The sad truth is that we can design a world-leading sustainable building and fill it with clever cutting-edge technology – from trigeneration systems to blackwater treatment plants – but if the building’s occupants don’t care about that dripping tap or bother to turn off their computers when they leave at night, it won’t be a sustainable building.

True sustainability can only be found at the nexus of good design, good construction, good technology and good behaviour – and good behaviour can sometimes be the most elusive or the hardest to maintain.

There has never been more information, promotion and awareness surrounding sustainability. Despite this, lights get left on even though we know it is contributing to global warming. We continue to commute in our cars, even though we know it’s bad for our bank balances, our health and the environment. We continue to crank up the heating even though we know we should just put on a jumper (or crank up the air-conditioning, even though we know we could just open a window or take that jumper off again!)

Psychologists argue that people are motivated by a combination of ‘intrinsic rewards’ – tangible benefits such as financial rewards and fringe benefits – and ‘social rewards’ – those benefits gained from being with other people, by having a sense of common purpose and of gaining reassurance or confirmation of identity. Many behavioural change programs focused on sustainability in the built environment are working on both motivations to get the best results.

In Korea, Seoul’s metropolitan government has led the ‘No Driving Day’ program which has resulted in a 10 per cent reduction in vehicle emissions. The voluntary scheme uses incentives to encourage commuters to leave their cars at home one day a week. A car owner places an electronic sticker on their vehicle which is then monitored by radio frequency identification systems around the city. If the car is not found to have travelled on its allocated no drive day throughout the year, the owner receives a range of rewards – such as discounts at petrol stations and repair services, free car wash service, decreases in insurance and taxes, up to 30 per cent off parking fees and a 50 per cent discount on tunnel tolls. But these incentives are discounts, not grants or hand-outs, making it much more cost-effective for those operating the scheme.

With three of every 10 eligible cars signed up to the program – totalling up to 900,000 vehicles – traffic volume has decreased by seven per cent, operating speeds have increased by 13 per cent and citizens collectively save US$600 million on fuel costs each year. Other benefits include reduced noise, better air quality and improvements in health with people choosing more active commuting. There are other social rewards too. Traffic-induced stress is down and people are enjoying the chance to interact more in public spaces.

Behavioural change programs can be organic, rather than organised, and one good example is the ‘casual car pool.’ In San Francisco and Washington, for instance, drivers and passengers meet – without specific prior arrangement – at designated locations throughout the city. The intrinsic rewards are clear; by taking additional passengers, the driver reduces his or her commute time, as car pools are able to bypass tolls and take advantage of car pool-only lanes. They are also convenient, with no pre-arrangement or fixed schedule. There are usually sufficient numbers of drivers and riders to ensure everyone can get a car pool within a matter of minutes. The social rewards? Studies of casual car poolers have found they value the opportunity to be part of a ‘special community,’ as well as the sense of well-being they gain from helping each other out.

Another example of behavioural change at work is collaborative consumption – an arrangement in which people share access to products or services, rather than owning them. Entire communities and cities are recognising that we can ‘do more with less’ and live more sustainably by renting, swapping, bartering and sharing rather than buying and owning. AirBnB connects couch-surfers with couches, and people with a community of like-minded travellers. GoGet, GreenShareCar and CarNextDoor provide all the benefits of a car without the hassle and expense of owning one. Open Shed offers people the chance to make money from all those objects lying idle – from jet skis to lawnmowers. People who embrace collaborative consumption are motivated, again, by both the intrinsic and social rewards.

So, where does that leave us with behavioural change in our buildings? Many companies are recognising that it’s not enough to simply up sticks and move to a Green Star –rated office. The GPT Group, for instance, understood that moving into a 6 Star Green Star – Office Interiors v1.1 building presented a unique opportunity to implement an organisation-wide behavioural change program. GPT staff members no longer have dedicated desks, instead capitalising on the benefits of activity-based working and reducing individual desk spaces by 17 per cent.

While initially there was some resistance to change, engagement initiatives such as a ‘work environment passport’ made for a smooth transition into the new green office. Under the passport scheme, employees were rewarded for showing their understanding of different aspects of change, such as reducing paper consumption and encouraging people to work electronically. A training program and reward system was introduced, with a ‘Biggest Loser’ competition measuring paper reduction against targets. The target was an average of one lineal metre per person, but the competition was so successful, GPT has reduced its onsite paper storage by an incredible 90 per cent – from 900 lineal metres down to 90.

GPT Group

The bottom line is that slapping a ‘switch off’ sticker next to the light may not achieve the desired result. Relying on people to ‘do the right thing’ is often not enough. Instead, the companies that are achieving the best results are those that are looking at behavioural change from a multitude of angles – education and training, incentives and rewards and, importantly, creating a sense of community.

While it remains all too easy not to take action, neglecting to act means we won’t see truly sustainable change. But where the rewards are clear, multiple and attractive, changing behaviours can help bring together good design and good construction to achieve real, positive benefits – for individuals, for organisations and for communities.

Merry Christmas, and best wishes for a happy, healthy and truly sustainable 2014.