Social Perspectives within Technically Efficient Environments: an Examination of the Social Impact on Sustainable Technology within the Home

НазваниеSocial Perspectives within Technically Efficient Environments: an Examination of the Social Impact on Sustainable Technology within the Home
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Social Perspectives within Technically Efficient Environments: an Examination of the Social Impact on Sustainable Technology within the Home

Phillipa Marsh

Department of Department of Architecture and Built Environment

The University of Nottingham

Sustainable practices are becoming common place within many sectors around the UK. However mainstream residential architecture presents a substantial challenge to sustainable practices, in the specific relationship between society and the environment. Housing is often identified as a core contributor to the UK energy concerns (Edwards & Hyett:2002; Department for Communities and Local Government:2010) and research organisations have thus keenly promoted sustainable technologies to address sustainable proficiency (Smith:2003). Governmental guidance has followed suit in focusing designers and engineers to implement sustainable technologies to achieve sustainability within housing.

Sustainable housing has formed a techno-rational construct, providing a ‘how it works’ or ‘can do’ approach, but is limited in the related social considerations (Roy & Herring:2007). However dwellings are rich and meaningful environments as well as technically efficient systems (Feenberg:1999). Whilst many housing developments look to achieve sustainability by incorporating technological indicators, the result has been shown to be inefficient if they lack social awareness or understanding of the potential occupants (Roy & Herring:2007; Guy & Shove:2000).

This paper argues that sustainable housing need to move beyond promoting showcase sustainable technologies, and move to incorporate a core sociological approach in everyday homes. It will provide a societal perspective on the environment in context to the domestic culture of the home, that does not dismiss the value of technologies, but more explore the ground between efficient technologies and their social context. Drawing from various multi-disciplinary perspectives, findings will consider sociological values of comfort, perception of efficiency, and adaptation and acceptance of technologies within the home.

Sustainable housing in the UK is already becoming common place, with projects moving from contemporary experimental concepts and emerging into the beginnings of mainstream architecture. Housing is one of the most complex design challenges facing the architect; bringing physical, social and cultural factors into one agenda and responsible for almost a third of the United Kingdom’s carbon emissions (Edwards & Hyett:2002). Housing appears to strive for the sustainable classification through the inclusion of appropriately efficient technologies. This is coupled with research organisations keening promoting technologies that address sustainable proficiency (Smith:2003) and governmental guidance focusing projects on implementing technologies as sustainable measurement; such as BREEAM & Code for Sustainable Housing standards. However consensus on best practice is, at this point, difficult to determine (Guy & Moore:2005, McLennan:2006). Papanek (1995) argues that sustainable design commonly misinterprets this relationship and is too complex an area to be viewed technically. Domestic architecture should consider ‘housing that creates sustainable communities in a resource efficient manner’ (Guy & Moore:2005).

This paper will examine the specific element of the social context to sustainable housing focused on energy efficiency in a UK context. Literary analysis will present findings drawn from various multi-disciplinary perspectives; the Philosophy of Technology, social studies of technology (SST), the Social Construction of Technology, architectural theory and philosophy. Literature was formulated into two categories; theoretical and practice-based, that contextualised sustainable housing as the key dynamic of investigation. As the results will discuss, the technical flavour appears heavily dominant and whilst ideas consider innovative living; in terms of efficient operation, and the limited social consideration of physical use and functionality. Results will show a more expansion standpoint to sustainable housing, considering the social dimension as complementary and not in competition with technology.

The emphasis towards technology

Technology is the single most important generator of design conscious. It is not what buildings are but what they do and how they do it that are the major concerns to sustainable development”

(Edwards & Hyett: 2002, p.158)

Within much of sustainable housing literature, the notion of improving buildings’ functions appears at the core of sustainable efficiency. Whilst this is important, it often curbs recognition of the housing environment and the presence of its social values. Sustainable literature reviewed here shows an underlining persistence to this standpoint; technology is the key driver to achieving energy efficiency. The technical image of sustainability is shown through the technical innovations seen to solve seemingly necessary problems with hard measurable ‘facts’ and measurable success (Bennetts et al:2003). This notion is common place within sustainable practice-based literature, as shown in one project description:

The design uses a high performance factory built panellised building fabric together with micro generation, mechanical ventilation and low-impact heating technologies, that help achieve significant reduction ... in carbon emissions” (Zero-carbon Hub:2009)

The technical image was evidenced in the majority of the nineteen housing case studies examined and replicates the techno-centric perspective outline by sustainable theory. The technology is often considered a neutral tool, providing technically efficient results by applying the tools to determine the situation and discover a range of answers (Bennetts et al: 2003). Measures are commonly presented in the literature as how they achieved efficiency; using technically efficient structural components, construction details or including appropriate appliances/devices, and proven successful through measureable factor; such as statistics, ratings, external reports, or abiding with predetermined conditions in regulatory codes. Sustainable literature that looks at other built environments often take a broader reference of technologies as technical systems with interconnecting parts, rather than simply tools, relaying a socio-technological perspective (Moore:2001:2010; Wines:2000). However housing discussions specifically focuses a more neutral deterministic emphasis of technology, thus limiting socialised values.

