Intelligent and green? User centred scenarios for information technology use in sustainable buildings

The project asked for the contribution of information technology use to the environmental performance of buildings - in terms of the vision of designers, practical use in existing projects and expectations of potential users.

Content Description




Aims and Method

The aim of the project was to develop 'user-centred' perspectives on the installation of information technologies (IT) in sustainable residen-tial buildings (i.e. intelligent buildings and smart homes from a sustainability point of view). With 'user-centred' we mean mainly two approaches: a) to focus on the interface between IT-applications in sustainable buildings and its users; b) to develop scenarios and assess potentials for IT-use with the participation of potential users.

The project outlines scenarios and potentials for the use of information technologies in residential buildings based upon the perspectives of a variety of stakeholders involved in and affected by the development of Smart Homes. Using the results of these scenarios, strate-gies to promote a more user-oriented, ecologically sustainable development of IT applications in buildings are suggested.

Project steps and methods

  1. Development of scenario-frameworks building upon a rough assessment of technological options and social trends (such as grow-ing proportion of households in which both partners are employed, more older persons with limited physical abilities, integration of working and living, changing lifestyles). This framework was the basis to assess potentials for IT applications in residential build-ings.
  2. Interviews with technology suppliers, building societies and service companies about their perspectives and ideas on the design of 'intelligent buildings', possible services and relevant user groups. Requirements for contributions of these technologies to environ-mental sustainability were also defined by energy experts, architects or planners.
  3. Inspired by the Dutch method of 'consumer constructive technology assessment' a series of three consecutive workshops with a group of 15 relevant stakeholders (representatives of consumer associations, architects, equipment producers, etc.) was organised to critically assess smart home scenarios and develop joint suggestions for new applications.
  4. Four focus groups covering different user segments (e.g. flats and single-family houses, urban vs. rural) were set up. These 'dis-cussion groups' consisting of 5-8 participants each dealt with expectations and wishes of potential users. Moreover participants as-sessed scenarios and certain IT applications developed in the stakeholder workshops.
  5. Analysis of user experiences with existing smart homes - 'user scripts', which features are used / not used, which ones are used differently than originally intended, which ones are criticised. The interviews and participant observation focused on single-family-houses as this is presently the main group of smart homes.
  6. International workshop with other research groups working on IT and sustainable buildings.

Results and Conclusions

The term 'smart home' refers to the networking of appliances (white and brown goods), building services (heating, ventilation, lights, blinds), various sensors and actors (e.g. occupancy sensors, small motors to shut windows) and user interfaces (graphic displays, voice control) by means of an information technology infrastructure. Integrating in-house networks with external networks (internet, mobile phone, etc.) definitely grows in importance too. As the results of our interviews and research into Austrian and international projects and experiences show, the context of 'smart homes' is in a process of rapid and dynamic change - both on a technological level (wireless networks, plug&play principle, interoperability of different standards) and regarding its socio-economic framework (growing proportion of elderly people, liberalisation of electricity markets and need for energy related add-on services). When talking about smart homes it is thus important not to focus merely on 'building automation' as the classical synonym for intelligent buildings, but to take smart homes as heterogeneous compounds of various applications, communication infrastructures and services.

Smart home dissemination is still very low in Austria - there are no specific statistics, but estimates of producers centre around a few thousand units in residential buildings. The typical smart home is a single family house in the up-market sector. There is only one build-ing developer in the province of Vorarlberg, who specialises in 'multimedia-living' in blocks of flats and who tries to develop new markets (e.g. managed care for elderly people in buildings with mixed flats for elderly people and younger families or singles). Special utility services based on smart home technologies, as is currently tested at a broader range in Scandinavian countries, are at a very early stage of development. Nevertheless, a majority of the experts interviewed believe in a strong growth of the market for smart homes during the next ten years.

From the perspective of sustainability there is a number of applications of smart homes that could help to increase energy efficiency. Among these are energy management applications (better control and automation of building services), information and feedback on energy consumption (e.g. visualised and available at the internet), load management services of utilities, or the use of community-platforms on the internet to e.g. organise car sharing. However, these hardly quantifiable efficiency improvements may be outweighed by a rising household electricity consumption from new appliances and increased stand-by periods.

Based on technical and socio-economic scenarios, interviews and workshops and focus groups one can say that from an environmental perspective the promotion of smart homes should not be given priority. Resource efficiency may be reached by other means (building insulation etc.) in a more effective and cost-efficient way. The aim should rather be to shape the developments in the smart home sector in an ecological way, e.g. by exemplary implementation of smart home technologies in sustainable buildings and by giving support to develop plausible ecological applications.

The main difficulty for smart homes is to convince residents of the use-value of such applications. Applications that can only be provided by smart homes and are perceived as highly useful are still lacking. Moreover, the organisational and institutional context of applications (e.g. what are the practical consequences of automatic fault detection and information of the user) and a sufficient plausibility of widely advertised applications (e.g. smart fridge) are often not paid enough attention to.

Project Partners

Project manager: Harald Rohracher
Inter-University Research Center for Technology, Work and Culture (IFZ)
Partner: Michael Ornetzeder
Zentrum für soziale Innovation (ZSI)


Harald Rohracher
IFZ - Inter-University Research Center
Schloegelgasse 2
A 8010 Graz
Tel.: +43 316 813909-24
Fax: +43 316 810274