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Who is the new Research Fellow?

by on July 8, 2016

Since Louise will no longer be the sole manager of this Smarter Homes? website it seemed time that I (Katherine) introduced myself properly.

I have recently submitted my PhD entitled ‘Home-ing in on domestic energy research: home comfort and energy demand’ and my viva voce will be two weeks from today! A bit about me before I go onto my research interests…

I am a bit of a dork in the sense that I really enjoy reading and talking about academic skills such as writing and teaching. For example, I can rarely resist discussing the helpful and inspiring work of Pat Thomson and UEA’s ‘comedy in the classroom’ (if you haven’t heard of either of them have a look).

I am a huge advocate for being part of community projects and I have been an active member of our local Transition Initiative since it started in 2010! More recently (2012) I co-founded a bicycle rental and maintenance scheme which I am very proud of, especially when I see our branded bikes around town!

bike pool

If you follow me on twitter, you will probably already know about my Patter obsession, Bike Pool pride, and enjoyment of using dancing gifs.

My research is motivated by providing evidence of and alternatives to techno-centric thinking that often dominates sustainability discourses. In the context of domestic energy research, I’ve written about this as the difference between researching the ‘house’ and ‘home’: suggesting that awarding the ontological priority to the ‘home’ results in scholarship which considers both social and physical aspects that shape demand. Conversely, research prioritising the ‘house’ is dominated by techno-economic thinking, and overlooks critical social considerations. This is an important distinction considering that despite several decades of a dominance of research on the house, these methods have failed to adequately explain variation across populations and reduce energy demand, making the utility of studying the interaction between social and physical elements of the home increasingly apparent.

In my reading of energy, building and sustainability scholarship I found the concept of comfort to be influential to both notions of home and the ‘practice turn’ (i.e. Shove’s (2003) Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience) and therefore to a more nuanced understanding of domestic energy demand. The aim of my thesis therefore was to develop a concept of home comfort to inform understandings, debates and policy related to domestic energy demand, and I present data from whole-household interviews, house tours, ideal drawings and home energy adviser interviews to address this aim. [For a snappier piece on why we should be talking more about comfort, see my post in the ConversationOur obsession with comfort is the carbon conundrum everyone ignores’].

The main contribution of my thesis has been to argue that, contrary to popular opinion, there is much more to occupant satisfaction and home comfort than being sufficiently warm or cool. The assumption that comfort means thermal comfort leads to a narrow set of strategies to intervene in or ‘steer’ energy-demanding practices. While a focus on thermal heating is justified in the sense that space heating is the biggest single demand for a household, roughly 2/3 in the UK, increasing demands for space heating are also the result of other expectations of home beyond shifting indoor temperatures and practices of thermal regulation.  For example, privacy and personal space are paramount to individuals having to share the home and negotiate other householder’s preferences and everyday routines. Expecting to have a bedroom or study to retreat to has implications for space heating as much as standardisation of the comfort zone or increasing reliance on mechanical heating and cooling.

Based on my development of a framework of home comfort, the assumption that comfort is thermal comfort appears to be unjustified because there is much more to home life that affects home management and home improvements. Redefining home comfort as relaxation that comes from both having companionship and sharing the home as well as having a sense of control and privacy draws attention to bigger trends in household and house sizes that significantly shape energy demand per person. Refocusing onto how to engage with and understand expectations of space per person is an important recommendation for domestic energy researchers and importantly emerges from investigation of the meaning of home comfort.


Enough on my PhD though, I am delighted at the opportunity to be able to continue working alongside Louise (who has been an incredible PhD supervisor) as well as be part of a project which in many ways compliments the theoretical and methodological ideas underpinning my PhD research. I am excited to explore domestic energy demand further: continuing to critique techno-centric thinking, focusing in on microgeneration technologies (e.g. building on our previous paper on energy prosumption), and exploring the use of innovative methods (e.g. join our seminar on online and digital methodologies!!).

Please get in touch if you have any questions about the Smarter Homes? project or anything else!



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