Whilst the technological emphasis appears dominant overall, practice-based literature evidenced a heavier lean to the techno-bias. The socio-technological dimension appeared occasionally restricted; as with the simulated approach to occupation in Balehaus project, reflecting the notion that occupants’ behaviour can be seen as ‘barriers’ to the energy efficiency (Guy & Shove: 2000). However in most practice-based literature, projects presented some occupational considerations; in post-occupancy evaluations and informal reflections. Projects focused on the technology primarily; in terms of their use and efficiency, where evaluations offered further validation that the technology was successful. Project examples, such as the Oxford Eco-house, highlight post-occupancy evaluations as a means of validation of the included energy efficient technologies. Whilst the house is a working liveable home for its occupants it is also a means of testing and proving the solar technology (Roaf et al:2004; Roaf:2007). Some projects did present an alternative view in examining occupants’ responses to energy efficient housing. The EoN house, part of the Creative Homes project at the University of Nottingham, endeavours to consider energy efficiency alongside occupational habits (EoN:2008). However the emphasis remains focuses on the technology, in understanding social behaviours in accordance to achieving efficient use of the technology, not understanding efficient behaviours in the house environment.

Technical-rational approaches can be seen to provide a ‘how it works’ or ‘can do’ perspective (Roy & Herring: 2007) but appear not to look beyond pragmatic achievement. Sustainable architecture may simply be providing ‘technological fixes’ with limited social considerations (Till:2009), and there is a danger that sustainable architectures become too reliant on illusory visions of technological salvation and should not be viewed as an isolated technical problem (Wines:2000). Whilst ‘fixes’ may provide some benefits, they may not provide all the answers (Guy & Shove:2000), presenting a one-sided technological approach to energy efficiency, and segregating social consideration as secondary.

The missing value of Home

The house is not a device but an extremely rich and meaningful life environment. Yet it has gradually become an elaborate concatenation of devices” (Feenburg:1999, xi).

As has been initially shown, the social dimension of energy efficiency in housing is primarily marginalised with the dominance of technology. As Feenberg (1999) highlights, the house is framed by valued social meanings and technological inclusion. Thus this paper will continue by identifying the missing social value of the home environment with reference to wider perspective that link to these notions. Guy & Shove (2000) identified, energy efficiency is a highly socialised dimension, with the additional associations evolved in the social values domestic environments. When contrasted to sustainable practice-based literature, notions of values and meanings are distinctly lacking and is neutralised to be related more to the resultant physical use. This physical function of housing as shelter and refuge, is extended in social literature; to offer psychological security, connotations of societal status, a communal or family base and a haven for privacy as a means to maintain well-being (Daly & Daly:1996).

The house is often described as home, homeliness or being-at-home, however ‘home’ and ‘house’ are different factors with different connotations. Mallett (2004) raises questions on the notions of home, to outline the broader definition that a home is: “conflated with or related to house, family, haven, self, gender and journeymaking” (Mallett:2004, p.62). Thus a home has much broader connotations than the physical and functionalised house referenced within sustainable works. ‘Home’ aligns the meanings of house and household, dwelling and refuge, ownership and affection, as a physical ‘place’ but also the more abstract sense of a ‘state of being’ (Rybczynski: 1987). Investigations on homelessness continued this consideration and identified a broad value of home:

The home constitutes physical, social, cultural and psychological space which, on the one hand, shapes our behaviours and, on the other, helps to form our perspective on the world.” (Daly & Daly: 1996, p.13)

As is shown above, the notion of home has a distinct social connection beyond physicality. In a broader overview, the socialised view of dwelling demonstrates a move beyond the physically inhabiting a space. A place is necessarily inhabited before it is literally constructed, and the intentions for being in a place can proceeds planning, construction and occupation (Heidegger:1971). Socialised values therefore extend beyond physicality, and the idealisation of home may exist without the actual home environment. Rapoport (1969) determines that a home can form as a symbol to ideals or desires, not just utility, or as a fixed space beyond function, as echoed by Douglas (1995).

