Photovoice Study | Investigating human factors in the evolv1 green office building

Sustainability Symbolism

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?

Some building features clearly function already as symbolic ‘green features’, including in particular the living green wall and solar panels. The building itself also functions as a symbol of ‘where we put our values’, however some citizens found the building unassuming and therefore less effective in clearly communicating a value of sustainability. The feeling emerged that for symbols to communicate effectively often requires ‘standing out’ – and that more visible sustainable building features operate better as symbols and are better able to encourage citizens’ own sustainability-related values and practices. By enhancing sustainable features with improved public education and communication, including hidden features, there is potential for them to function as more effective sustainability symbols. In contrast, the absence of something important in an environment was seen to possibly create a ‘negative symbol’ for sustainability (e.g., lack of greenery, lack of educational signage). Lastly, there was recognition that symbols of sustainability may not always be sustainable, raising concerns over symbolism versus actual sustainability.

Theme 1: Certain building features clearly function as symbolic ‘green features’

“To me, the living wall is an obvious symbol of green and reminds you that you’re in a green building, so that could affect practices and values.”

“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. 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.”

The building itself is a big symbol of where we put our values and has helped me change the conversation about what sustainability can be, by emphasizing that sustainability is a growing business priority and also smart business.”

Living wall in the evolv1 atrium
evolvGREEN logo on doors in evolvGREEN

“When I see this I think of a tulip. So we’re taking a feature in nature that’s beautiful and using it inside our office to add beauty. It’s biomimicry, a way of designing all sorts of solutions. I feel peaceful when I’m in nature, so when I’m in places that have features that show nature I feel the same way.”

Theme 2: Symbolic communication often requires ‘standing out’

For a feature to symbolically communicate, it often needs to be easily noticed or seen, and hence to ‘stand out’

“The green wall is definitely the biggest statement piece when I think of the building that makes it stand out from other places. It’s the green wall that really brings in the idea of fresh air and nature to the building.”

“The outdoor waste bins are not hidden and I don’t know if that was out of necessity or what, but I think it’s important that it’s out there in the open, like you can’t miss them.

“I would hope that the plans are to expand the EV chargers, because I think they will help accelerate action towards the future and are also symbolic of the building representing increasing community sustainability as well, not just what’s happening inside the building.”

“When you pass by and see all the solar panels, they’re clearly very prominent!”

I find the building very unassuming. Without the solar panels it kind of looks like any other building in the research park.”

Solar panels covering the evolv1 parking lot
Bare garden at evolv1

Theme 3: What is missing or invisible in an environment can unintentionally create a ‘negative symbol’ for sustainability

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. We know that plants can help with wellbeing, they remind you of sustainability – I would really like to see a community garden happen here.”

“There’s no explanation of what’s happening in the building, and no plaque that identifies key details about the building. Also, while there is secure tenant bike parking there are no accessible bike racks for visitors, which is a negative symbol and barrier for people who are trying to commute sustainably.”

Theme 4: Sustainability communication and education are distinct from but connected to sustainability symbolism

While sustainability communication and education are not the same as sustainability symbolism, they are connected and can often strengthen each other.

“The idea of there being a classroom within evolv1 is an important service that maybe gets overlooked a lot, like everyone wants to focus on the solar panels and the geothermal, but the amount of enthusiasm from the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment to provide a home for the Master of Climate Change program here is really exciting.”

“The solar thermal walls that keep the heat in or air cool could serve as a symbol, but because we don’t have the education around them they likely do not for most people.”

“To actually get that culture of sustainability there is a need for further education, so that people understand why things are done a certain way and so that everything that happens within the building promotes sustainability. Think full circle.”

The "Make Change" classroom in evolv1
Graphic visualization of evolv1. Credit: The Cora Group

Theme 5: Concern over symbolic representation of sustainability, versus actual sustainability

Features that symbolize sustainability are not necessarily actually fully sustainable – raising concerns over symbolic representation versus actual sustainability.

There are other ways to maintain security without leaving lights on and operating all night long when there’s not a single person in there.”

“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. You know, the two aren’t always tied. It does take extra energy and water to supply, and ongoing maintenance. I don’t know if what they do here is sustainable or not.

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.