Charlie WilsonWhat comes to mind when you read the word ‘home’? A feeling? A sense of place? An aesthetic? Switching off, a to do list, family, work, goings on, peace and quiet, mayhem, order, clutter, tidiness, gadgets, possessions, relaxing, stress, safety, tensions … ?

The list could go on and on, and likely as not you’ll have your own associations to add. What homes mean to their occupants varies enormously, but in all cases, it’s likely to be complex.

So it follows that deciding to make major structural changes to our homes, often costing thousands if not tens of thousands of pounds, will similarly be complex, influenced by all sorts of different considerations. Right?

Well, not according to most of the policy and market activity to support and deliver energy efficient renovations. Look at how the government communicates policies like the Green Deal or how service providers market their insulation or efficient window products.

You’ll generally find the home represented as a set of financial outgoings (energy bills) and useful services (thermal comfort) that you are motivated to improve upon by investing in efficiency measures. So renovating your home is more like buying a flight, choosing a DVD player, or even deciding where to get a cup of coffee … it’s a fairly standardised product or service so you want to minimize costs and associated hassle, and get value for money.

So, have you renovated energy efficiently? If you’re a fairly typical UK household, then probably a bit, but not nearly as much as you could do, nor as much as financial common sense would dictate. Keep following the dominant thinking about energy efficient renovations, and you’ll also know the reasons why.

Barriers.

Your motivations to save on energy bills, make your home more (thermally) comfortable, and maybe even reduce your carbon emissions, are like a strong and wide river flowing downhill. But a large dam is blocking its advance. This is the barrier of upfront costs.

Smaller dams reinforce it and further restrict the river. Access to capital, distrust in contractors, disruption to home life, and uncertainty about how long you might stay in your home all mean that your motivations to renovate don’t actually lead to renovations.

This ‘motivations and barriers’ framing of the problem is clear and understandable. It directly informs policies like the Green Deal designed to remove the cost and trust barriers. And it makes sense to us in that it shows us (with our homeowner hats on) as being broadly rational or motivated by beneficial outcomes.

It’s also largely wrong, because it doesn’t relate to how we think about homes. Renovating, after all, is the process of making major, often irreversible changes to our homes, those complex and deeply personal places where we live.

The VERD project at the University of East Anglia has been looking for the last two years at the whys and wherefores of home renovations: not just energy efficiency, but also what we call ‘amenity’ renovations such as a kitchen remodelling, a loft or garage conversion, or a new bathroom. Our research has found almost no evidence that efficiency is regarded differently from amenity renovations.

In all cases, renovation decisions begin as an adaptive response to tensions, imbalances or issues at home that are created by certain conditions of domestic life. Households are more likely to be considering renovations if they face competing commitments in how to use available space at home, if they face or expect to face physical issues with home life, if they see a mismatch between their home and their vision for an ideal living space,or if they find ideas and inspiration for the home from external sources.

In about one in four cases, households decide to renovate because they more or less have to. The boiler breaks down, a window or door gets damaged, the family can no longer fit in the kitchen to eat. These ‘triggers’ precipitate action.

Renovating as a response to imbalances in certain conditions of domestic life or as a response to to external triggers both explain why we decide to renovate. This holds for both efficiency and amenity renovations.

Subsequent decisions to renovate are drawn out processes, often stretching on for many months if not years. They’re cumulatively reinforced, with intentions strengthening, plans changing, information being processed, options being explored … and eventually, in some cases, a renovation being carried out, a renovation that is far more likely to involve changes to the amenity features of a home. If efficiency measures are involved, they are four times as likely to be done together with amenity measures than to be done alone.

In other words, efficiency renovations are not distinctive, and it is a mistake to treat them as such. Efficiency renovations are as much about changing a home as any other kind of home renovation. So action on efficiency needs to start from a clear understanding of homes and what they mean to their owners and occupants. This view of renovation decisions – based on the data and analysis of the VERD project team – is clearly very different from the received wisdom.

Rendering renovators as cost-savers or comfort-improvers with motivations blocked by cost and other barriers is unhelpfully simplistic. It also misses a vast unexploited opportunity to think about and deliver energy efficiency in to homes. Rather than relying exclusively on a specialist efficiency industry backed by dedicated policy institutions, we should be talking to and working with the home improvement industry at large: the kitchen installers, the loft converters, and the conservatory builders on whom homeowners up and down the country are willingly and happily spending their money.

Dr. Charlie Wilson will be launching the findings of the VERD Project at a free morning event on Wednesday 16 October at Church House Conference Centre in London. Details available here: www.ukerc.ac.uk/support/article3331-Research-Insights-on-Energy-Efficient-Renovation-Decisions-A-Half-Day-Briefing-Event

Read the full report at www.tyndall.ac.uk/renovation-decisions.

Dr Charlie Wilson is a Lecturer in the School of Environmental Sciences at UEA and is part of the team responsible for the VERD project, which stands for Value propositions for Energy efficient Renovation Decisions. VERD is a research project funded by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) in collaboration with B&Q, Adapt Commercial, and Broadland District Council.

Advertisements