Energy conservation targets hit by notions of 'comfort'

June 22, 2004

Design professionals, their clients and end users have wide-ranging and ever-changing views of what constitutes a comfortable indoor environment, according to research funded by the ESRC at Lancaster University. "What counts as normal in the UK today is not considered 'normal' in the USA today, nor would it have been considered 'normal' in the UK even a decade or two ago," says Dr Elizabeth Shove, whose research is published as part of Social Science week. She adds that: "The implications of changing conventions of comfort have highly significant implications for energy conservation policy".

The researchers explain that people increasingly expect standardised temperatures and levels of ventilation, whether they are at work, in their cars or in public spaces like shopping centres. In the UK notions of the 'comfort zone' are expected to follow the trend in the US where 97 million homes already have air conditioning. In many buildings it is already impossible to open the windows for natural ventilation, and people increasingly expect to be able to wear the same clothes all year round. As in other European countries, the convention of adding extra layers of clothing in winter or taking a siesta in summer has become almost obsolete.

The 'Future Comforts' project, which was part of ESRC's Environment and Human Behaviour Programme, set out to examine changing conventions and technologies of indoor environmental management. The researchers were especially concerned to address the paradox that: "likely responses to global warming, such as greater reliance on air-conditioning, threaten to increase energy demand and CO2 emissions and exacerbate rather than mitigate the effects of climate change".

During the one-year project, the researchers interviewed architects, services engineers, building regulators, air-conditioning manufacturers, property developers and policy-makers. Most of the respondents agreed that 'comfort' was much more than a physiological condition, also being defined by cultural expectations and social conventions, including ideas about status and symbolism. In particular, air-conditioned buildings have come to be associated with quality and prestige.

Designers generally provide whatever type of indoor environment the client desires. Several respondents said they saw no 'need' for air-conditioning, but they thought that changing client and user expectations would drive the industry in that direction. Some thought that only strong regulation - a 'big stick' or a ban on domestic units - would halt the trend. Others suggested that changes throughout the design process would be needed as at present there were no 'brownie points' for environmental innovation or for initiating debate about the long-term sustainability of providing standardised conditions.

The research shows that comfortable and sustainable environments are a product of interactions between the multiple actors involved in the design process. Possibilities for the reconditioning of indoor environments are diverse, but the researchers suggest that design decisions made early on shape future expectations and lock people into certain comfort regimes for the life of the building.
For further information contact: Elizabeth Shove, Tel: 0-15-2459-4610, Email:

The Future Comforts website includes a bibliography of comfort research and further project papers:

Or Iain Stewart, Lesley Lilley or Becky Gammon at ESRC, on 0-179-341-3032-41-3119-41-3122.

Economic & Social Research Council

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