Home can be linked to society as an inseparable element of our human identity to which being deprived of all homely aspects, means being deprived of humanity. (Havel, cited by Tucker:1994). Self and circumstance are inseparable in the home, where homes can be a reflection of self (Daly & Daly:1996). Whilst not specifically related to sustainable housing, Holl (2006) highlights the individualised notion of the housing environment and experiencing a home as a sense of intimacy and comfort. Here the experience within the home and relates these to developing values and associated meanings that relate the space to the individual involved. Thus the notion of social values could go beyond the actual physicality, and related more to the individualised or indirect connotations.

When put in view of adopting efficient technologies in the home, Rybczynski (1987) illustrates efficiency alongside comfort using Victorian inventions that aided ventilation. Whilst adoptions of such methods was adhoc, those incorporated were often inefficiency used or misused because they didn’t address the home comforts of the occupants; often used as planters or storage solutions (Rybczynski:1987). Thus efficiency in the home can link to the social dimension as a means of convenience that can evolve to understand behaviours in housing used. Harris (2009) echoes this idea, showing the impact of comfort on the adoption of cast iron stove technology in a historically US housing context. His work stresses that to be accepted into daily life, the technology needed to offer values of comfort in terms of convenience efficiency alongside other factors, such as economics.

Within sustainable literature these notions are initially appearing. Rochracher and Ornetzeder (2002) examined passive housing projects, highlighted occupants’ reinterpretation of energy efficient technologies to suit their own uses, subsequently causing developments to be deemed inefficient in energy use. When aligned with the wider socialised literatures, the interpretations consider physical use, behavioural impacts and psychological indicators (Rybczynski:1987; Crowley:2001; Edwards & Hyett:2002). Whilst Rochracher and Ornetzeder (2002) results showed similar findings to the misuse of Victorian ventilation systems, the interpretation of the research does not extend beyond understanding the physical use of the technologies; such as the sense of satisfaction or everyday rituals. Notions of intimacy and domesticity, the enjoyment by others, and efficiency are key elements of psychological, behavioural and physical comfort within a house (Rybczynski:1987).

A ‘social’ conclusion? - the importance of the social beyond being technically efficient

From this review, an apparent socio-technical disparity of extremes has been presented within sustainable housing literature. To one extent, sustainable literature appears to separate the technology from the social, considering these factors to be measurable by other means. To the other, projects review the social dimension, but from a limited perspective of occupants use and minimal behaviours in response to the technology. No approaches appear to centralise the social, technological and house environment and thus, as has been shown, minimise the understanding of these factors when applied to energy efficient housing. Additional social considerations have been indentified to impact on attachment and adoption of new practices, but as yet these are not presented in any depth within the current sustainable housing literature.

The focus on domestic housing highlights the importance of the social beyond being technically efficient, and identifies a more widespread consideration of social elements; comfort, acceptance and adoption of technology. The inherent interrelationship between social, technological, and place, needs to be considered to fully determine a clear understanding. By emphasising one over others appears to have clouded a picture; providing a view of a technical environment, whilst not understanding the other social constructs are influential within this network. Thus opening out to different logics of the typology of sustainable architecture to demonstrate opportunities beyond a singular ‘right’ approach (Guy & Farmer:2001). Additionally, this demonstrates the need for a wider interdisciplinary perspective, to which unconsidered social factors can be placed alongside the technological and place-oriented thinking.


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Crowley, J. (2001). The Invention of Comfort. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Daly, G. & Daly G., (1996). Homeless: policies, strategies, and lives on the street, Routledge.

Department of Communities and Local Government (2010). English Housing Survey: Headline Report 2008-2009, Communities & Local Government Publications.

Douglas, M. (1995). The idea of Home a kind of space, from Mack’s (1995) Home: A Place in the World, NYC Press.

Edwards, B. & Hyett,P. (2002). Rough guide to sustainability, London: RIBA.

EoN (2008) Project objectives, EoN, accessed online at:

Feenberg, A. (2005). Critical Theory of Technology: An Overview Tailoring Biotechnologies, Vol. 1, Issue 1, pp: 47-64.

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Feenberg , A. (1999). Questioning technology, London: Routledge.

Heidegger, M. (1971). Building, Dwelling, Thinking (A. Hofstadter, Trans.), Poetry, Language, Thought, New York: Harper & Row.

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