Leveraging Human-Building Interaction (HBI)

Reposted from i.e., the Center for Energy and Environment's Innovation Exchange blog -- http://mncee.org/Innovation-Exchange/ie/


Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.


My colleague Jenny Edwards often describes the opportunity of human-building interaction (HBI) as, “instead of forcing people to adopt new behaviors, HBI can help leverage existing ones.” If we examine the larger context of people’s activities in their homes and offices, these leverageable behaviors may avail themselves to us.

For example, people purchase programmable thermostats with the intent of saving energy. Is this motivation strong enough to affect their behavior? It would appear not. Nearly 90% of those surveyed for a study on thermostat use “rarely or never adjusted the thermostat to set a weekend or weekday program.” However, consider how they could program the thermostat to save energy - by adjusting its temperature when they’re away from the house or asleep at night. Coincidentally, these are the same times when people want a home security system in place.


Fear is the motivation for having a home security system. There are about 36 million security systems in buildings in the United States. Can we leverage the existing behavior (using a home security system) to save energy? Imagine the potential for conservation if the thermostat setting went down and the lights switched off automatically whenever the occupant turned on the security system.

Clearly this opportunity is not lost on the market. Home security companies like ADT and Vivint now offer smart thermostats with their security systems that allow homeowners to remotely control their thermostats. Leveraging the actions they take to turn on and off their home security systems, these homeowners can now also save energy by simultaneously adjusting their thermostats.


This is just the tip of the iceberg as more and more sectors are moving into the home management arena. Earlier this year AT&T launched the Digital Life system which offers both home management and home security, with options ranging from simple device control to home automation. In early June, the cable company Comcast announced that their Xfinity Home security system has added smart thermostat service called EcoSaver as part of its home management capabilities through a partnership with EcoFactor. They have also added a lighting controls system. Not to be outdone, Schneider Electric, an energy management services company, also announced in early June a partnership with alarm.com and their Wiser home management system. And, of course, Honeywell makes both security systems and smart thermostats.


There is a lot of excitement about the future of home automation and home management. Appliance manufacturers like GE, Samsung, and LG have brought smart appliances to the market. A great example of leveraging is the integration of smart phones and tablets into these systems. In fact, they are on the verge of becoming the remote controls for the entire house as we use them to connect with other devices.

Finding opportunities to leverage energy efficiency actions within this movement towards home management, control, and automation is essential. But it can not solely be about technology. Ultimately, control and management falls into the hands of the user. Without considering usability, even the best technologies will fall prey to the ubiquitous symbol of technology unusability - the blinking clock of the VCR:

HBI has an important role in leveraging the ways we use our buildings and devices to take advantage of opportunities to reduce our energy use. As we gain a greater connection to the buildings in which we live and work, we must take a systems approach through HBI to properly leverage the synergies offered by technology, behavior, and usability to achieve greater energy savings.

Related posts: 

The Process Approach of Human-Building Interaction (HBI)

Behavior and Usability: At the Interface of Human-Building Interaction

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Comment by Dennis Heidner on August 22, 2013 at 2:28pm

ACM & IEEE (Computing professionals and electrical engineers) have annual conferences on sensors, sensor systems, building sensors, and intelligent buildings. (Sensorsys & Buildsys)  ASHRAE also has conferences on intelligent automation for buildings.   There are many home automation systems that have been on the market for twenty years or more.  Smarthome (google to find their website) offers a variety of automation systems, sensors, wall switches to make a home intelligent and aware of the occupants.

Many studies, projects, sensors and papers have been presented - on "learning the house", "sensing electric use", "sensing light",  "sensing water use", "sensing occupant comfort",  "sensing air quality", "sensing gas flow", "sensing pets",  "sensing sensors..."   Sensors are available and reliable -- but for the most part they are ignored in residential buildings.

A very simple and non-invasive use of sensors -- is simply monitoring indoor air quality  CO2 and TVOC.  Then use the measurements to adjust ERV/HRV for correct ventilation at the lowest energy use.  But this is not likely to be available for residential use (it is for commercial buildings) not because of the cost!  But because the existing standards organizations that AHJ use as their reference libraries --- have chosen to ignore demand controlled ventilation (DCV) in homes.  ASHRAE 62.2-2013 makes no provision for DCV.  It makes no provision for intelligent human building intervention.   Building codes, weatherization programs, federal government programs will base their residential rules on ASHRAE 62.2... and game is over.  Any hope for HBI will be placed on the back burner for another five to seven years....

I have been using extensive home automation for nearly 30 years now.  There are some items I pull out, others that work great.  But in the end - you also find that your tastes and likes for human-building interaction change over time.As you grow older & the building grows older -- you can drift away.   This change if perception is in large part caused by automation systems that are rule based and not able to adapt and learn as you change.  The systems also do not learn as the house changes -- nor do they normally detect wear out and maintenance problems on a building envelope or infrastructure that would improve the building performance.

I do not see the studies at WSU as contributing significantly to the human building interaction.   I see the studies as a mean to provide projects for graduate students.

Comment by Lester Shen on August 21, 2013 at 11:04am

Here are a couple of interesting news items I've come across this morning:

Smart home in a box could capture community behavior

Smart building projects highlight need for new utility business, re...

The need for a systems-thinking, design-thinking, HBI approach could not be more apparent.

Comment by Dale Sherman on August 20, 2013 at 7:18pm

It's one thing to design and build new structures using state-of-the-art interfaces for occupants to intuitively manage their environment, but quite another to incorporate HBI equipment into existing structures.  The plethora of engineered programmable thermostats and scarcity of intuitive-designed thermostats is just one example of how the industry is not taking full advantage of industrial designers to design intuitive interfaces.  

Designers explore how people interact with their environment, their behavior patterns, lifestyles, and habits.  Creating innovative and intuitive interfaces is what designers do well.  It's up to engineers to work from the human interface back towards the equipment controls.  Up to now, most buildings get equipment installed, then the human controls are added.  The human interface is typically at the end of the design cycle, not at the beginning where it belongs.

For starters, every home should have a user's manual with directions for getting optimal use out of the building, and a maintenance manual with all equipment manuals and a logbook of work performed.  These stay with the house, perhaps in a dedicated wall cubby.  This is just a starting point for thinking about how we might shift towards an HBI approach to building optimization; including comfort, efficiency, and building integrity.

Comment by Dennis Heidner on August 19, 2013 at 1:33pm

First,  there are a lot of people that do not use smart phones and tablets.  Often the older you are the less likely you will have a smartphone / tablet.  The older you are - the more likely the house is also older and could use some energy improvements.   The second grouping of smartphone/tablet users are often the younger set - individuals that are renting and can not afford the new house.

In the two groups above - buying smart  appliances for their place of abode does not make sense.

Of interest in many stories/articles about residential comfort is the reference to "the thermostat"  singular.    device that measures the approximate temperature at a SINGLE point in the house and no matter if it is a smart thermostat, a web based thermostat (with additional processing - "NEST") they are generally single point thermostats.  True you can add a few additional measurements - and if you have a zoned system you can add "A Thermostat" into that zone.   But they really are still single point measurements in the rooms/house.

If you are looking at improving the human building interaction - you need multiple measuring points in each room of the house - wireless connection back to a central collection/analysis engine by the HVAC.   Think of the alarm system again with all the entry sensors - often the alarm systems are now also wireless.

The many wireless room enviroment sensors - can provide a virtual wall thermostat that is still displayed on the hallway.  It would be showing the "average" or weighted temperature of the room/house.   Sensors could pickup humidity, light condition and CO2/TVOC concentrations.

Now consider what would really happen - ventilation rates could be set to keep sufficient fresh air coming into the house such that the indoor air quality never exceeds 900ppm CO2 above the outside ambient air.  An increase of VOC's (the candles from the birthday party) automatically trigger additional fresh air.   When you leave the house to go to work, school or off to vacation - the house adjusts the ventilation rate back to maintain a fresh air smell - but not at the higher level needed to match the human activity.

Now the nightime set back could really work.  Instead of setting a night setback for the hallway were nobody sleeps.  The set back temperature could use the multiple sensors in the bedrooms -- allowing the temperatures to drop to the desired comfort level.  When it is morning time the control box uses the sensors placed in the active living spaces - office area, kitchen, living room as the reference point and adjusts the temperature to meet the desired comfort level.

