Sixteen main themes emerged from the group discussions and one-on-one interviews in relation to the four research questions explored in the study (Q1-Q4), with participant feedback used to further refine the themes (discussed above). The subsections below present the results from participants’ perceptions of how the evolv1 building influences their own sustainability values and practices; their understanding of a COS; and their views on what could be done to further promote sustainable values and practices at evolv1. These results represent sixteen qualitative themes shown in Table 1 (below); within these identified themes, an analysis of the data revealed significant nuances as to what each theme meant to participants, discussed further in the form of key takeaways linked to previous research. These themes are framed further, where appropriate, in relation to the proposed TGB Model design patterns, to better assess in what ways evolv1 may or may not embody core aspects of a TGB based on the current study.
For increased clarity and presentation, results are presented within four distinct high level subsections below, each corresponding to one of the research questions. Each of these is then followed by a general discussion that further positions participants’ understandings and the study themes within a broader context of COS literature and lessons from the TGB Model, accompanied by the authors’ own views on important takeaways (labelled Key Takeaway and Discussion, below each results subsection).
Themes (n = 16) That Emerged From the Data, Organized by Research Question
(Q1) What does a culture of sustainability mean for citizens of the building, and what can influence its development?
(Q1-T1) Individual interest and commitment to sustainability
(Q1-T2) Community-building for collective action on sustainability with shared purposes
(Q1-T3) An empowering, healthy and enabling environmental context
(Q2) What, if any, building features positively or negatively influence the sustainable values and practices of citizens and their organizations?
(Q2-T1) Many evolv1 features already promote sustainable values, norms and practices
(Q2-T2) Sustainability is not always ‘pure’
(Q2-T3) Some evolv1 features are actively discouraging more sustainable values, norms
(Q2-T4) evolv1 still embodies several ‘missed opportunities’
(Q3) How does the building symbolically communicate to people and how do symbols in the building environment translate into citizens’ own sustainability-related values and practices?
(Q3-T1) Certain building features clearly function as symbolic ‘green features’
(Q3-T2) Symbolic communication often requires ‘standing out’
(Q3-T3) What is missing or invisible in an environment can unintentionally create a ‘negative symbol’ for sustainability
(Q3-T4) Sustainability communication and education are distinct from but connected to sustainability symbolism
(Q3-T5) Concern over symbolic representation of sustainability, versus actual sustainability
(Q4) What could be done to further promote sustainable values and practices at evolv1?
(Q4-T1) Reconsider the function of spaces within and around evolv1 to center sustainability and community-building
(Q4-T2) Combine existing symbolic communication with direct sustainability education and engagement
(Q4-T3) Encourage more sustainable behaviours and discourage less sustainable behaviours
(Q4-T4) Increase opportunities for social connection, nature connection, community-building and sustainability leadership
Note. Specific descriptions for each theme are defined further in Appendix B.
1. Growing a Culture of Sustainability
In response to Q1, What does a culture of sustainability mean for citizens of the building, and what can influence its development?, participants shared their perceptions of core characteristics of a COS that can be seen to exist along a broad continuum, and current enablers and barriers to growing such a culture in the context of evolv1. Participants made clear that what a COS means to them cannot be separated from their ability to actually enact it within evolv1, and shared their perceptions of to what degree a COS already exists in evolv1.
Descriptions of what a COS means to participants were linked to their own diverse understandings of sustainability, explored during the final individual interviews. Common understandings shared between multiple participants included understanding sustainability as being grounded in relationship between the self, society and a broader environmental context, articulated by one participant as having “synergy with a connected world” (P5). Another common description included balancing both environmental, economic and social aspects of a COS, including concerns for wellbeing – reflective of the ‘tri-factor’ of sustainability (Marcus et al., 2010). Notably missing from most (though not all) participant responses was a more critical reflection on the role of social justice in particular as a key component of sustainability – despite this connection being well-established for both sustainability (e.g., Agyeman et al., 2002; Agyeman et al., 2016), and wellbeing (e.g., Prilleltensky, 2012).
COS was described by participants not as ‘one thing’, but as being comprised of multiple layered elements that can together co-create a more lasting sustainable culture. At the simplest level, participants identified the need for some degree of interest and commitment to sustainability by individuals who make up a culture (Q1-T1), demonstrated through individual sustainable actions (such as individuals biking or taking public transit to evolv1, or participating in sustainability initiatives, see Figure A1, Appendix A). In one participant’s words: “There should be an appetite to learn more about sustainability, thinking ‘how can I translate some of these things that I learn from this building into other aspects of my life?’” (P4).
