Climate Action

‘Building literacy key to carbon commitments’

In an exclusive interview, seasoned researcher Kathryn Janda of the UK Energy Research Centre, discusses her latest study 'Buildings Don’t Use Energy: People Do' . "Architects must teach building performance to non-experts," she argues.

  • 21 February 2011
  • Simione Talanoa

Kathryn B. Janda, a senior researcher on the 'Demand Theme' at the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) of the University of Oxford, has been in the news recently after the Australian journal Architectural Science Review published findings of her latest study on energy use in homes entitled 'Buildings Don’t Use Energy: People Do.'

The key finding that the human side of energy use in buildings is undervalued compared to technological solutions struck a chord in the UK, as energy used in homes accounts for nearly 25 percent of UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

In an email-interview with Climate Action, Dr. Janda fielded wide-ranging questions and elaborated on her call to architects to teach building performance to non-experts.
What are the measures that energy consumers, particularly home-dwellers, should pay attention to, in order to save energy?

The most effective measure depends on your house. Heating is generally the biggest energy user in the home, so residents can insulate their houses, invest in more efficient heating systems, lower the temperature, schedule their heating times carefully, and all of the above.

Low-cost measures to insulate single-paned windows and doors (that is, plastic shrink film over the glass and v-seal along the apertures) are a personal favourite of mine, as they cost almost nothing to install (not counting your time and effort) and reduce drafts.  These measures also reduce condensation.
Given that most architects work individually or in closely-held private firms, how do you think they could initiate concerted organised action and evolve a common approach to improving the design stage of building construction, so that buildings are more suited to human behaviour in terms of energy use?

In my paper, whenever I say "architects", I mean the profession in a very broad sense. This broad definition includes architects within the educational system (who teach future architects), and the professional institutions (like the Royal Institute of British Architects) that help govern the direction of both the discipline and profession.

Also, I don't think the effort should be all about new buildings.  Educational and professional institutions could foster more recognition for their members who help redesign and adapt existing structures, particularly those who use post-occupancy evaluations to understand buildings in use.

Given the general tendency to resist any and every change, do you really believe that architects could bring about a change in the current pattern of excessive energy use in buildings by using energy-conscious designs?
I think most people don't know how to think about whole building performance. Some certainly wouldn't care anyway, so I am not suggesting a silver bullet to solve the problems of current practice. The point I make in my paper is that architects could teach people about building performance.

I think this kind of education, wherever it comes from, is part of the solution.  But it is not the only thing that needs to happen.

Do you think the suggestion that architects are best placed to close the difference between the design of buildings and their use is fair, considering that more often than not, architects merely act in accordance with the instructions, wishes and needs of their clients like construction firms and home-builders?
My previous research shows that architects are rarely perfectly responsive to clients’ wishes.  If they were, then they would be able to build beautiful buildings for free. The built environment is an expert system.  The architect, engineer, or other building professional, has expertise that the client does not have. Otherwise, clients could do the work themselves.

How the expertise and knowledge manifests in design is influenced by the client, but not entirely dependent on the client.  An architect's influence may be stronger in some projects and weaker in others, but his or her ideas shape the options available to the client.  Yes, they perform a service.  But they perform a service shaped by their training, capabilities and interests.

How could architects possibly influence homes, hotels, hostels, offices, etc, through energy-conscious designs, in order to change the way people open windows, leave doors open, keep tropical fish tanks, install plasma TV screens, etc? 
Again, the point I make in my paper is that architects could teach people about building performance, not that design will do this autonomously.  Some buildings make certain lessons easier, but buildings themselves are not the teachers. Buildings are not currently legible to most people, but they could be more legible with practice.

We are not born with the ability to read words on a page, or knowing how to drive a car.  We learn to read because it is helpful and many societies require us to be literate; we learn the rules of the road and get a state-approved license to drive because we're a danger to ourselves and others without it.

In future, I personally believe that higher levels of building literacy within the general population will be useful as carbon reduction commitments become more serious and binding.

Do you think governments, especially in densely populous countries where housing development boards build multi-storey buildings in large numbers, need to pay special attention to your research paper? Also, considering that spending cuts are the order of the day, do you think governments could realistically be able to implement the findings of your research?

Anyone who expects the building stock to perform in a specific way should pay attention to this issue.  There is almost always a gap between design intent and actual use, because people's usage patterns are not sufficiently taken into account.

Therefore, certain policies (like building standards) are likely to fail to be as effective as they should be, because of this gap.  As for funding, I am recommending change from within the profession more than policy changes or government handouts.  It is change from the middle-out rather than from the top-down or bottom-up.
What inspired and motivated you to carry out your latest research and who funded it?

I was inspired by years of working with architects, energy analysts and building scientists who dedicate themselves to making the best design they can and then are subsequently crushed by the fact that the building isn't be being used "properly".

I was also inspired by teaching environmental studies students, who taught me that most people think of buildings as static boxes instead of dynamic systems.  As an energy educator, I've always been interested in creating smart people rather than relying on smart technologies. 

This most recent version of the work was supported by the UK Energy Research Centre under its Demand Theme (


Front page image: Sengkang | Wikipedia

Body image: Katy Janda | ECI, University of Oxford