Theory, policy and practice perspectives from Royal Holloway

Low & Zero Carbon (LZC) Energy Technologies & New-Build Housing: The Importance of Including Householders

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Recent and forthcoming amendments to the Building Regulations in England and Wales will necessitate an increasing reliance on low and zero carbon (LZC) energy technologies in new homes to meet tougher carbon dioxide (CO2) emission standards; this will have an impact on those that design, build, regulate and live in new homes. Given the shifts in domestic energy technology configurations that this will lead to, it is prudent to consider how interactions between householders and LZC technology develop, as this will influence the success of this shift in terms of the CO2 reductions achieved. This has been the objective of my PhD research.

Some local authorities have adopted innovative planning policies, so providing an early test-bed for the accelerated introduction of LZC technology into new homes. One such local authority was selected as the study area for my research, and I conducted a borough-wide survey of new home occupants, followed by semi-structured householder interviews.
Using methodological and theoretical perspectives from science and technology studies (STS), the research found that LZC technology-householder associations are influenced by a myriad of factors (including structural, technological, experiential, social and institutional ones) and that their development should be viewed as an on-going process open to influence and change.
In this blogpost, I take a look at various aspects of the wider network that were found to influence the development of LZC technology-householder associations. These involve housing industry representatives who liaise with prospective occupants of new homes; those involved in positioning and installing LZC technology; and the institutional framework available to support the technology’s operation, maintenance and repair. These aspects are considered in turn.
In a significant proportion of cases, I found that housing industry representatives (involved in the sales/renting process) constituted an ineffective link in the wider network involved in the generation of lower carbon energy. This was for a number of reasons. Firstly, these representatives did not always draw attention to the LZC technology during the marketing and sales/renting process, which could be later misconstrued by some householders as signifying that the technology did not require their attention. Secondly, where these representatives did mention the technology, they often configured the householders as passive users with a non-existent or minimal role; this discouraged certain householders from becoming enrolled (to any significant degree) in the technology’s operation and maintenance. Thirdly, in a proportion of instances, the housing industry representatives did not effectively transfer adequate written information from the technology’s manufacturer or installer to the householder. A large proportion of householders wanted more or better information and advice than they had received, not just on how the technology worked but on how to operate it (potentially alongside conventional energy systems) to maximise the benefits gained.
Those involved in positioning and installing LZC technology into new homes also often constituted ineffective links in the wider network. Firstly, 58% of interviewees had experienced faulty technology. Such faults were attributed to causes such as the damage of parts during installation, the incorrect configuration of parts, the installation of incorrect parts and omitted parts. Secondly, the ways in which the technology and its associated devices were embedded in the home sometimes hindered householders’ use of it. For solar thermal hot water systems, for example, the visibility of the technology’s feedback monitor was found to have a determining effect (together with the intelligibility of the feedback) on the frequency with which feedback was sought, which in turn influenced the potential for householders to be shaped by such feedback. For technologies such as solar thermal hot water systems and mechanical ventilation with heat recovery installations, which complement rather than replace conventional energy systems, householders have a choice as to whether and how they interact with the technology. Therefore, greater consideration needs to be given to both the installation’s positioning and the provision of intelligible feedback on its performance in order to effectively enrol householders into productive associations.
The institutional framework available to support householders in operating, maintaining and repairing their LZC technology is still, I would argue, at an embryonic stage. Firstly, it was rare for householders to be proactively contacted by anyone in relation to their technology. Generally absent from the wider network were organisations that were proactively contacting and advising householders on how best to operate and maintain their technology; or marketing maintenance and repair services; or seeking to establish whether the technology was functioning as intended. Secondly, in the small number of cases where interviewees were seeking to set up maintenance contracts, they experienced difficulty in finding interested organisations. These findings highlight that there is an inadequate support framework in place for those that move in with unfamiliar LZC technology in new homes (whether it be from developers, installers, manufacturers, the local authority, Residents’ Associations or any other organisation) and there is scope for facilitating the domestication of LZC technologies further.
My research has revealed the state of LZC technology-householder relations within the selected population. The situation is a complex one with many shaping determinants (such as technological configurations, the processes of repair, interactions with feedback, levels of understanding, influential conversations and other pivotal events) and a range of outcomes, in terms of the nature of ensuing technology-householder associations. What, then, do these differences in associations amount to? One conclusion I draw is that the range of interactions observed between householders and their LZC technologies, together with the high prevalence of faulty installations, signifies that the change envisaged and driven by policy-makers is only partially underway. In other words, the potential quantity of lower carbon energy that these technologies could be delivering (if the quality of the installation was faultless and the technology was operated and maintained so as to optimise its performance) has yet to be realised in many cases.
Lise Andreassen
Lise completed her PhD in the Politics, Development & Sustainability Group, Department of Geography, RHUL in December 2014.

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