Participants also recognized that while individuals do have their own agency to take action, this agency is shaped and constrained by larger environmental and social contexts that they are embedded within. Hence, a COS was also seen to be shaped by intentional community-building for collective action on sustainability with shared purposes (Q1-T2), including the sense of ‘coming together’ through collaboration between multiple people and organizations in service of sustainability, creating a supportive social context (e.g., part of the focus of the evolvGREEN sustainability hub in evolv1). In participants’ words: “We work better when we’re all together on something like this” (P3), and “If only one person is trying to be sustainable, it’s not going to have a lot of impact. It’s only impactful when everybody is doing it” (P6).
Lastly, participants recognized the need for a healthy, supportive environmental context for people to connect in to help enable a COS to emerge (Q1-T3). This included having dedicated spaces to intentionally socialize with other building citizens and/or community members beyond one’s own organization, around particular areas of sustainability interest. One participant shared, “I’d like to see the Hub [in evolv1] being used as a shared space where the tenant organizations can connect” (P2). Participants emphasized how evolv1 itself, tenant organizations, and building and organizational management (among others) can all play a role in empowering building citizens to collaborate in intentionally envisioning and pursuing sustainability actions. “People need to feel empowered to act with a clear understanding of how they can spark change” (P4). Participants also recognized that acting on sustainability is closely tied to experiences of wellbeing within evolv1, and that current policies and cultural norms of tenant organizations and building management can have a significant effect on building citizens’ sustainability engagement. For example, one participant expressed frustration that, when bringing up the issue of soap dispensing continuously in the bathrooms with building management, “they say they’d rather waste soap than have people frustrated that they can’t get soap” (P2), clearly limiting citizens’ ability to take action on this issue. In contrast, another participant expressed appreciation that their organization’s sustainability norms “makes you more cognizant of your actions” (P1). Lastly, there was recognition of the broader environmental context evolv1 itself is situated in, including the city of Waterloo and Waterloo region. Certain city features were seen to promote and help enable sustainable behaviours, including the nearby cycling and nature trails, and a light rail transit stop next to evolv1. However, the greater time required for biking or taking public transit when compared to driving, and the limited transit service to certain areas, were seen to be realities hindering more sustainable behaviours.
Participants also acknowledged the range of existing efforts to help build a COS in evolv1, many of which were ongoing at the time of the study with leadership from building tenants and the Manager of Culture of Sustainability. Unfortunately, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 temporarily stopped most in-person community engagement in the building, which had been key to much early work to build a shared COS in evolv1. While efforts continue to help shape this culture, participants did acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic has doubtless negatively impacted the momentum of building a shared COS within the building, at least in the near-term.
1.1. Key Takeaway and Discussion: Participants Know Much of What is Required to Grow a COS, but Need Further Supports to Contribute Effectively to its Growth at evolv1
Tellingly, participants had no shortage of ideas for what would be required to build a COS at evolv1. The rich and varied responses to Q1 paint a wide-reaching yet also precise view of what is required to support a thriving COS in the evolv1 context, resulting in the three overarching themes. While participants indicated all three themes for building a COS were present in some minor form in evolv1, all three also included areas for significant improvement to achieve a truly thriving COS in the building.
Aspects of the three themes that participants observed may be holding back the development of a COS include, among others, the perception that currently many building citizens do not seem to exemplify a strong individual interest and commitment to sustainability through their actions (indeed, some participants felt their own interest was in the minority), and that there may not yet be enough community-building for collective action on sustainability taking place at evolv1, or enough directed sustainability messaging or supporting elements of the building environment itself, to substantially increase a building-wide COS. As a result, while participants were able to describe many key ingredients required to help grow a COS, there was a general sense of frustration that many of these ingredients were only being partially met, and that barriers still existed to supporting the growth of a COS within the evolv1 context. This links to the TGB Model’s emphasis on the need for the physical context of a green building to support a range of passive to active learning and engagement opportunities on sustainability at both the individual and collective levels, which it is clear at the time of this study were only being partially and insufficiently met.
Lastly, there was also the difficult question of whether a successful COS at evolv1 must include all people who use the building, or if not, then what threshold of participation would constitute forming a successful ‘culture’. To this point, when asked to imagine what a COS would actually feel like when it was successfully established and thriving in the evolv1 space, several participants emphasized a sense of a ‘buzz’ of energy and engagement on sustainability amongst people working in the building that they would immediately feel, conveying a clear sense of community collaborating together around a shared, common purpose. At what threshold of engagement this ‘buzz’ of energy is likely to be created remains an open question, however it was clear participants did not feel this level of energy and widespread engagement on sustainability currently exists within the evolv1 space (although some participants did describe an enthusiastic energy for sustainability within their own organization). This feeling of energized, widespread engagement in sustainability amongst a community of people has been described as key to building a COS in previous studies (see for example Galpin et al., 2015; Trott et al., 2020), and was re-emphasized as essential by participants. Such an energized (and energizing) setting would animate all those active within it to also engage on sustainability, to the point where a thriving COS could indeed emerge and be sustained moving forward.
Tellingly, when participants were asked to imagine what a successful COS would feel like at evolv1, it was this energized feeling of acting as a community with a common purpose, more than anything else, that was seen to be critical. This links to Cole (2014)’s insight that for a TGB to support and encourage this common purpose, it needs to “meet individual learners who are at different starting points in their understanding of environmental and architectural issues [through] a multi-pronged approach to engagement” (p. 845), and links with Dreyer et al. (2021)’s core principles derived from their COS theory of change, including the need for such change efforts to be participatory, comprehensive, strategic, long-term developmental, and systems-oriented. Lastly, participants’ understanding of the multilayered nature of an effective COS aligns with the ecological systems perspective (e.g., Bronfenbrenner & Evans, 2000, among others) and is reflected in the three Q1 themes that emerged from the data, which are similarly nested within each other and interconnected, describing different levels of impact within a system that together shape the broader culture. It also aligns with an understanding of the evolv1 building itself as being nested within a broader environment, and that “each tangible artifact in the built environment is part of the ongoing narrative of our society’s relationship to its surrounding ecology” (Cole, 2018, p. 110).
2. Influence of Building Features on Sustainable Values and Practices
In response to Q2, What, if any, building features positively or negatively influence the sustainable values and practices of citizens and their organizations?, participants recognized that as a green building, many building features at evolv1 already positively encourage sustainable values and practices (Q2-T1), including, among others, the solar panels, electric vehicle (EV) chargers, secure tenant bike parking, prominent stairs and living green wall. Also, multiple participants felt the building as a whole can have a positive influence on sustainability values and practices as a cutting-edge green building, e.g.,“It’s clear with the net positive energy that we’ve moved to a new generation of building” (P5).
In contrast, features that were seen to discourage sustainability (Q2-T3) include, among others, the large parking lot, elevators, automatic handwash stations and paper towels in the bathrooms. Citizens discussed the reality that sustainability is not always ‘pure’ (Q2-T2), and hence some features may both promote and hinder sustainable values and practices depending on their specific use and individual perspectives. For instance, one participant observed “The EV chargers are great, but the parking lot introduces this whole lens of cars first. For people who don’t have sustainability on their conscience it’s far too easy to say ‘Yeah, I’m definitely going to drive my car every day. There’s no reason not to’” (P4, see Figure A2, Appendix A). Participants also identified several ‘missed opportunities’ at evolv1 for further promoting sustainability (Q2-T4), in particular emphasizing the lack of direct sustainability communication and education in the building (“There’s a missed opportunity for education on the majority of the building’s features”, P4); lack of accessible visitor bike parking; lack of art and visible creative expression; and lack of outdoor greenery as areas of potential future action. These missed opportunities were an unexpected theme, as they refer to building features or services that are seen to be insufficient or simply not there - however it was what was missing in and around the building context that was often described as having among the most negative influence on the sustainable values and practices of citizens and their organizations, by not more fully and explicitly encouraging key aspects of sustainability.
2.1. Key Takeaway and Discussion: Acknowledging What Is Working, With Room for Improvement
Participants were careful to acknowledge the many positive aspects of the evolv1 building that are already promoting a COS amongst building citizens – however, this acknowledgement was often accompanied by constructive critique and suggestions for areas of potential improvement.
The diversity of insights shared clearly indicate the mixed impact of evolv1 on the sustainable values and practices of citizens and their organizations. As a HPGB, evolv1 does include building features that are actively promoting sustainable values and practices amongst building citizens; however, many building features that could be promoting sustainability are not, largely because they are currently invisible and/or unknown to many building citizens. When these missed opportunities are combined with the reality that some building features are still actively discouraging sustainable behaviour, it is clear that while evolv1 has already achieved a great deal as a HPGB, the building still has significant room for improvement to support the growth of a COS within it. Participants’ reflections also link to Cole (2018)’s theorizing on strategies for developing TGBs, including the need to “curate learning experiences across the building to consider the total educational experience… A deeper understanding of the physical, personal, and socio-cultural contexts can increase the chances that a TGB is a successful venue for free-choice learning” (p. 112).
