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of social practices, including use of mundane technologies in the home (eg, a shower and ... leave the main boiler on even when it is sunny and solar panels are ...

Environment and Planning A 2013, volume 45, pages 238 – 243



Close encounters of the third kind: social housing residents and new technologies for sustainability Carbon emissions from the residential sector are seen as a major barrier to achieving carbon dioxide reduction targets (Sauter and Watson, 2007). The UK domestic carbon emissions are 29.4% (DECC, 2011) and residential energy consumption is 28.4% of total energy consumption (BERR, 2008). To tackle such high figures by transforming domestic consumption, in 2006 the UK government launched the Code for Sustainable Homes—a policy to build zero-carbon sustainable homes—as one of the methods to attempt to achieve reduction in carbon emissions and energy demand. That is, all new-built houses in the UK will be zero carbon by 2016 against the 2006 Building Regulations Part L through energy efficiency (eg, using zero-carbon and low-carbon technologies, such as solar thermal panels, biomass boilers, and combined heat and power systems, to reduce the amount of energy taken from the national grid) (DCLG, 2006). As current policy recommends the installation of ‘sustainable’ technologies in the home to meet government targets, housing providers adopt approaches that encourage ‘correct’ use of technology by providing information to users (eg, instruction manuals). These approaches, however, have weaknesses. First, there is a clear underlying assumption that solutions to environmental problems are located within the sustainable technologies. Here, technologies are often held as ‘magic bullets’ to environmental problems (Shove, 2004). Yet, sustainable technologies in and of themselves do not produce sustainable effects unless they are consumed in ways conducive to achieving these outcomes, which, we argue, have potentially profound consequences for the shape and form of existing cultural practices. Indeed, the consumption of energy is achieved through the social and material infrastructures through which energy is provided (Ozaki et al, 2012; Spaargaren, 2011). Second, this way of thinking positions consumers as rational beings who ‘choose’ to behave in a ‘greener’ fashion through the provision of greater information about technology use, and “locate significant responsibility for emissions with individuals” (Webb, 2012, page 113). In this view, it is up to individuals to take action. As Shove (2010) argues, users of technologies are characterised as rational beings whose behaviour is governed by informed choice. The concept of consumer choice is singled out by Shove as problematic, because this rational-behaviour model assumes environmental damage is a consequence of individual action of ‘not to choose’. There are many reasons why we do not (or choose not to) use provided technologies. We agree with researchers who put forward the discussion that the rational-choice behaviour approaches lack consideration of social practices, including use of mundane technologies in the home (eg, a shower and a cooker), as we all use those ordinary technologies as part of our energy consumption activities (eg, Guy, 2006; Shove 2004; Southerton, et al, 2004; Spaargaren, 2011; Wilhite, 2004; 2008). Such reliance on individual behavioural changes for societal solutions (Webb, 2012, page 122) fails to recognise the way we live our everyday lives in our own homes. In this commentary we consider why people do not use technologies that are installed into their homes to battle against energy and environmental crisis, and thus reflect on how effective current technology-driven policies are in their attempts to change consumer practices. Recently we have conducted face-to-face interviews with people who have moved into a newly developed social housing scheme in southeast London as part of a larger longitudinal research project. Residents’ narratives from our early data-collection phase have provided us



with insights about their experience of encountering and living with new technologies; and we wish to share those. These residents have just moved from a nearby estate that is condemned as part of a local regeneration programme. The condemned housing estate was made up of tower blocks and dated back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. Heating was delivered through an air ventilation system. There was no thermostat; it could either be turned on or off according to demand. Residents were not billed individually for the consumption of water, gas, and electricity, but paid a fixed amount each month that was included as part of their rent. Their new homes are, on the other hand, three-storey terraced houses with radiators with a thermostat to control room temperature, and a solar water heating system and heat recovery ventilation system. Residents are billed individually according to the amount of water, gas, and electricity they use. The new housing estate therefore presents a radically different scenario to residents in terms of technologies installed to provide and regulate hot water and heating, and how they pay for their energy consumption. Given this context, our study is an ideal case to reflect on whether the key to energy reduction is simply a matter of ‘choosing’ to reduce consumption through cost incentives, as policy would have us believe. Residents experience new technologies with uncertainty

