The Impact of Occupant Behaviour on Passive Environmental Design Strategies in Heritage Buildings: A Case Study of San Anton Palace, Malta

  • Amber Wismayer

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


There is growing interest in the field of energy performance of heritage buildings. Mediterranean vernacular architecture incorporates passive environmental design strategies that have been shown to improve comfort and subsequently reduce energy demand. However, research has generally targeted technical solutions for energy efficiency. The subject of occupant perceptions and behaviour in heritage buildings has been largely neglected, despite acknowledgement of its potential in reducing energy demand.

This research examined the framework for designing and assessing interventions on vernacular architecture in Malta. It sought to identify core determinants that may support the sustainable regeneration of built heritage. It aimed to determine whether the inherent potential of passive environmental design strategies in the case study of San Anton Palace in Malta are being compromised.

Adopting a mixed-method approach, primarily comprising qualitative techniques, the study encompassed workshops, a questionnaire, a focus group, and a case analysis. It evaluated the perceptions and attitudes of stakeholders and building occupants and users .

The results demonstrate that, in addressing local architectural heritage, focus has been placed on aesthetic preservation of the built fabric, rather than the building dynamics. Robust value is not attributed to passive strategies, inherent to this typology, as a functional environmental control mechanism improving comfort. Although these features can effectively contribute to improving occupant comfort, and hence reduced energy demand, their potential is not being effectively utilised

The findings highlight areas of priority in:
- the national systems and educational framework targeting public awareness and stakeholders’ knowledge base surrounding passive environmental design strategies in heritage buildings; and
- the regulatory framework designed to assess interventions on heritage buildings.

The main contributions to knowledge are summarised as follows:
1. The study provided an understanding of the inherent potential offered by passive environmental design strategies at San Anton Palace, Attard, highlighting the ways in which the potential is being compromised; and putting forward recommendations on how the potential may be maximised. In doing so, a pre-design intervention assessment methodology for large-scale, mixed-use heritage buildings has been developed and validated. The methodology:
- outlines pertinent parameters to be investigated;
- focuses on proactively and continuously engaging building occupants and users; and
- includes best practice guidelines on a user-centred approach to on-site environmental monitoring of in-use heritage buildings.
2. The study identified shortfalls in the existing infrastructure supporting the sustainable regeneration of built heritage in Malta, and developed recommendations to maximising the potential of passive environmental design strategies in providing comfort, thereby reducing energy demand. Having recognised the impact of occupant behaviour on this potential, the proposals were designed to be user-centric, focusing on:
- positive environmental behaviour;
- informed decision-making; and
- a supportive framework for the design and assessment of heritage building interventions.
Date of Award24 Jun 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorNick McCullen (Supervisor), Carolyn Hayles (Supervisor) & Sukumar Natarajan (Supervisor)

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