Erin Hamilton's Dissertation Defense

Event Date: 
Friday, September 14, 2018, 9:15 am


Positive Sustainable Built Environments: The Cognitive and Behavioral Affordances of Environmentally Responsible Behavior in Green Residence Halls 



Prof. Ray De Young



A changing climate and global resource degradation have prompted technological innovations that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and are responsive to local ecological conditions. Green buildings that minimize the environmental impacts of the construction process and ongoing maintenance of the built environment, have been praised for their resource efficiency, design innovation, and benefits to building occupants. Increasingly, a growing body of literature has begun to examine the mutually beneficial relationships between sustainable architecture and building occupants. In addition to the well-documented benefits of inhabiting green buildings, the environmentally responsible behaviors (ERBs) of building occupants are worthy of examination. As a counterbalance to the dominant narrative in the green building industry that frames the building occupant as a potential energy liability, this research adopts a hopeful perspective on human behavior. Human behavior, though a significant contributor to global climate change, can also be part of the solution. This dissertation asserts that the situational context of green buildings may be designed to support the ERBs of building occupants.

Much of the current research examining occupant ERBs in green buildings has focused exclusively on educational buildings, or buildings designed with a pedagogical intent (e.g., schools, museums, libraries). Less is known about how occupants learn about issues of sustainability and adopt environmental behaviors in buildings that are not designed to teach. This dissertation focuses on the environmental behaviors emerging from the informal relationships between undergraduate students and their on-campus residence halls, asking how buildings support or undermine the ERBs of building occupants in green and non-green buildings over time.

This dissertation develops and tests a theoretical model for understanding how buildings may support occupant ERBs. The Positive Sustainable Built Environments (PSBE) model is composed of three principle domains: Prime, Permit, and Invite. Collectively, the three components of the PSBE model suggest that a building 1) may prepare occupants to participate in ERBs through the restoration of their mental resources and/or by communicating a sustainable ethos, 2) may allow building occupants to control aspects of their interior environments related to their own energy and resource consumption, and 3) will encourage occupants to engage in ERBs through building features that implement a variety of behavioral intervention strategies.

Occupant ERBs were measured over the course of one academic year through an online survey conducted with the first-time residents of six undergraduate residence halls. While many studies have explored the effectiveness of environmental behavior change intervention strategies with undergraduate students, very little research has examined the pre-existing psychological dimensions and the situational context of green buildings that influence students’ environmental behaviors.

The results of the linear mixed-effects regression analyses revealed no significant relationship between occupying a green residence hall and students’ ERBs. However, a further analysis of specific building characteristics, analyzed according to the PSBE model, suggest strong support for two of the three domains. The Prime and Invite domains were found to positively support occupant ERBs, regardless of the greenness of the residence hall. Additionally, several personal characteristics (e.g., Biospheric values, Environmental Concern, Technology motive, and Egoistic values) were found to significantly impact students’ ERBs. Results are discussed in light of implications for designers seeking to harness the existing environmental inclinations of college students and to adapt the physical and informational environments of residence halls to better support environmentally responsible behavior.


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