Sally Blackwell is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Sustainability investigating the role of ‘middle actors’ in the socio-technical transition to better performing housing. Middle actors include people such as builders, tradespeople, home performance advisors or architects and designers. Sally has a background in developing and delivering programmes to improve the performance of existing housing and has working for central government, in the community sector and as a consultant. Her research is supported by an Energy Cultures scholarship.
The first time someone talked to me about home performance I remember being puzzled. I was trying to reconcile two terms that didn’t seem to belong together. Performance to me was something a symphony orchestra does, it certainly wasn’t something I associated with good quality, energy efficient housing – a topic I thought I knew a bit about.
My understanding of a home (or house) was of something physical, but passive, that I lived in. I knew a fair amount about energy efficiency in the housing sector and about human behaviour and decision-making in relation to energy efficiency. But what I hadn’t considered was that a house could ‘perform’.
Perform is a verb, which implies action. According to my trusty Oxford English Dictionary ‘to perform’ means:
Carry out, accomplish or fulfil (an action, task, or function)
And according to Wikipedia (source of all reputable knowledge), housing performance is:
a comprehensive whole-house approach to identifying and fixing comfort and energy efficiency problems in a home.
In my view this definition is useful but does not go far enough. I came up with the following working definition for the purposes of establishing a common understating amongst a group of collaborators.
Housing performance is the science and practice of building and improving homes to make them as comfortable, safe, resource efficient and durable as possible.
As a nation I think we are beginning to appreciate the value of warm, dry homes and thanks to initiatives like EECA’s Warm Up New Zealand and Energy Spot, and the hard work of many others – like community organisations, researchers and businesses – we are starting to understand and embrace energy efficiency. However, for the social and environmental problems associated with the quality of our housing to really be addressed we need to start thinking, and talking, about housing performance.
There are two important elements to the definitions I’ve used above that I’d like to point out.
Firstly, the approach is whole-of-house. That means thinking of the whole house as a system and moving beyond the idea that if we stick some insulation in the ceiling space the house will keep its occupants warm and dry at low cost. The truth is if you insulate the ceiling space it will slow some heat loss but you will lose relatively more heat through other still uninsulated building elements such as walls, floor and windows. To solve the problem of cold, damp houses we need to address the whole house.
Secondly, housing performance as defined above goes beyond energy efficiency by considering resource efficiency more broadly. Although energy is fundamental to the way a house performs (and it has the most influence on a household’s budget and health) there is a lot of other resource use associated with our houses that is over-looked by this framing of the problem: domestic water consumption and the use of materials in construction, maintenance and renovation of our homes has its own social and environmental costs.
Housing performance provides people like me – doing research and concerned with policy in the field – with a framework that acknowledges the house and its occupants as a system. For other less pointy-headed people it opens up the discussion beyond putting in some insulation and buying some energy efficient appliances. My interest in this topic has grown so much over the years my PhD topic is framed around housing performance.
There is a lot of talk at present about housing affordability and housing supply, as well there should be. But in order to really have a housing stock that fulfils the function so needed by New Zealand communities (to keep them healthy, warm, safe and not break the budget or the planet), we need to start talking about housing performance too.
How do you think your house ‘performs’?
Let me know in the comments below.
For independent information about how to improve the performance of your home check out the following links: