1. Henrik Schoenefeldt
  2. Built Environment
  3. Saturday, 22 August 2020
Many of us are very familiar with the difficulties of achieving thermal comfort in shared spaces. We encounter these difficulties, amongst others, in plenary chambers, laboratories or open plan offices. This difficulties is often seen as a technological problem, whilst the social aspects about building operation tend to get overlooked. This issue is the subject of new research that I have undertaken at the Houses of Parliament over the last 12 months.

A have recently completed new study that examines environmental control from a socio-technical perspective using the modern House of Commons chamber in London as a case study. It retraces and critical examines the evolution of socio-technical practices over the period from 1950 to 2019. Using archival research and semi-structured interviews this study has revealed how institutional organisation and technology had affected the roles of users, staff and facilities management engineers and their interrelationship.

On 19 March 2020 I have posted on this blog a short piece about my earlier research into historic practices of evaluating and operating building. The research examined practices deployed in the 19th century and the first half of the twentieth century. Despite significant technological advances (e.g. intelligent building controls) that have been made since the 1950s, my new study has show that the task of managing the internal environment of the House of Commons has remained strongly dependent on human intervention. The responsibilities of environmental control cannot be delegated entirely to computers or the engineer operating them. To achieve an environment that actually satisfied the expectations of MPs and other users of the debating chamber, environmental control is still dependent on a sophisticated mechanisms of social interaction between users, staff and the facilities management department.

Whilst modern sensors allow air quality or climate conditions inside the chamber to be systematically monitored, they do not give insights into the more subjective aspects of building performance, such as the quality of user experience. It is only through the social network that a qualitative feedback loops about building performance could be established and inform its day-to-day operation. In this study these the interplay between social and technological feedback mechanisms have been analysed through the lens of actor-Network-theory and organisational learning theory. These theories have helped to understand how parliament as an institutions has been acquiring, recording and utilises knowledge of building performance in use.

Key to the success in the House of Commons was the involvement of non-technical staff (e.g. doorkeepers) as a third party that acted as an interface between buildings users and the technical staff in charge of operating the environmental systems. The third party was pro-active in providing the technical staff with on time updates about user satisfaction. Moreover, they coordinated local physical interventions within the chamber to compensate for the technological limitations of the air conditioning system.

It is important to note that many of these social activities are almost invisible, not the least as they rarely receive sufficient consideration in discussions about building performance.

I would argue that sustainable buildings can only be achieve if designers (e.g. architects, engineers) engage more deeply with the practical reality of operating buildings whilst also considering the engagement of users, staff and operating engineers as an integral part of its operational architecture. Indeed, this study has shown, it is important for the designers and owners of new buildings to think about those who will be the stewards of building performance in the longterm, covering several generations.

The full article, which is open access, is:
Schoenefeldt, H. (2020). Delivery of occupant satisfaction in the House of Commons, 1950–2019. Buildings and Cities, 1(1), 141–163. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/bc.57

In my next post I will be reporting about my forthcoming book ‚Disruptive Environmentalism‘.
References
  1. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/bc.57
Accepted Answer Pending Moderation
Hi Henrik Schoenefeldt

Many thanks for sharing your research.

What do you think are the key takeaways related to building sustainability?
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