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Can anthropology help us understand deep energy renovation?

May 29 2020 | Written by G. Cerinšek |
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The understanding that “buildings consume energy” (and not people who live or work in them) is still predominant in the energy efficiency discourse. The concept of technical potential has been a fundamental tool for the energy efficiency industry and is based on engineering and economic calculations which are performed without concern for the probability of successful implementation. Within this arena, humans enter implicitly as generating energy service needs and as economic agents who evaluate and purchase goods with respect to the cost-effectiveness of their future expected energy savings. Behind it lies the classical “homo oeconomicus” model assuming that human beings are above all motivated by a calculus of costs and benefits – and it is the simplicity of the formula that makes the equation possible. If one were to admit that humans have complicated motivations, there would be too many factors to take into account, it would be impossible to properly wight them, and predictions on human behaviour could not be made. In this sense people are not seen as creators of improved energy use, but rather as disturbing factors or barriers to such improvements, “not being able to understand what is in their best (economic) interest”.

In reality, there are many domains of human life where minmax assumptions clearly do not work – and, as experienced in the TripleA-Reno project, deep energy renovation is for sure one of them. The priority should be given to interdisciplinary research on energy consumption, which conveys the knowledge, methods, and metrics of engineering, building physics, computer science, policy-making, and social science and humanities research altogether. In TripleA-Reno, anthropological theories and ethnographic inquiry as its “trademark” methodology enable us to dig into everyday realities of actual people – mainly owners, building occupants and other stakeholders involved in the renovation activities – to contribute towards a more holistic understanding of different contexts and processes of energy renovation.

The conventional and primary ethnographic method is the participant observation, where the researchers take part in the daily activities, rituals, interactions, and events of people as one of the means of learning the explicit and tacit aspects of their energy-related habits and life routines. Our ethnographers not only conduct open-ended interviews and focus groups but also implement video and sensory ethnography together with shadowing (i.e. following and observing individuals throughout a certain short period of time). Using all five senses, researchers observe and also participate in a wide range of daily activities that are both routine and extraordinary, along with the people who are the full participants in that context.

The analysis, interpretation and cross-comparison of ethnographic findings from different international case studies portray the complexity of renovation processes by considering everyday realities, motivations, and issues faced by all actors involved in the process. As a result, we are able to obtain deeper insights into affordability, acceptability and attractiveness of deep renovation from a “real-life” perspective. Above all, this kind of people-centred development – as introduced in TripleA-Reno project – aims to enable the provision of attractive and personalized information on energy use, indoor environment, health and lifestyle and, consequently, enhance deep energy renovations of existing European housing stock.

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