3. Symbolizing Sustainability
In response to Q3, How does the building symbolically communicate to people and how do symbols in the building environment translate into citizens’ own sustainability-related values and practices?, participants’ responses showed a sensitivity to identifying ‘degrees of sustainability symbolism’ present between different building features at evolv1. On the one hand, participants recognized that some building features clearly function as symbolic green features (Q3-T1), including in particular the prominent solar panels and living green wall. “The solar panels are a huge symbol of sustainability and are great in providing renewable energy and making us think about where our energy comes from” (P1). On the other hand, participants observed that many sustainable features at evolv1 remain hidden, and therefore do not operate effectively as symbols. “Some of the more hidden sustainable features could serve as symbols, but we don't have the education around them so right now they don’t” (P1). The building itself was seen to function as a symbol of “where we put our values” (P3), however some participants found the building unassuming and therefore less effective in clearly communicating a value of sustainability.
For symbols to communicate effectively, participants recognized the need for features to ‘stand out’, and that more visible sustainable building features operate better as symbols and are hence better able to encourage citizens’ own sustainability-related values and practices (Q3-T2) (see Figure A4, Appendix A). The relative lack of sustainable features that do ‘stand out’, aside from the solar panels, central stairs and living green wall, can be seen as another missed opportunity. By enhancing sustainable features with improved public education and communication, including hidden features, participants felt there was still potential for them to function as far more effective sustainability communicators and symbols, and better support a COS (Q3-T4). “Education is part of the low-hanging fruit for growing a culture of sustainability. There’s a lot more that’s already in the building to be celebrated and shared to influence culture” (P1) (see Figure A5, Appendix A). Here, there is clear overlap between the perceived influence of building features on sustainable values and practices (discussed above) and their perceived effectiveness in operating as sustainability symbols, of which clearer sustainability education and communication was seen to be an important strategy for bridging the two.
Similar to a missed opportunity, the absence of something important in an environment was seen to possibly create a ‘negative symbol’ for sustainability (Q3-T3). These absences included frustration expressed at the lack of public imagery and art linked to sustainability within the building, lack of educational signage describing the building and building features, and lack of greenery around the building, among others. “There’s nothing in the garden, which I think is a negative symbol, because we have so much greenery inside the building but so far not much really outside” (P1) (see Figure A6, Appendix A). Aside from a single information screen, one participant commented that “there’s no explanation of what’s happening in the building, and no plaque that identifies key details about the building” (P2). Lastly, there was recognition that symbols of sustainability may not always be sustainable, raising concerns over symbolism versus actual sustainability (Q3-T5). “The living wall is really cool and it’s one of my favourite aspects of the building. And I think it depicts nature, but I don’t know if it depicts sustainability” (P6).
3.1. Key Takeaway and Discussion: Need to Link Sustainability Symbolism With Direct Education and Engagement
Cole (2018) emphasizes that “one basic role of a green building is to stand as a symbol of culture change… If we understand green buildings as having an interpretable message, then we can further acknowledge that architectural “language” varies enormously across different green buildings” (p. 110-111). Connected to this, participants recognized that not all sustainable building features at evolv1 clearly communicate sustainability, and hence many recommended: that all sustainable building features (both visible and non-visible) be accompanied by clear educational signage to ‘bring to life’ the educational value of that feature and deepen viewers’ ability to connect to each feature and understand their links to sustainability; and/or to provide opportunities for engagement to allow viewers to more directly interact with each other and the building features in question, again centering sustainability. This aligns with the TGB Model’s emphasis on opportunities for social interaction and physical engagement with the building space, and that “a green building can also be designed for users to actively engage with its features” (Cole, 2018, p. 112), to then promote more active, hands-on, ‘situated learning’ (Brown et al., 1989) within the green building environment.
Notably, where some participants did express that specific building features were shifting their own behaviours to be more sustainable, this was often associated with the utilitarian function of those features over their symbolic value (e.g., the availability of prominent stairs in the evolv1 atrium encouraging people to take the stairs). Here, the features themselves are designed to be directly used, engaging the user; however, they are often still lacking additional clarity over what makes them sustainable which could be enhanced through signage and education. Some features with a stronger symbolic value rather than a clear sustainability function were also described by participants as having some impact on increasing sustainable behaviour (particularly the living wall), however this impact was still seen to be greatly enhanced if the sustainable elements of these features were also described through accompanying educational signage, and/or opportunities for engagement (e.g., a sustainability workshop centered around the living wall). These findings align with the TGB Model’s design pattern suggestion to communicate factual information on sustainability (verbal or image-based), for instance over architectural features (Cole, 2014) to help maintain a “visible culture of sustainability” (p. 850) and that “TGBs, with the intent to educate users, may benefit from architectural design that outwardly communicates green intent” (Cole, 2018, p. 110), along with “strategies that are more deeply intertwined with the social dynamics of the people in a space (an educational programming approach)” (p. 113).