The move from air ventilation to central heating is significant, or even overwhelming, for residents’ understanding of technologies, and consequently, how they manage heating provision. One resident said to us, “[heating is provided by] radiators… you can control it from the boiler, but I’ve never had a boiler, never had radiators, so to me it was completely and utterly new.” She was totally confused about the new heating system, a technology commonly perceived as ‘standard’ these days. A couple, who are a plumber and his wife, were worried about their elderly neighbours who had no idea how those technologies work because they never encountered them before. Changes from the previous system to the new one are meant to be a vehicle to facilitate more sustainable energy consumption. In reality, however, residents are uncertain about the new technology and hesitant about using it. Uncertainties surrounding new technologies can result in different kinds of use. Heat recovery ventilation, one of the sustainable technologies installed to meet the Code for Sustainability standard, is designed to improve the indoor climate and make the house energy efficient by controlling the inbound and outbound air flow: residents do not have to open windows to get fresh air. According to a resident, however, “If it’s permanently on, it’s not cost effective. And, you are running, you are wasting electricity as you’re switching it on … . If I’m cooking, I switch it on, when we have our bath in the morning, as soon as we finish, we switch it on.” Here, the potential environmental effects of installing heat recovery ventilation fall short of being achieved. The solar water heating system is a similar story. Some residents leave the main boiler on even when it is sunny and solar panels are producing hot water, not benefitting from free hot water. Others simply do not believe that they can get free hot water and leave the boiler on. These actions negate the potential benefits of the technology. But should the responsibility for achieving sustainable effects be placed squarely on residents’ shoulders? We believe not. The housing provider has installed these technologies following policy recommendation. More often than not, this ticks a box as far as they are concerned, as they meet the planning criteria for building a sustainable home. By building in the potential for energy and carbon reduction into the design of technologies manufacturers are well intentioned, but the problem remains that residents’ diverse practices are rarely factored into the equation. We found that some residents are unaware of how the technologies work and what benefits they can potentially bring. Others are aware of how the technologies work, yet, however well intentioned, carry on with their established routines, which may involve twice-daily bathing, for instance. This is despite residents having moved from the previous estate where they paid only a fixed amount for utilities, and being keen to reduce their



utility costs. We find that a model of rational-choice that posits financial incentives to shape ‘pro-environmental behaviour’ fails to live up to its promise. The issue remains that routine practices are pervasive; it is not solely a matter of choosing to save money and reduce energy consumption. Existing practices are prioritised

The use of sustainable and mundane technologies is closely tied to people’s daily routines (eg, Guy, 2006; Shove, 2004; Southerton et al, 2004; Spaargaren, 2011; Wilhite, 2004; 2008). Residents do claim that they attempt to regulate their practices in order to maximise their benefits. But this effort does not always translate into routine practice. One resident, for instance, spoke of how he became more careful about the quantity of water he consumed because of individual billing. Yet, the twice-daily bathing routines by the family continued with moving into the new housing estate. He expressed his worries over the cost of utilities: “you have to pay for water … so we have to watch how, we use our water … to bathe, to cook … you can’t leave the tap running … the bill would be really quite high.” Nevertheless, he also told us how resource-intensive practices, such as showering and bathing, had changed little since moving into the new home. Their daily routines continued as ‘normal’: “there are certain things that we do … you’d sort of commute and commuting back sometimes I’d be really sweating from travel. So I’d take a shower, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Sometimes the children do get bathed in the evening as well [as the morning] … in order to have a good sleep. So we’re still doing those things.” Bathing for this resident is not just about being clean from a busy day commuting to work, but feeling relaxed, and aiding a restful sleep. Another household from China was concerned about cooking smells. They did not experience the ventilation system as effective in removing smells from cooking. They also did not want to change their cooking practice, so they developed a strategy: installing an extractor with an air duct, which directs the air out of the kitchen through an ‘open’ window (see figure 1): “they [the housing association who manages the housing scheme] do not let us fit the hose [duct] because that’s the new built house. When I need to use [the extractor], I need to open the window and then put [the duct] outside … . That’s because the Chinese [cooking] is no good because in the kitchen we cook everything … oil sticks in, with the walls. So I need to use this one. … This one we, my husband put that here.” This family are keen to maintain their existing practices of cooking (including ingredients and techniques) and came up with their own way of removing food smells by appropriating additional technology (an air duct) to create a ventilation system that ‘does the job’. As a result, they can still eat their traditional food. Cultural differences in cooking practice, however, challenge the intended effect of the installed ventilation system. This household devised their own way

