Photovoice Study

Investigating human factors in the evolv1 green office building

The evolv1 building from above in Waterloo, Ontario
The evolv1 building from above in Waterloo, Ontario. Credit: The Cora Group


You are about to embark on an exploration of the ‘human factors’ in the green office building of evolv1.

What are human factors? While technology is often the focus of discussion of green buildings, this unique exhibit explores a slightly different side: that of how people interact with the building environment, including its influence on their own wellbeing and on their sustainable values, norms and practices. This includes reflections on efforts to build a shared ‘culture of sustainability’ within the building, as well as on the intersections (and sometimes tensions) between sustainability and wellbeing.

This exhibit emerged from a research study supported by Wilfrid Laurier University and the VERiS Research Centre. The study applies an arts-based research method called Photovoice described further below.

About this exhibit and research

This research project explores the perspectives and lived experiences of people who work in the evolv1 green office building in Waterloo, ON, Canada. Applying a Photovoice methodology, participants explore the links between the high-performance green building they are working in and its influence on their own personal wellbeing and sustainable values, norms and practices.

Through taking and selecting photos of their work environment in evolv1, participants in this project were able to share reflections on elements they appreciate, as well as constructive suggestions for areas of possible improvement in and around the evolv1 building. The photos were then discussed in groups and individual interviews to identify common themes and to select the most representative photos and captions for each theme for this exhibit.

This exhibit communicates the results of the project that six people who all worked at the evolv1 building at the time of the study participated in over a multi-month period. This period started in early 2020 with in-person sessions, and then was adapted to virtual discussions at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Clearly, work life has changed dramatically for many due to COVID-19, and some participants who once worked in-person in evolv1 now work from home. However, as more and more people return to working in office buildings, it is worth reflecting on their impacts on the sustainable behaviours and wellbeing of those who use them, and on the broader community of which they are a part.

What is Photovoice?

Photos are multi-layered and can often say much visually that words alone cannot say. The Photovoice method combines the strengths of both visual and oral communication, by empowering participants to take photos of their immediate environment and using these photos as prompts for discussion around topics of shared interest. The method was developed by Wang & Burris in 1997 as a tool that can be used by community members to speak out on issues of shared concern, encouraging critical dialogue and reflection. It is engaging and fun, and also serious

Photovoice projects have now been applied in many places around the world, raising up community voices to share how they feel about a given situation or environment, along with opportunities for action. As a participatory action research method, Photovoice is designed to help amplify the experiences of participants on issues of shared concern. With participants’ permission, these experiences can then help to influence decision-makers and a broader community toward specific actions, as the present exhibit is also designed to do.

As university researchers interested in the lived experiences of those working within the evolv1 building, we know that the best people to select pictures and share their reflections are those working in the building. These people are the experts of the content, and we as researchers are simply the facilitators who helped guide participants in the use of Photovoice. This exhibit is their story.

Note: This Photovoice study was led by two PhD students studying at Wilfrid Laurier University, Esther Abel and Kai Reimer-Watts, with supervision by Dr. Simon Coulombe. It is part of the evolv1 research program co-led by Dr. Manuel Riemer from Wilfrid Laurier University and the VERiS Research Centre and Dr. Joel Marcus from York University, in partnership with the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo and Dr. Simon Coulombe at Université Laval. The research program focuses on building cultures of sustainability, including considerations of wellbeing, within green buildings

Exhibit design

Through the following panels, you will get a glimpse into the daily environment in the evolv1 building and experiences of participants at the time of this study, winter to summer 2020. These experiences focus around two core overarching topics: sustainability and wellbeing, and the influence of evolv1 on both. Many reflections are positive, and many also include constructive critiques on areas participants feel could be improved. As researchers, we feel this is as it should be, since while the evolv1 building has already achieved a great deal, on the path of sustainability and wellbeing there is always room for further improvement. Now is an opportune time to reflect on where participants feel we are at evolv1, and possible paths forward.

The exhibit is designed as eight separate panels, including seven which each represent a distinct research question, investigating different aspects of sustainability and wellbeing. Within each, researchers drew common themes out of both group discussions and one-on-one interviews with participants relating to shared lived experiences. Each theme or sub-theme is illustrated by one or more images. These photos were originally chosen or taken by participants to explore their thoughts about and experiences of the evolv1 building.

Research questions

Guiding the discussions with participants were seven distinct research questions, including the following:

For sustainability

  1. What does a culture of sustainability mean for citizens of the building?
  2. What, if any, building features positively or negatively influence the sustainable values and practices of citizens and their organizations?
  3. 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?
  4. What could be done to further promote sustainable values and practices at evolv1?

For wellbeing

  1. When investigating the lived experiences of the individuals who inhabit the building on a regular basis, what about the evolv1 building impacts their wellbeing?
  2. What, if any, building features positively or negatively influence the wellbeing of citizens within the evolv1 building and their organizations, and how?
  3. What could be done to further promote wellbeing at evolv1?

About evolv1

evolv1 is a green office building within the David Johnston Research + Technology Park in Waterloo, Ontario that was inspired by the local non-profit Sustainable Waterloo Region, and is owned and developed by the Cora Group. It is Canada’s first net-positive energy commercial multi-tenant office building, now home to multiple tenant organizations and a unique green economy innovation hub called evolvGREEN. To achieve being net-positive energy, evolv1 produces more clean energy than it consumes, thanks largely to the impressive solar PV panels that cover both its roof and parking lot. It is the first office building to receive the Zero Carbon Building-Design Certification from the Canada Green Building Council.

About the researchers

Kai Reimer-Watts is a PhD student in Community Psychology who studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, exploring the use of arts-based practices and symbolism as important tools for growing cultures of sustainability in response to the climate crisis. Esther Abel is a PhD student in Social Psychology who also studies at Laurier, exploring the attitudes and opinions different people have toward various aspects of wellbeing and happiness improvement.

Thank you

Both Esther and Kai wish to express a special thank you to all participants in this study for generously sharing their time, photos and insights, as well as to Dr. Simon Coulombe for his excellent guidance and patience throughout the research process. Thank you also to the Cora Group for their support of ongoing research at evolv1; to Sustainable Waterloo Region for hosting the online version of this exhibition; and to all evolv1 tenant organizations. Lastly, thank you to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Ontario Research Fund, and Wilfrid Laurier University for their generous support for the broader ongoing research work this study is a part of.

Project details

6 participants who worked in four different organizations within evolv1 participated in the study

More than 200 photos of evolv1 taken and shared (including photos taken by participants themselves before the pandemic, or chosen by participants among a set of pictures taken by a member of the research team after the pandemic started).

4 group sessions and 6 one-on-one interviews to discuss the photos in relation to experiences of working within the evolv1 building

Project timeline

Fall 2019 – Project Planning and Recruitment

Winter 2020 – Photo Taking and In-Person Sessions (and subsequent virtual sessions)

Spring / Summer 2020 – One-on-one Interviews

Fall 2020 / Winter 2021 – Data Analysis and Interview Coding

Spring / Summer 2021 – Finalizing Themes and Exhibiting Results

Note on panel captions: All captions that you see on the panels are based on participant reflections from the study itself, and have been de-identified and approved for sharing publicly in this exhibit by participants. Bolded text in the panel captions was done by the researchers, to draw attention to key components of participants’ reflections.