Greening existing homes - a herculean task says report

14 April 2010

A new joint Economic and Social Research Council and Technology Strategy Board publication highlights the need to focus on improving the energy efficiency of millions of buildings in Britain that will still be standing in 2050. How people use and 'misuse' buildings coincides with a report from the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee which calls on the government to make retrofitting existing buildings a priority in the Government's £535 million green stimulus plan.

The publication, which accompanies a seminar organised jointly with the Technology Strategy Board, says that twenty-seven per cent of UK carbon emissions come from domestic buildings - twice the emissions of commercial and public buildings and five times that of industrial buildings.

The Government has targets for all new homes to be zero carbon by 2016, but existing buildings will need to be radically refurbished if we are to meet national and international emissions targets, the report says. According to Prof Kevin Lomas, University of Loughborough, virtually all the 24 million existing buildings in the UK would need some attention to reduce their emissions by just 40 per cent. 'To complete the task in 40 years we would need to refurbish an entire city the size of Cambridge every month. If we assume that each intervention would take a team of trained workers two weeks, we would need 23,000 teams of people to work at this rate non-stop for the next 500 months,' he warns.

Large-scale refurbishment is only part of the answer. The effectiveness of energy-saving technologies, such as digital heat controls and meters, ultimately depends on human behaviour. Dr David Shipworth, University College, London, explains that the occupants of buildings do not always understand or use these devices in the way their designers intended.

'Our research shows that there is a surprisingly poor relationship between reported thermostat settings and recorded temperature in people's homes, and that timers on central heating systems tend to increase hours of heating system use rather than reduce them as policymakers have assumed.' He says that policymakers urgently need more research based on real energy use in real homes to test and support their ideas.

Prof Elizabeth Shove, University of Lancaster, says that it is vital to understand the notion of comfort, which is widely taken to be a 22ºC indoor climate all year round, irrespective of the weather outside. 'This is not set in stone,' she says. 'It is sometimes assumed that comfort is something basic, physiological or natural. However, people in different cultures and at different points in history have reported being comfortable at a very much wider range of temperatures than that which we take to be 'normal' in the UK today.'

Research has shown a huge variety in energy use in different homes with a relatively small number of households consuming very large amounts of energy. But the publication stresses that it is a mistake to assume that people deliberately squander electricity or hot water. 'High-energy consumption is more likely to be the result of a series of benign lifestyle decisions, like buying a plasma screen TV or taking up a particular hobby,' says Prof Kevin Lomas.

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Notes for editors

  1. How people use and 'misuse' buildings" is part of the ESRC Public Policy Seminar Series. We encourage you to make use of these valuable resources, so hard copies are free and available on request. If you would like to receive a free copy of How people use and 'misuse' buildings' publication please email
  2. The ESRC Public Policy Seminar Series aim to bring the best social science concepts and evidence into the policy arena and stimulate a discussion of how in the light of these insights, policy can be developed. The goal is to encourage evidence-based policy through an exchange between researchers and policymakers. For forthcoming Public policy seminars.
  3. The Technology Strategy Board is a business-led executive non-departmental public body, established by the government. Its mission is to promote and support research into, and development and exploitation of, technology and innovation for the benefit of UK business, in order to increase economic growth and improve the quality of life. It is sponsored by the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS).
  4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.