Keeping it real
The Centre is currently engaged in a European funded research project (acronym: SUSREF) looking at how to improve the energy and environmental performance of existing external walls, mainly on older properties. For the past two days I have been visiting houses in North Wales with solid stone external walls to assess their suitability for monitoring and eventual upgrading.
Each house poses unique technical problems that remind me why I enjoy doing research rooted in real problems. But even more than that I love meeting the people who live in these houses and hearing about how they operate them. Their attitudes and activities are far removed from the hypothetical, rationalised opinions of the engineers and building scientists I talk to most days. It’s refreshing. It’s also scary, because it highlights the huge task ahead of us in trying to reduce CO2 emissions.
In the living room of one home, with uninsulated external walls, there was a storage heater, a portable convector and a three-bar, electric, radiant heater. All of these had been used simultaneously during the recent cold spell. In another house, the occupants admitted they kept the coal fire lit all year round and also left an electric heater running continuously in the upstairs bedroom. In both houses the occupants had good reasons for adopting energy-intensive practices: the rooms would be unbearably cold without them.
It would be easy to rationalise the problem and simply say these people (never us) need to undergo “behaviour change,” as the current fashion would suggest, but that is to miss the point. Smokers need some “behaviour change” too, say many non-smokers. If we want to change energy-consuming habits (including ours) then we need to understand why we engage in current practices before developing attractive, alternative experiences that will encourage new habits. Complaining that others refuse to follow our plans is not good enough and unlikely to succeed.
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