Relationships between people and place, and how they shape energy retrofit decisions

30 Jun 2022

Decarbonising the UK’s housing stock through retrofit measures is one of the most urgent policy challenges of the present moment. When we think about why people decide to make changes to their homes in the interests of energy efficiency, we tend to call upon rational explanations. ‘People will only do this if it makes sense economically’ is a common refrain, suggesting that people are mainly motivated by saving or getting ‘value for’ money. We also tend to assume such measures will be carried out by the ‘able to pay’, an ill-defined category of people who could afford to spend money on retrofit, if only they were more motivated to do so.

In our current UKERC funded project ‘Net zero neighbourhoods‘, we set out to offer a different explanation. We build on ideas from economic sociology, where spending money is understood to be relational: that is, our choices on how we spend different pots of money are shaped by our relationships with other people, and the broader social world. In this research, we have been interviewing householders and institutional actors, to understand how relationships and relational structures shape people’s decisions to spend money on making their houses more energy efficient.

Bob and Marie’s story

To bring this to life, let us introduce you to Bob and Marie. They are a middle-income couple in their mid-50s, and live in Leeds with their grown up son Johnnie who is studying away at university. As their stone terraced house had single glazed windows, they recently invested in triple glazing after inheriting some money when Marie’s mum died.

Bob and Marie’s relationships have a big impact on their decision-making. The decision to spend on triple glazing was negotiated between them. Before this winter, Marie was keen to spend the money on a conservatory instead, as she has always wanted to have one, but given the rises in energy bills and a wider cost of living crisis, Bob persuaded her that triple glazing would mean they could keep the house warmer each winter. Bob’s friend Mike who lives two doors down has recently triple glazed his house, and enthused about how much more comfortable he is. They could only afford to replace their windows when Marie’s mum died, and they wanted to use the money she left them to make a meaningful improvement to their home. They hired a company owned by a friend of a friend to do the work, who also did Mike’s windows. They got three local quotes, as both Bob and Marie were keen to spend their money locally due to their strong connection to their neighbourhood. They were going to just double glaze, but Local 3Glaze quoted to do triple for only slightly more money. Johnnie is in a student in the sustainability movement and has been hassling his parents about reducing their climate change impacts, so he was happy with the triple glazing.

Insights into relations and decision-making

So what can we learn from Bob and Marie? Their decision-making is clearly affected by upfront costs and the availability of money: rising energy prices and the cost of living crisis meant that Marie’s inheritance was central to the decision to improve the energy efficiency of their home. However, we can see that the decision-making process was also extensively shaped by their relationships. Marie’s mum’s death was a moment in which they suddenly had money to spend, a lump sum arriving into the family as a windfall.  But, because of the social relations surrounding that money, they felt an obligation to spend this money wisely – perhaps framing it as something of which Marie’s mother would have approved. Picking which home improvement was negotiated between them, and in the context of Johnnie’s environmentalist ideals. Other people in their social network also played a role, with Mike and the ‘friend of a friend’ both providing localised shortcuts in decision-making for the couple, reducing the amount of time, effort and worry about finding a trustworthy tradesperson.

There are also more structural forces at work here. Marie’s aspiration to have a conservatory is linked to her wider imaginary of what a ‘nice home’ looks like, and while she will welcome the increase in comfort she is a bit disappointed by not being able to upgrade her living space both spatially and aesthetically. The couple are also committed to spending in their community, wanting to make sure their money helps to boost local livelihoods. Living in a stone terrace limits the type of work you can do to improve energy efficiency, and in Leeds these types of houses provide a huge part of the overall stock.

What can we learn from a relational approach?

When we recognise that people’s decisions are not solely made in a rational way, but are navigated through complex social relations, this helps us to think of different ways to encourage more households to engage in energy retrofit. Promoting energy retrofit with the idea that it ‘saves money’ seems a long way away from being able to explain fully Bob and Marie’s lived experiences of the process.

For Bob and Marie, we are particularly mindful that spending money on retrofit involves a fair amount of what Viviana Zelizer has called ‘relational work’: in negotiating decisions over to what to do, and in consulting with others, getting quotes and managing the tradespeople as the work is done. This suggests increasing the rate of retrofit could require solutions that focus on reducing the relational work involved. Certainly we see evidence of people finding strategies for this themselves (by taking recommendations from friends). It also suggests that a ‘one-stop-shop’ for energy retrofit in the local community could be useful, especially for people who are not confident in choosing technology measures and finding tradespeople. Perhaps a useful strategy would be to engage the bigger retailers, both in simplifying these decisions and by incorporating them into their existing customer journeys when people walk in and ask for a new kitchen, for example.

Taking a more structural approach makes us realise that people are not consistently ‘able to pay’, but that they have particular life moments (getting an inheritance or pay rise, losing a job, or moving to another area) which move them in and out of this category due to the sudden arrival or departure of money. People’s ability to pay is also shaped by what kind of house they live in. Knowing these things makes the adoption of area-based approaches – which target neighbourhoods based on people’s incomes and life stages, as well as specific households’ appetites for home improvement –  seem more likely to glean success.

We are still only half-way through this research, and our next steps are to take these insights for road-testing with local authorities and other retrofit stakeholders. We look forward to developing some retrofit delivery models that build on these insights.