It would be nice to think that, with all of the collective expertise and creativity of engineers and architects, most of the problems related to energy efficiency in buildings could be resolved in the design and build phases. Sadly, that is not the case.

In a strong argument for demand management, a new study finds that, once a building is occupied, all of the efforts that went into making it efficient when it was designed and constructed could be for naught if the tenants don’t behave.

The study, “Sensitivity Analysis: Comparing the Impact of Design, Operations, and Tenant Behavior on Building Energy Performance,” compares the potential impact on building energy efficiency of design, construction and operational practices.

Published by the Vancouver, Wash.-based nonprofit, New Building Institute (NBI)—an organization for achieving net-zero energy performance in commercial buildings—the study finds that designers have great potential to cut energy use, but building operators and occupants have even greater potential to waste.

For example, the study concludes that building envelope, heating, ventilating, air conditioning and lighting systems represent the primary areas where the design team can affect building efficiency and that best practices in those areas can save at least 40 percent of total building energy use. On the other hand, poor practices can increase energy use by 90 percent. Similarly, building operations can reduce energy use by 10 to 20 percent, but poor practices can increase energy use by 30 to 60 percent.

The NBI asserts that the misconception about the power of design to improve energy efficiency represents a significant social barrier. It argues for improved communications between designers and owners about building performance and greater emphasis on building operations policies to achieve the goals.