Participants did acknowledge and appreciate that there is already some effort toward sustainability education and engagement within evolv1. However, such education and engagement was still seen to be insufficient and somewhat exclusive to particular groups, often not engaging those who aren’t already part of that group and interested in sustainability. Rather than only promoting sustainability at certain times and to particular audiences, many participants imagined a building where ‘everything’ (or most things) promoted sustainability, reaching all building users. Cole (2014) describes this in the school context as ‘whole-school sustainability’. Direct educational signage on sustainability (passive engagement) and more opportunities for experiential engagement on sustainability (active engagement) by all building users are some clear pathways for moving evolv1 toward being a far more effective TGB.
In sum, while symbolic function was seen as having its own inherent value for promoting sustainability, the existing sustainability symbolism in evolv1 was not seen as sufficient on its own to promote a shared COS in the building. This reflects participants’ understanding that while symbolism matters, to be most effective it needs to be bold, ‘stand out’, and be coupled with education and engagement on making more sustainable choices as complimentary key aspects of growing a successful COS. This aligns with Cole (2018)’s finding that “TGBs are designed to communicate and engage. A thoughtfully designed TGB could have symbolic importance to users while affording a variety of opportunities to learn about sustainability and make a difference through participating in pro-environmental activities” (p. 114).
4. Further Promoting Sustainability in evolv1
In response to Q4, What could be done to further promote sustainable values and practices at evolv1?, participants identified many potential actions that could be taken, some of which have already been mentioned. Major recommendations included the importance of reconsidering the function of spaces within and around the evolv1 building to center sustainability and community-building (Q4-T1), including improving the function of the open meeting area on the main floor to be more of a ‘magnet’ for tenant organizations, community and sustainability events (see Figure A7, Appendix A); introducing a publicly accessible café; and redesigning outdoor spaces to create more useable, attractive green gathering spaces. “I remember in the summer we did something outside and we all just sat on the ground. There wasn’t anywhere for us to sit. So just that idea of providing space outside for people I think is really important” (P3).
The importance of combining existing symbolic green features with direct sustainability education and engagement was also emphasized, including co-creating and promoting sustainability workshops and events, and adding sustainability signage, art and direct messaging into the evolv1 space (Q4-T2). To support the education component, many participants recommended incorporating educational signage throughout the building. Several different forms were suggested for how signs could appear, including both physical and digital options. As one participant suggested “On the Hub screen it would talk about upcoming sustainable events or functions that we can take part in; ways we can collaborate, lead and work together; and ways that we can submit sustainable ideas to be considered” (P2). A common message was that clear educational signage in some form would greatly increase the positive impact of existing sustainable building features into shaping a shared COS, particularly if signs included targeted messaging on how a particular feature was sustainable, and how lessons from this feature could be translated into viewers’ own sustainable values and practices, asking “how can I translate that into other aspects of my life?” (P4).
The recognition that sustainability often requires some guidance led to rich discussions on the need for targeted programming and building policies to encourage more sustainable behaviours, and discourage less sustainable (e.g., incentivizing more sustainable transport, and discouraging solo driving) (Q4-T3) (see Figure A8, Appendix A). For tenant organizations, having a “morning chat” (P5) on sustainability to keep the conversation as part of the organizational culture was recommended. Supporting sustainability leadership and community-building were emphasized as key for growing a COS at evolv1, with participants recommending a range of potential strategies to help, most of which centered on the need for building citizens to know how they can lead change within the space, and the inspiration and empowerment to do so. Inspiration to lead change was further linked to connection to nature (see Figure A9, Appendix A) and community within and around evolv1, and the feeling that this change leadership would be supported (Q4-T4). However, several participants described a feeling of an overall shortfall in support for change leadership and empowerment presently at evolv1, e.g., “There’s probably a lot more that the building and people could do that would be empowering for everybody” (P2). Participants also emphasized the importance of maintaining consistency in the building’s message, which can then also help building citizens maintain their own focus on sustainability, e.g., “If you’re promoting green, try to make sure that you only provide green options” (P1).