Figure 1. [In colour online.] Installed extractor and air duct.



of managing ventilation and adapted their material surroundings so that they can continue with their cooking practices. Indeed, such cultural practices play an important role in shaping everyday practices and thus how energy is consumed. Although the cost of utilities is often cited as an important factor in how residents think about their attempts to reduce energy use (eg, NHBC Foundation, 2008), we observed that residents’ routines were embedded in the dynamics of their everyday life. Policy attempts to encourage so-called pro-environmental behaviour through cost-based incentives founded on a rational-choice model are failing. Clearly, just because residents have new technologies and a new billing system, this does not simply lead to changes in behaviour and therefore has direct consequences for meeting environmental targets. It is also misleading to think that technology can solve environmental problems on its own. Simply installing sustainable technologies in residents’ homes does not guarantee environmentally beneficial effects. This is even more apparent when we look at how people carry out their activities and manage their daily lives. Policy needs to appreciate this bigger picture of how people carry out their cultural and social practices instead of isolating these elements that make up everyday life from ideas about energy consumption and demand. Consumer practices are not solely determined by cost and technologies. A practice is part of daily management

Actors involved in energy governance, such as housing associations, do try to address consumers’ everyday activities by giving advice about ‘how to live in’ the home and use mundane technologies, such as the shower and washing machine. For instance, the housing association instructs residents to follow Thames Water’s web-based advice to keep water usage down in the housing scheme. Thames Water is the UK’s largest water and wastewater services company. On the website they offer a number of ‘water-saving tips’, such as to take a shower only for four minutes, to skip the car wash (“A dirty car shows you’re doing your bit to save water. Be proud to be dirty”), to fully load the washing machine, and to flush the toilet only when necessary.(1) But do people follow this advice? The short answer is no. Using water is closely tied to the management of their daily lives where standardised advice about usage does not tally with the practicalities of how water is consumed. Residents simply said that they do the laundry as and when they needed, as doing the laundry is incorporated into the scheduling of daily agendas: that is, ‘fitting it in’ when there is an opportunity in the day to do so. The need to manage increasingly hectic schedules impacts on the frequency with which the washing machine is used, and therefore water and electricity consumption. For one family, doing frequent washes is wrapped up in trying to capitalise on excess energy generated by their boiler to dry clothing; they do not want the excess heat to go to waste. This, in turn, undermines efforts by utilities providers, policy makers, and social housing associations alike: “everyone can use the washing machine… when my daughter feels, well, she should do … washing now, she take[s] it and do[es] it, and when I see it, I do it, like my husband … . We need to do the washing … because we have the room [boiler room] to hang it up … . Otherwise we waste energy. We don’t want to let the boiler room be empty. We always want to hang up something.” Another resident spoke about how she organised separate washes according to the colour of her family’s clothes: “If I don’t do it on the Wednesday then I do maybe like four loads on the Saturday. Yes, because of the different colours … . And I only have one washing machine, so once I finish doing the jeans, and then I put another load [on], which might be red, or another load, which might be white.” Here, the types of clothing that family members wear and the method of organising the clothes impact on the frequency with which the washing gets done. (1)

