“It is not only in the external physical environment, but just as much in our cultures […] that change has to take place, if we are to have a world that is sustainable for the human race in the future”

Sture Packalén

Since its inception, evolv1 has aspired to be more than just a physical space. It is meant to motivate, inspire, and educate the public about sustainable design within the context of a competitive marketplace. It is not only about demonstrating better ways to design and construct our office spaces though, it is also about learning better ways to interact with the spaces we inhabit. 

High performance buildings (HPBs) like evolv1 play an essential part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the building sector in Ontario. However, even green buildings often fall short of the predicted energy savings, leading to a performance gap once they are in operation. The answer as to why can lie in the design modelling, commissioning or how the building is operated, but part of the solution may also lie in an often neglected subtlety – how a building is used by occupants. And to understand how to influence this may be less about the actual design, and more about culture. 

“Buildings can be more than physical spaces we occupy, they can foster a sense of shared identity, the feeling of recognition and of belonging to a specific place that improves quality of life. When they are designed as a collective construct, a feeling of co-responsibility informs our efforts. They can then provide reference points to which people can relate and connect – a culture.”

Dreyer, B., Riemer, M., Spadafore, B. et al.

Before the first tenant even moved into evolv1 in the Fall of 2018, consideration was given to how the building occupants could be incorporated into how it functions. The approach included the development of a five year research project by a team from the Laurier Viessmann Centre for Engagement and Research in Sustainability (VERiS), the University of Waterloo and York University to study how a building wide self-sustaining culture shift may work. Working in collaboration with Sustainable Waterloo Region (SWR), the project planned to leverage the unique opportunity the building provided through the creation of a fully integrated “living lab”. 

Since 2016, the research has evolved from concept to a comprehensive theoretical approach and this is the foundation of the current practical application within evolv1. As with any research study, this process has included unforeseen challenges and adaptations, not the least of which being a global pandemic which has had far reaching effects on every aspect of our lives, including how and where we work. However, this has only made the experience and the learning more significant as it has bridged an historic time and it can hopefully offer even more insight as a result. 

While research is ongoing, an academic paper on the process has been published, and is the first in a three-part series. Fostering a Culture of Sustainability in a Multi-Unit Office Building: A Theory of Change sets the stage, by presenting the theory which forms the foundation of the approach that has been applied within evolv1. Later publications will discuss both the practical implementation and outcomes of this study. 

In this paper the authors offer their underlying theory of change, to be used not as a recipe, but a guide through the general principles for those looking to develop their own comprehensive change strategies. An overview is provided below and the full paper is available online in the May issue of Frontiers in Psychology.   


Psychological approaches to fostering sustainability are heavily focused on individual behaviors and often insufficiently address the physical and social contexts individuals are embedded in. This limits the ability to create meaningful, long-lasting change, as many of day-to-day behaviors are social practices embedded in broader cultural norms and systems. This is particularly true in the work context, where organizational cultures heavily condition both the actions of individual employees and the collective actions of organizations. Thus, we argue cultures, not behaviors, must become the focus of sustainability change efforts. In this paper, we present a theory of change aimed at fostering strong organizational cultures of sustainability (COS) within a high-performance multi-tenant office building. Our theory takes a systems perspective that incorporates the social and physical aspects of the work environment, and views culture change as a co-creative exercise involving engagement of multiple stakeholders. The paper concludes with implications for practice and research.