4.1. Key Takeaway and Discussion: Need for Greater Empowerment to Act for Sustainability
The cross-cutting theme of empowerment to be able to act to help build a shared COS appeared repeatedly across many of the sixteen themes, in response to multiple questions. This included the recognition that building citizens must be empowered to participate in sustainability action within the evolv1 space, including both knowing how to participate and having the freedom (within limits) to do so. This finding aligns with relational empowerment-related theory in community psychology as well (e.g., Christens, 2012; Perkins & Zimmerman, 1995). While participants acknowledged that some empowerment to take sustainability action does exist in evolv1, this was overall seen as insufficient, and there was generally a sense of confusion over the ‘proper channels’ to go through to propose and/or initiate a potential new sustainability action. Here, participants expressed feeling unable to take action by not knowing acceptable ways to take action within the evolv1 space, creating a sense of discouragement and a clear barrier toward trying to initiate new sustainability actions, either independently or collaboratively with others. This is troubling, as research suggests that empowerment and sense of agency are both key for building a COS (e.g., Dreyer et al., 2021; Harré et al., 2021), both of which appeared to be lacking for pursuing novel sustainability initiatives in evolv1.
In addition to aspiring to an environmental context at evolv1 that is more empowering and supportive of an emergent COS, participants recognized their own agency to act to help grow a COS within evolv1, and felt that all evolv1 citizens need to feel empowered to act to help grow this shared culture together. Present efforts to support the growth of a COS at evolv1 were appreciated but still perceived as insufficient to fully empower building citizens to co-create and take ownership of new sustainability initiatives that could form the foundation of a truly successful, thriving COS in the evolv1 space. A lack of dedicated, functional gathering space and resources for bringing building citizens from different tenant organizations together to collaborate on sustainability initiatives was also seen to hinder the long-term growth of a COS at evolv1. This aligns with the TGB Model’s emphasis on the importance of opportunities for physical engagement on sustainability, including “physical spaces in which… groups can self-organize for ongoing environmental action” (Cole, 2014, p. 848), which was generally seen by participants to be lacking at evolv1. It also aligns with an appreciation of the differential in decision-making power between occupants in evolv1, which can further constrain occupants’ feelings of empowerment in taking sustainability action.
The influence of environmental context and differentials in power on feelings of empowerment was also recognized within the ‘sub-environments’ participants recognized as existing within evolv1, in particular between different tenant organizations. These organizational environments (both physical and sociocultural) can clearly also have an influence on individual employees’ real or perceived abilities to act on sustainability. Here, participants observed a clear relationship between an organization’s own sustainability engagement and the sustainability engagement of individuals working for these organizations. This further underscores the need to engage the management of evolv1 tenant organizations in promoting sustainability, in addition to engaging individual employees. Further, sustainability engagement across organizations can be further complicated and challenged when the business models and objectives of tenant organizations themselves are not necessarily grounded in sustainability. Here, Cole (2018) emphasizes the need for ‘direct feedback’ on occupant performance, including tenant organizations, “in conjunction with other behavior change interventions (such as information campaigns, incentives, and evoking social norms)” (p. 117).
Linked to empowerment, several participants expressed frustration that automation, rather than personal agency, appeared to be a norm within the evolv1 building. In particular, the automation of the bathroom faucets and soap dispensers were frequently described as disempowering and also potentially wasteful of soap and water, leading participants to feel they lacked direct control over their own personal resource use. Importantly, whether or not more resources were indeed being used due to automation, to some participants their very lack of direct control over personal use of resources was seen to be disempowering and counter to a COS. This again relates to the TGB Model’s emphasis on opportunities for physical engagement, and that the lack of ability to engage meaningfully with a physical space can create an experience of disempowerment. In contrast, as argued by Cole (2018), one possible task of green buildings is to “shock and delight, decrease apathy, and re-sensitive people to the possibilities of a new relationship to nature through built form” (p. 110) – and in so doing, increase sustainability engagement and feelings of empowerment. Best practices for this include “informing occupants of behavioral options, persuading occupants to participate, and, on another extreme, actually determining their behavior through building design” (Cole, 2018, p. 117).
Notably, some of these results may point to a tension between building sustainability and personal wellbeing (e.g., a lack of personal control over building temperatures may be good for building sustainability, but less good for personal wellbeing and empowerment), which could be further explored. This is further discussed in the wellbeing exploration of this research study, presented in Abel et al. (2022). However generally, a lack of control and influence over, or even understanding of, many of evolv1’s sustainable building features; current sustainability initiatives; or how to initiate new sustainability actions in the space, all led to an overall sense of disempowerment in working toward a shared COS in evolv1. In order to build a COS in evolv1, these valid concerns clearly need to be addressed.