Thames Water website,



Residents cannot accommodate the instructions given by the housing association on how to live in their own homes. Such instructions overlook important and persistent social practices and cultural meanings within which technologies are situated and used (see Shove, 2010). After all, we all live our lives in a socioculturally inflected way. The strategies adopted by utility companies and the housing association to try to intervene in resident practices promote standardised and universal ideas about what constitutes ‘normal’ practice through the advice offered about ‘correct use’ of technologies. Resident practices are pushed to the sidelines, but practices are diverse and idiosyncratic and reflect varied meanings and family dynamics. Concluding remarks

We began this paper asking ‘why do residents not use the installed new technologies in ways imagined by policy makers?’ and ‘how effective is the current technology-driven strategy promoted by policy to try and change consumption practices?’ We believe that by addressing the first question we can answer the second. As we found, the installed sustainable technologies are new to residents and there exists a certain degree of uncertainty about how to use the technology and the potential financial and environmental benefits people can potentially gleam from them. But what has transpired is a much fuller picture of how habitual and routine practices, such as showering and doing the laundry, are closely connected and interwoven into their everyday lives. In this light, approaches employed by policy actors to change residents’ behaviour that rely on ‘informed choice’ become fairly redundant. Using differing strategies, residents adapt their practices as well as their living environments to the technologies, with diverse implications for policy’s intended outcomes. Clearly, to ‘work’ in ways imagined by policy makers, the sustainable technologies require ‘compromises’ in how residents conduct their practices and manage their daily schedules, which place unrealistic demands on residents to change existing practices, such as cooking, which are inflected with cultural significance. These potential changes to residents’ lives highlight the possible ways in which sustainable technologies can significantly alter cultural forms, such as practices and related meanings. Instead of solely focusing on technologies and blaming individuals for not choosing to use them, current policies can help inform environmental efforts by reflecting on the forms of different households and their practices (eg, extended families, divergent cultural knowledge and activities), focusing on how these households live their lives and consume energy and resources in their homes. In this regard, current sociological and anthropological work (eg, Guy, 2006; Shove, 2004; Southerton et al, 2004; Spaargaren, 2011; Wilhite, 2004; 2008) has convincingly shown how mundane technologies (eg, shower, fridge) within the home constitute social practices, which in turn shape energy consumption. Building on this, we argue that policy needs to reformulate its ‘problem’ by adopting greater reflexivity to consider its own role. Policy strategists need to consider how environmental policy and affiliated sustainable technologies can intervene in and shape the practices of residents whose ‘behaviours’ are singled out as crucial to effecting carbon reduction targets. This not just a matter of promoting the potentially ‘positive’ effects of sustainable technologies on domestic practices, but, crucially, reflecting on its own role in asserting normative assumptions about intended use, which come hand in hand with installing sustainable technologies in the home—a site that is an interface between all sorts of complex interactions between family members, utility companies, and policy makers. By highlighting policy’s part in shaping energy consumption, it no longer becomes just a matter of singling out residents as solely responsible for current environmental ‘problems’, but a distributed and shared challenge. Ritsuko Ozaki, Isabel Shaw Imperial College Business School, Imperial College London



References BERR, 2008 Energy Consumption in the United Kingdom: Overall Data Tables 2008 Update URN09/452, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, London DCLG, 2006 Code for Sustainable Homes: A Step-change in Sustainable Home Building Practice Department for Communities and Local Government, London DECC, 2011 2009 Final UK GHG Emissions Data Department for Energy and Climate Change, London Guy S, 2006, “Designing urban knowledge: competing perspectives on energy and buildings” Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 24 645–659 NHBC Foundation, 2008, “Zero carbon: what does it mean to homeowners and housebuilders?”, NHBC Foundation, Amersham, Bucks Ozaki R, Shaw I, Dodgson M, 2012, “The co-production of ‘sustainability’: negotiated practices and the Prius” Science, Technology, and Human Values”, OnLine First, DOI 10.1177/0162243912441029

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