The alarm systems can play a very useful function - an alarm that is armed and set away - can tell the central HVAC control system to run just a little but longer ventilating the air - but begin letting the temperature set points to vary (rise/fall).  After perhaps 30 minutes the ventilation can be reduced (if CO2/TVOC are reasonable) and the whole house goes into energy saving mode.

Now when someone comes home - the alarm is deactivated - or set off,  the house awakes - ventilation is increased to max (until CO2/TVOC readings have been rechecked)  House temp is started back up lights come up (if needed).   

Most of if not all of the activity is behind the scene.   

Also instead of always trying to set the actual temperature in the room.  Occupants simply move sliders for the rooms to indicate - too warm, too stuffy, too sticky.  or just right, too cold, etc.  Also because our comfort levels change when we have colds or a virus... you add in a "I'm sick" setting and let the house warm up a little, add more fresh air, etc.  But not use the changes while you are sick to alter the long term comfort learning values.

Comment by tedkidd on August 19, 2013 at 10:51am

Nicely put Brett.

Seems to be a lot of dependencies.  Do you air condition with the windows open?  If so, certainly "off" when you are not at how is cancelling your efforts to cool the great outdoors.  

Many homes are really leaky.  So leaky it is like they have 2 or 3 window open 24/7.

If your home is like a beer cooler, what is saved with thermostat games?  The house doesn't significantly change temperature so there is no meaningful delta t savings.  And if the equipment is properly sized, you may run into comfort and control problems.

My unscientific findings are there are many cases where playing with thermostats drives energy costs up, not down.  

Which house represents opportunity for these shenanigans to have meaningful effect at the meter?  Do we expect homeowners to know?  That seems a naive, absurd assumption.  

Fix the house.  Install much smaller equipment.  Leave it comfortable.  Experience REAL energy savings.  

Comment by Brett Little on August 19, 2013 at 10:21am

Does it really save energy to turn it down while your not there? It seems to be not the case. I think the Nest has the best solution in that it will just adjust to what you want. Otherwise, insulation and better HVAC is the only to make a dent for real energy savings.

Comment by tedkidd on August 16, 2013 at 6:52pm
Sure Lester, you know I love your stuff.

I'm not a huge fan of gadgets that people tend to quickly abandon. Energy Efficiency, to me, is not behavior. It is not conservation. It is not "doing less and getting less". It is getting more with less.

To me Energy Efficiency isn't "what did I save today?" It's "what did I save this year?"

There seems to be a lot of discussion about monitoring systems. I think "monitoring" systems muddy the water with gimmickry that take our eyes off the ball. They make false promises of beef and deliver bread sandwiches. It's a distraction.


We need to keep this simple, and avoid having people spend money where it's not providing value.

We have monitoring systems in place, they are gas and electric meters. When monitoring is not being used, the conclusion we need more monitoring seems fallacy. We need to call this out and prevent distraction. Let's effectively utilize the monitoring we have, THEN increase granularity.

Baby steps.
Comment by Lester Shen on August 16, 2013 at 11:02am

Thanks, Ted. I think that part of the point is that it is one thing to engineer the right solution and another thing to design the right solution. We absolutely have to consider the user and how the user actually uses it.

Comment by tedkidd on August 16, 2013 at 10:47am
How do you program a thermostat to save energy?

I have a client using Time Warner's security service including the home automation. He has to continuously adjust his thermostat because the thermostat comes programmed to "save energy" and thus is always uncomfortable. HOLD doesn't seem to stop the program gremlin from taking control at next setting change.

He hasn't saved any energy. And he hasn't been comfortable. And a lot of time has been wasted, time that could have been spend doing productive things has gone to solving comfort problems this thermostat that saved no energy has caused. Sure these thermostats make work, but it's not productive work.

Shall we continue to blame homeowners for not operating their thermostats "properly" when this extremely faulty "theory" doesn't live up to promise of either "no sacrifice in comfort" or "lots of energy savings? Or should we accept that fiddling with temperatures is not the path to curing global warming?

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