4.2. Key Takeaway and Discussion: Building a ‘Micro-Movement’ for Sustainability
Linking the personal with the collective was the recognition that to build a COS requires far more than individual action alone, but rather the growth of a collective effort with shared purposes for promoting sustainability engagement within a given context. Within the context of the evolv1 building this could be understood to involve building a ‘micro-movement’ for sustainability amongst all (or at least most) evolv1 citizens. Here, the cross-cutting theme of the need for community-building for collective action on sustainability was apparent. While participants recognized that aspects of evolv1 do already promote some individual sustainable behaviours, a significant gap remained in the building promoting collective action. It seems clear that without strong supports for broader building-wide collaboration and collective action for sustainability, an effective COS is unlikely to emerge in the evolv1 building space.
Here, research participants echo what sustainability and social science literature also reflects, that an individual’s actions are important, but not sufficient alone, to building a culture (e.g., Riemer et al., 2014). Other structural pieces to empower collective action around shared purposes are also required. As argued by Harré et al. (2021), adopting a shared, additional collective purpose – such as the purpose of centering sustainability – is clearly key to facilitating a successful ‘phase transition’ (Mason, 2008) that enables deeper social systems change, such as toward a shared COS. Likewise, applying systems thinking can help changemakers to better target sustainability interventions at the most effective leverage points of a system (Meadows, 1999, 2008 in Dreyer et al., 2021). Finally, supporting opportunities for stronger human-place bonding and human-to-human bonding within the building could help to better support the needed wellbeing (Cole et al., 2021) and social justice (Agyeman et al., 2016) elements of an emergent COS. In total, combining these alongside other strategies could enable evolv1 to join other TGBs in embodying a “dual role of physically conserving resources while also becoming beacons for an ethic of environmental care” (Cole, 2018, p. 111) amongst building users and occupants.
Summary of Findings
Summarizing the core research findings, it is clear that evolv1 building features have a range of impacts on building users, including both promoting sustainable values, norms and practices, and in some cases discouraging these. In this sense, sustainability at evolv1 is not ‘pure’, and the building can still be seen to embody several missed opportunities to promote sustainability, including a lack of public education on the majority of the building’s features. Participants also spoke to three core overarching themes for growing a COS within evolv1, including: individual interest and commitment to sustainability; community-building for collective action on sustainability with shared purposes; and being embedded within an empowering, healthy and enabling environmental context.
Reflections on the symbolic nature of evolv1 include understanding the building itself as a symbol of ‘where we put our values’, along with recognizing the sustainability symbolism of several key building features that clearly stand out at evolv1 (e.g., the living wall and solar panels). However, participants also reflected that many of the building’s sustainable features remain hidden and lack public explanation, so they are unable to operate as effective symbols of sustainability. This links to the finding that, in some cases, what is missing or invisible in an environment can unintentionally create a ‘negative symbol’ for sustainability (e.g., the lack of greenery around the building). There is a clear need to link sustainable building features and symbolism with opportunities for more direct sustainability engagement and education. Other recommendations that emerged include reconsidering the function of spaces both within and around evolv1 to center sustainability and community-building; to encourage more sustainable behaviours and discourage less sustainable; and to increase opportunities for social connection, nature connection, community-building, and sustainability leadership throughout the building, in service of growing a broader, more engaged COS.
This study was designed to investigate how evolv1 building citizens currently conceptualize the links between sustainability symbols, practices, values & norms in the evolv1 building, with the intent of informing continued efforts in shaping a COS within this space. To this end, using the Photovoice method provided a valuable window into the perspectives of building citizens on how the evolv1 building, tenant organizations and citizens themselves can best nurture a COS. The use of Photovoice in this context is unique in that it (a) applied this method with building citizens in a HPGB, while linking this to ongoing efforts to nurture a broader COS in this space; and (b) empowered participants to document not only key sustainability features of the building, but to also reflect on how these features and the building itself influence and/or embody each of the core aspects needed for building a strong COS: values and norms, symbols, and practices.
Further, this study applied a novel adaptation of the Photovoice method, by mixing both participant-taken photographs with participant-selected photographs taken by researchers. This adaptation was made necessary due to restrictions on participant access to the evolv1 building at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In part a limitation, this adaptation can also be seen as a contribution to an evolving Photovoice methodology, expanding the potential range of options for future ‘hybrid’ physical-virtual Photovoice studies, including the potential range of people who could participate in a Photovoice study across broader geographies.
This study contributed to both participants, the development of the local clean economy and the broader COS literature in several ways. First, the Photovoice process empowered participants to meaningfully reflect on and engage with their physical environment, facilitating critical dialogue and generating collective knowledge through discussion of their own taken and selected photos. This dialogue can lead to opportunities to take action on identified concerns, improving participants’ own lived experiences and sense of agency within and beyond evolv1, along with deepening a growing, shared COS within the building.
