Low carbon housing – a public reckoning?

low carbon housing

How do expert visions for low carbon housing square with public perceptions of how we will live in the future?

The idea that we need to evolve a less energy-intensive society in order to avoid irrevocable changes to the environment is slowly permeating to all areas of society. The desire to use less energy and be less wasteful is becoming more mainstream and established.

When it comes to laying out exactly how a more low carbon society will be realised however, there are marked gaps between policymakers’, experts’ and the general public’s visions of how the future will look. Professor Nick Pidgeon’s team – part of the Centre for Industrial Materials, Energy and Products (CIE-MAP) Centre – based at the University of Cardiff investigate this disputed territory between the available technology, government policy and public perceptions about what is needed for us to make the switch to a greener nation.

Housing technology and the ‘imagined public’

Research by Catherine Cherry, Christina Hopfe, Brian MacGillivray and Nick Pidgeon looks at how new forms of high-tech housing design (such Passivhaus and Smart Homes) tend to ‘work around’ the actual occupants, aiming to reduce energy demand via the technical features of the building alone. And the ‘imagined publics’ that experts envisage living in their future housing developments do not, it seems, tally with the real public that will end up there. The researchers argue that working with the public and understanding their attitudes to future housing would yield more successful results and avoid problems implementing the technology.

‘Socio-technical imaginaries’

Housing is a major area the government need to address in trying to meet the 2008 climate change act goals for reducing CO2 emissions in the UK.

The researchers note (in their paper Homes as machines: Exploring expert and public imaginaries of low carbon housing futures in the United Kingdom) that scientists and policymakers planning future housing, construct ‘socio-technical imaginaries’ or visions of what the next decades could look like by combining both technological and social projections.

The public though, are often portrayed as a barrier to get around rather than an active participant in making the vision work. Equally though, portraying the public as entirely rational and idealised in terms of their domestic energy-conserving behaviour could also be misleading.

Research methods

Substantial interviews with a diverse range of experts in housing, policy, architecture, academia, sustainability and campaigning/lobbying were carried out by the research team. They also talked to five focus groups of members of pre-existing community groups (post graduate students; a farming community; a church group; an inner-city community group; and an environmental group) living in a wide range of accommodation types to catch the ‘public’ angle. These latter groups were given photos, videos and information on types of low-carbon housing and then they participated in discussions about their thoughts on them.

What the experts thought

The expert discussions led to more evidence of perceptions of the public as obstructive to low-carbon homes because of aesthetic or self-interested financial reasons. Experts felt that new homes had to look as much like traditional homes as possible to encourage take-up, meaning that changes were being made ‘around’ the public rather than with them.

When looking at Passivhaus technology, many experts felt that the occupants may not be relied upon to operate and live in the houses ‘correctly’ to optimise the energy demand reduction potential. Similarly, with Smart Homes, some experts felt that the meters and controls for low carbon housing would need to be operated as automatically as possible to maximise energy saving, rather than relying on the occupants’ ability to manage them effectively.

The public’s perceptions of low carbon housing

The research team’s discussions with the public focus groups found the groups more open to change than the experts may have envisioned. For example, few people were against the absence of radiators in a PassivHaus. In terms of Smart Homes, the focus groups generally felt that they would like to able to control their devices (heating controls, fridges etc.) themselves and were suspicious of automated devices that they had less or no control over.

The focus group discussions threw up a lot interesting data and anecdotes about consumers’ attitudes to renewable energy devices, retrofitting properties and new low-carbon housing (for full details see the paper). A lot of legitimate fears were expressed about the safety and reliability of new technology. In particular, the idea of an electric door made consumers worried that they would not be able to get in and out in emergencies. Another interesting point raised was that of individuality. Focus groups felt that the expert visions of low-carbon houses were too uniform and disregarded how people modify their houses and their lifestyles according to personal taste. Some felt that the houses were aimed at particular lifestyles or demographics.

The research team’s findings broadly echoed other research data which suggests that experts aimed to maintain current lifestyle conditions in new houses to ‘work around’ the public rather than looking more positively at public aptitudes to make lifestyle changes to reduce energy use. The discussions with the public focus groups led to a more nuanced view of people’s concerns about future housing beyond the perceived ‘aesthetics, cost and hassle’ factors that experts thought were the main barriers to innovation.

Taking the socio-technical approach

Overall the research highlights the overarching point present across much of our end use energy demand research. Namely that a social and technical approach is needed to address the challenges of building a more low-carbon society. A focus purely on the technology – for example of building new homes – without understanding the social aspect of the people that will inhabit them, will likely lead to a less successful outcome than if the social angle were more thoroughly researched and understood.


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