Occupants, people, and a proposal for a behavioural building science

Behavioural Economics is the sub-discipline of Economic Sciences that acknowledges the emotional, cognitive, and psychological factors that affect people’s choices. While these might sound like obvious factors to include in any model, providing a coherent and applicable framework for doing so can be a challenging task. In fact, thanks to their contributions to this, Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler were awarded the Nobel prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 and 2017, respectively.

Incorporating emotional and psychological factors into economics can change the way in which a whole discipline sees people and their motivations. Classical Economics used--and often still do--the abstraction of the Homo Economicus, the Economic Man. Namely, a fully rational individual who often possesses an impressively high and clear knowledge of the world, who has very well-defined preferences, and the capacity to predict the likelihood of future events. Behavioural Economics, on the contrary, try to utilize a much more human abstraction of people. This discipline acknowledges that people have self-control issues and estimate a few potential outcomes (using heuristics) instead of calculating them all. Likewise, Behavioural Economics understand that humans make predictable errors (called biases), and every choice is influenced by more than just a hunger for utility-maximization.

I believe a similar transition can happen in Building Sciences. We have, for a very long time, utilized the abstraction of the Occupant. While not as smart as the Economic man, the Occupant is an absolutely emotionless individual whose main motivation is to minimize the physiological efforts that cause its own discomfort. Contrary to People, Occupants do not have children or friends, they don’t care about their neighbours, and the future does not worry them. As a matter of fact, Occupants do not have a life. For them, there is nothing beyond the goal of minimizing physiological efforts. Unlike Occupants, People put comfort in context. People might tolerate an uncomfortable room because they are not willing to open the windows due to noise or lack of safety.

Due to their differences, designing buildings for occupants is not the same as designing buildings for people. For example, Occupants will very much accept any kind of automation in their homes as long as it is able to maintain conditions that, according to standards, are comfortable. People, on the contrary, might worry about the reliability of the technology, and distrust what is it that the machine “thinks” is comfortable. In a similar manner, Occupants trust extractor fans because they understand that they will clean the air. On the contrary, People often do not feel that the extractor fans in their kitchens and bathrooms are powerful enough.

As I stated in the beginning, it is very easy to say that incorporating psychology can help us migrate from modelling Occupants to modelling People. The difficult part, however, is to introduce a coherent and applicable framework for doing so. As part of my PhD, I am trying to carry out this complex task by developing the Atlas of Comfort. While a number of still unanswered questions can be extracted from it, it already presents a systematic manner in which we can analyse People’s comfort and their assessment of the built environment.