Second, as an early and pioneering local clean economy project, evolv1 is setting the tone for the emergent clean economy in its geographical area. The building itself and how culture is shaped within it has numerous implications to the future development of the clean economy across Waterloo Region, including approaches taken to integrate concerns for both social and environmental sustainability, including social justice, throughout this transition. Hence it is important to know: what is the tone that the evolv1 building is setting for guiding this sustainability transition in Waterloo Region? The present study contributes useful insights toward answering this question.
Lastly, this process provided insight into how a COS can be built within the context of a HPGB space, in an effort to address the well-known ‘performance gap’ that exists within these buildings and has been linked to a lack of COS (e.g., see Coleman & Robinson, 2018). This is also the first study known to the authors to use Photovoice to explore a COS within a HPGB, and in total, provides a unique contribution to informing future COS work. Results of this study both affirm and add further depth to existing understandings of ‘what it takes’ to grow and sustain an effective COS in a given context, including the need for sustainability values, symbols, rituals, norms and practices to all be supported for a COS to emerge (see Dreyer et al., 2021; Marcus et al., 2010). Many of participants’ insights, embodied in the 16 themes of this study, can be usefully applied in other contexts where efforts toward developing a COS are taking place, both within and beyond green buildings. These insights affirm the important and rich interconnections of ‘key ingredients’ needed to support a COS (e.g., Riemer et al., 2014), and that to be most effective individual COS components cannot be supported piecemeal, through half-measures or in isolation, but instead must be supported in holistic ways that recognize their interconnections. This includes, for instance, the need for individual interest and commitment to sustainability, and community-building for collective action on sustainability with shared purposes, and an empowering, healthy and enabling environmental context – which when supported together can all be mutually reinforcing, further inspiring sustainability action. Building on related literature (e.g., Dreyer et al., 2021), this study furthers understanding of how specific environments – in this case, a green building – can influence and shape the development of culture generally, and the development of COS specifically, supported by a given space. Finally, this study usefully connects core attributes of recent theory on TGBs (see Cole, 2018), to core attributes theorized as necessary for developing a COS (see Riemer et al., 2014), to the specific results of this Photovoice study, making the case that working toward evolving green buildings to being TGBs could greatly support COS efforts within diverse green building contexts worldwide, including at evolv1.
Some limitations apply to the present study. The adaptation of the Photovoice method to be a ‘hybrid’ physical-virtual approach with less than half of all photos being taken by participants can be seen as one potential limitation. To help mitigate the impact of this adaptation, researchers decided to focus data analysis exclusively on the verbal discussions within both the group dialogues and one-on-one semi-structured interviews, and not on the visual content of the photos themselves – an approach that is common to many Photovoice studies.
Building a COS in evolv1 has also been made more difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While all participants at the start of the study were physically working within evolv1 at least 10 hours a week, this changed abruptly midway during the study to accommodate new work-from-home orders. It is the researchers’ view that despite this shift, this did not greatly impact the study itself as participants were still able to reflect openly on the influence of evolv1 on their own sustainability values and practices, and connect for virtual sessions - however, the inability to gather in-person within the building did greatly limit the ability of building citizens to collaborate to help shape an emerging COS.
An implied assumption (and potential limitation) made in the first research question (Q1) is that participants actually want to create a COS, and that if they wanted to, they would like to do so within evolv1. This is an important assumption to interrogate, as there is no guarantee that either is necessarily true. That said, given participants’ own interest in voluntarily participating in a study investigating the impact of evolv1 on their own experiences of sustainability, and given ongoing COS work in the building which many participants have contributed to, it seems likely that participants are interested in contributing to growing a COS more broadly, and at least at the time of the study were also interested in growing a COS within evolv1.
This study is also limited to a relatively small sample size of six participants, despite the initial aspiration to a larger sample size of ten. This was not surprising, however, as many Photovoice studies often have similarly small sample sizes due to the significant time demands from participants, and does not necessarily limit the richness and variety of the data collected. However, a small sample size may limit the generalizability of the study, especially given that the participants self-selected into the study, which may be related to an interest in COS and the evolv1 building.
A final potential limitation is that half of the study participants (3 of 6) were working with SWR at the time of the study. Considering SWR is a sustainability-focused organization, this may have further biased some aspects of data collection, limiting the study’s generalizability. However, the researchers did strive to bear this potential organizational bias in mind when conducting the research, for instance by asking all participants to think more broadly about the impacts of evolv1 on building citizens generally when answering questions, in addition to perceived impacts on themselves personally. Also, the remaining three participants did work with three other organizations in the building, hence increasing overall representation to four different evolv1 tenant organizations with employees participating in the study.