Guest Blog: A residents perspective of living well in low carbon homes: Dr Fiona Shirani
What residents in low carbon homes think of their upgrades
The UK government has set targets to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. Changes to buildings will play an important part in meeting these targets, particularly through moves to low carbon heating systems. This will involve both making changes to existing homes and building new low carbon homes. One type of low carbon homes are ‘Active Homes’, which are highly energy efficient, and can produce and store renewable energy. Because of this, Active Home developers are hopeful that these homes may also be able to address fuel poverty, and improve resident health and wellbeing, as well as address decarbonisation goals. To understand whether Active Homes can deliver these benefits, it is important to hear from the people who live in them.
Living Well in Low Carbon Homes was a research project undertaken by social scientists from Cardiff University and was part of the Active Building Centre Research Programme. Our research involved speaking to Active Home residents at different points in time; first before they moved in, to discuss their reasons for moving and expectations of the homes, second after their first couple of months in the homes and third after a year of occupancy. This extended time perspective is important because living in a home with solar energy generation can mean very different experiences of energy (and related bills) across different seasons and weather conditions. Our social science research has played an important role in understanding resident experiences, identifying things that have worked well and areas for improvement, which can help to inform future housing developments.
37 Active Home residents from three different developments in South Wales took part in our research. The sample included both people purchasing their own homes and social housing tenants. The homes people moved to varied from one-bedroom flats to four-bedroom detached houses. All homes had electric heating, solar panels, a battery to store the energy generated and electric vehicle charging capacity. However, across the sites the homes differed in terms of design, location and materials. This gives us insight into a range of Active Home developments.
Our research has identified a number of points relating to resident experience, including:
It takes time for residents to learn about their Active Homes, with several describing themselves as ‘still learning’ after 12 months of occupancy. In particular, learning to use electric heating and hot water systems, which generally operate over longer periods than the gas central heating systems many were used to, took a while to adjust to.
Related to this learning process, all participants wanted more information about their homes and technologies. Whilst residents might understand, or be given information about, individual technologies, our participants wanted to know about how the different elements of their homes (such as heating and ventilation systems) interrelate. Participants valued the opportunity to ask questions and seek guidance about their homes in sites where there were ongoing relationships between developers and residents. Participants also mentioned sharing information with their neighbours about how their homes worked. This informal information exchange was an important part of the Active Home experience for many.
Many residents expressed a willingness to do things differently (such as change the timing of when they used certain appliances) if they could see an economic or environmental benefit to doing so. Some suggested that they would like information about the cheapest time to use appliances or charge vehicles. In the absence of information from developers, some participants made assumptions about how their homes worked and these were not always accurate.
All residents expected that moving to an Active Home would mean they had lower energy bills. A 12-month view was important to get a full picture of bills, as higher solar energy production and lower energy use over the summer period meant that energy bills varied considerably over the course of a year, with some having very low bills or even income from the energy generated over the summer months. Participants with low bills described feelings of security, relief and comfort, particularly in light of recent significant energy price rises.
Some residents saw their move to an Active Home as a positive step towards addressing climate change. A few participants told us the move had prompted them to think about other steps they could take, such as switching to an electric vehicle, or instigating energy saving initiatives in their workplace. Other participants spoke of feeling less pressured to make other lifestyle changes because the house was doing the hard work for them.
As part of Living Well in Low Carbon Homes, we have provided regular feedback to Active Home developers and other stakeholders, like Welsh Government, so that learning from these resident experiences can be drawn on to inform the wider rollout of low carbon homes. A full copy of our latest project report can be downloaded here.
The Living Well in Low Carbon Homes project was led by Professor Karen Henwood and Professor Nick Pidgeon, with researchers Dr Fiona Shirani and Dr Kate O’Sullivan