporting “a significant connection” between occupying a green building and behaving in a more environmentally friendly manner.
The provocative new study asserts that green design somehow has a hand in shaping green behavior—the implications of which "could be momentous for sustainability,” the university reports.
“There’s a potential that you can ‘design in’ environmental conscientiousness,” says Dr. Alan Kingstone, who heads UBC’s Department of Psychology and led the study. “A green atmosphere promotes more green behavior. It’s almost like it’s in the air.”
Kingstone is the senior investigator of a A Sustainable Building Promotes Pro-Environmental Behavior: An Observational Study on Food Disposal, recently published in PLOS ONE, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal by the Public Library of Science.
In the study, the team observed and compared food-disposal behavior in the café at UBC’s new Center for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) with that shown at the cafeteria in the Student Union Building (SUB).
The two buildings are very different. The Student Union is a traditional, 1960s-era concrete building. The $37 million CIRS research center, which opened in 2011, is billed as “North America’s greenest building,” a "living laboratory" designed to provide gains to the environment.
|TJOnline (left); UBC (right)|
The researchers compared food disposal patterns at UBC's old Student Union Building (left) and the new Center for Interactive Research on Sustainability. Diners at CIRS, a cutting-edge green building "designed with intent," wasted far less.
The research center integrates systems designed to meet goals of zero carbon emissions, water self-sufficiency, net-positive energy performance, and zero waste.
Not only that, but the structure was actually “designed with intent, with the hope that the building itself encourages behavioral change,” the study says. The café does not sell bottled drinks, all utensils are compostable, and “persuasive signs … explain where the food comes from.”
“It’s a building that has a lot of light, a lot of wood, and it feels clean and fresh and sustainable,” Kingstone says in a university announcement about his work.
Behaving ‘More Responsibly’
Despite their structural differences, the buildings have the same disposal options for compostable and recyclable materials in their cafeterias.
Yet researchers found that patrons of the research center café were substantially more conscientious about recycling properly. The accuracy rate (of items appropriately disposed or recycled) was 86 percent at CIRS, versus 58 percent at the old Student Union.
|Kingstone et al.|
A much higher percentage of diners in the environmentally progressive CIRS building disposed of their meal wastes properly.
Both buildings are used by a broad range of students, and the newer building does not host a disproportionate number of environmentally focused classes, the university reports.
Researchers also conducted a patron questionnaire, to ensure that the results did not reflect a sampling bias. In both buildings, diners overwhelmingly said they chose the cafeteria because it was most convenient.
“Most students didn’t even know this was a super-green building,” Kingstone says, “yet when they were in the building, they behaved more sustainably.”
Location + Situation = Behavior?
The bottom line, the team says: Location and situation influenced behavior, even when occupants did not know the environmental pedigree of the building.
“We concluded that being in an environmentally sustainable building can lead to more environmentally sustainable behavior,” study co-author David Wu told Radio Canada International.
The team is now sharing its findings with Metro Vancouver, a regional government entity that delivers services, policy and political leadership on behalf of 24 local authorities, RCI reported.
Although the two buildings differed dramatically in structural design, the disposal options were the same. Diners also completed questionnaires about their behavior.
“I think our lab is trying to bridge some of that [non-green behavior] by working with the people of Metro Vancouver," says David Wu. “We can help them find empirically based solutions, instead of, perhaps, them just intuitively guessing about what might be best.”
Going with the Flow
The mechanism by which the surroundings shape behavior is subtle, says Kingstone.
“It’s a cultural thing," he explains. "You pick up the cues very subtly without even thinking about it. If you’re in an environment that reflects a sustainable way of being, then you yourself will behave in a way that’s more sustainable. You start to go with the flow.”
Wu says the findings should add “to the cost-benefit analysis of putting in more green buildings.”
And don’t underestimate the value of an open design, where people can watch how you dispose of your trash, the authors say.
“Our study provides empirical support that one's surroundings can have a profound and positive impact on behavior,” the study says.
“It also suggests the opportunity for a new line of research that bridges psychology, design, and policy-making in an attempt to understand how the human environment can be designed and used as a subtle yet powerful tool to encourage and achieve aggregate pro-environmental behavior."