Lindsay J. McCunn Ph.D


Team-teaching the Human Dimensions of Climate Change

Adding Environmental Psychology to the Discussion.

Posted Jan 08, 2013

Happy New Year! Perhaps you noticed my absence from this site during the past 2 months? If so, many thanks for checking in with my blog. Last semester I had the opportunity to co-teach an undergraduate course on the human dimensions of climate change and, toward the end, my duties were more time consuming than I anticipated. As usual!

Of course, the experience of helping teach an interdisciplinary course was invaluable and I learned a great deal from the other instructors who represented a variety of fields that inform approaches to climate change mitigation and adaptation. Experts in political science, environmental studies, philosophy, sociology, law, climate science and environmental psychology, as well as representatives from government agencies spoke to the class. If you’re interested in the course (part of a minor program here at UVIC), feel free to click on the link.

For my main lecture, I spoke about climate change and architecture. The class had already listened to talks on climate modeling, ecological change, myths and misrepresentations about climate change, and about how various levels of government in Canada are dealing with these issues. So, I wanted to introduce students to the intersection between environmental psychology and architecture in relation to climate change. First, I outlined how greenhouse gas emissions from buildings can impact the environment and how sustainable design technologies are helping to address this. I touched on which standards, agencies, and accreditation systems foster green design research and innovation. I also presented an overview of a paper I published with my supervisor in 2012 about some unexpected results concerning occupants of green office buildings. Thinking critically about sustainable design approaches is important because, as it turns out, there are limits to the greatness of ‘green.’

Because iEnvironment is an environmental psychology blog, I’ll stick to the research. However, if you’re interested in the other information above, check out this great article!

So… would you say that green offices significantly affect employee attitudes and behaviors? I bet many of you automatically responded, “yes, of course.” After all, there seems to be considerable anecdotal evidence to support this association. In fact, there is a construction site down the street from campus with signs posted around the perimeter touting: “Green means: Comfortable work environment,” and “Green means: Higher employee productivity.” Whenever I read promotional material like this, I get the feeling that the statements are a bit too good to be true. So, a few years ago we decided to investigate whether green design attributes in office buildings would correlate with a host of variables for occupants: job satisfaction, perceived productivity, affective organizational commitment, work engagement, environmental orientation, pro-environmental behaviour, and opinions about office space in general.

Employees from 15 buildings participated. Surprisingly, we found no significant correlations between the number of green building attributes and these attitudinal and behavioral variables! We even found that more green features resulted in a lower opinion of office space. It turned out that this inverse association was based on a negative correlation between the amount of window access and the number of green features (as well as the low amount of decoration and personalization in green buildings). Other research suggests that these factors are important for satisfaction with the work environment. The green buildings in our study must not have adequately met the needs of occupants in this regard. Oh dear.

Of course, there were limitations to the study. But I think it highlights that green design doesn’t automatically equate to stronger occupant comfort, satisfaction, productivity, and so on. Results like this highlight that outcomes assumed to be probable and positive can be rather complex and tough to understand. Things are not always as they seem. One of the best aspects of teaching this course was watching students become interested in environmental psychology because of this. I remember feeling as excited when I realized, as an undergraduate, the numerous interesting and practical aspects of environmental psychological research... and passing that feeling on felt great.  

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