Dr Charlie WilsonMany of us take for granted the energy-using routines and rhythms of domestic life. Yet cleaning and cooking, washing and staying warm, can be both a physical and a financial challenge for households with elderly or disabled members, or for those suffering ill health.

A potential solution is to improve the thermal efficiency and comfort of these homes by insulating, draught proofing, and upgrading heating systems. But research published recently found that vulnerable households are put off the flagship Green Deal and ECO schemes designed to encourage energy efficient renovations. Why?

Focus groups conducted by National Energy Action on behalf of the Department of Energy and Climate Change found significant concerns among older people and those with disabilities and long-term health problems. These included worries about heating their homes, taking on further debts or financial commitments in the current financial climate, and the complexities of the ECO.

The Green Deal and ECO are marketed as opportunities for households to carry out a discrete set of efficiency-improving changes to their homes. The energy saving and comfort benefits from this type of renovations are reasons enough for going ahead, now property-linked finance or grants are available. Or so we are told.

But this misses an important part of the story which lies hidden in plain sight. To renovate is to change not just the physical structure of a house, but also the social, practical and emotional characteristics of a home.

Researchers based at the University of East Anglia and funded by the UK Energy Research Centre have been investigating why households decide to carry out energy-efficient renovations. It’s not because they want to save money or energy.  Instead, their motivations are domestic; so if they have run out of space at home, or if their home no longer reflects who they are and how they want to be seen, then they will take the plunge.

Of crucial importance here is that households who face or are anticipating facing physical difficulties with domestic life are also more likely to plan renovations. In all cases, making changes to the home is an adaptive response to imbalance, tension or dissatisfaction with current domestic arrangements. Energy efficiency measures may well then become part of this adaptive response. But they’re rarely the be all and end all.

This has important implications for energy efficiency schemes like the Green Deal. Marketed as a discrete opportunity for efficiency improvements, the Green Deal misunderstands why and how households decide to make changes to their homes. But imagine instead if Green Deal-financed measures were integrated into a whole-home revamp for households with particular physical needs. Access, mobility, security, and efficiency could be addressed and improved as a coherent whole. And the energy-related measures, repaid through energy bills, would impose no additional cost.

This kind of service offering corresponds much better with the reasons why households decide to renovate – in this case, as an adaptive response to the physical challenges of old age or ill health. The Green Deal market can supply these kind of services, though this will need innovative thinking and new business relationships among service providers, including the energy companies, contractors and councils which have long thought of efficiency as a discrete energy-related aim.

This is an exciting prospect, and one which means that – for now – the jury on the Green Deal should remain out.

Dr. Charlie Wilson is a Lecturer in Energy and Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia.