What is the meaning of comfort?
As a social scientist finding my way into the research field of energy consumption and sustainability in the built environment, I find that the concept of comfort is often taken for granted. Comfort seems to be everywhere in discussions and research on energy efficient buildings but mostly inscribed as thermal comfort, if defined at all. The meaning of the word comfort is implicit in energy research as are the implications of comfort for energy consumption, particularly in technical literatures which do not regard comfort as a social concept, nor sufficiently explores the underlying reasons for expectations and levels of comfort. For the most part, such research explores how technologies can provide (thermal) comfort more efficiently – without compromising expected standards and levels of comfort. The emphasis is thus on how to make ‘users’ adapt and use more efficient technologies in the ‘right’ energy efficient way. Such scholarship seldom deals with how to adapt technologies to a sustainable everyday life, or questions what comfort really is and how it influences sustainability. To me significant questions remain, such as: What does comfort mean to people in their everyday life? How much and what kind of comfort do we need? Can we ask people to compromise their comfort to reach goals of reducing energy consumption? These questions are not dealt with, at least in the more technical research focusing on technologies. The socio-technical research on comfort does offer some additional insights about people, practices and conventions but it too links comfort to indoor temperatures and the like (e.g. Shove et al 2008).
The technological fix vs. ideals of home and comfort
To me it seems that the limitations of existing research perpetuate a common belief in a technological fix that has not yet proven able to turn our high levels of energy consumption around. This reflects research which has traditionally had a strong focus on behavioural theory and individualised agency, as has already been pointed to in sociological energy research (Gram-Hanssen 2010, 2014, Shove 2003, 2010, Strengers 2011, 2013). Since Fanger defined levels of thermal comfort, as early as the 1970s, understandings and standards of comfort levels have not changed much, apart from a more adaptive approach to the relation between users and buildings (e.g. Nicol & Stevenson 2013, Roaf et al. 2015). I therefore propose that it is necessary to understand comfort in housing from an everyday life perspective, and that we ought to understand comfort as something that gives meaning to, and guides, many everyday practices in the home. Not least, to understand comfort in housing is also to understand how we feel at home and what makes a house into a home (see blog post by Katherine – I can put in a link here to another blog post).
In Denmark, where I am based, households stand for around 30 percent of the energy consumption and we are finding that the amount of energy used in homes (e. g. for heating) is not decreasing significantly despite homes becoming ever more efficient (Danish Energy Authorities 2013, Gram-Hanssen 2013). I believe that this trend has to do with social conventions and the aspiration for greater comfort, through ideals of ‘better’ and bigger houses. In the western world there are very strong ideals related to housing, that portray the ideal home as a detached, owner-occupied house that should have at least one (bed)room for every family member to ensure privacy (see for instance Maller et al. 2012). In Denmark one-family houses make up 44 per cent of the housing stock. The average dwelling size is 111.5 m2, while the average household size is 2.1 persons. More rooms, larger communal space and an increasing amount of energy consuming appliances is now combined with fewer occupants per square metre (an average of 52 m2 per occupant in 2013) (Statistics Denmark). From an historical perspective, it appears that as family size has decreased, the size of our homes has increased.
As such it is imperative to explore ideas of comfort and how these carry meaning in relation to our everyday life and homes, since this may help to explain some of these phenomena. Comfort in housing is bodily, sensory, social and related to the ‘home’ as a socio-spatial system (Blunt & Dowling 2006, Mallet 2004). Explicitly, to feel at home is closely related to feeling comfortable and vice versa – to feel comfortable in a house is very much related to homeliness. This relationship can be examined by looking at everyday home-making practices, specifically how we perceive and construct comfort through such practices. Thereby also pointing to reasons why energy consumption in housing is often not linear to what is expected, as we practice comfort in different ways. Indeed, comfort cannot be measured solely by the means of average temperatures as there is more to comfort than what is measureable. Looking at the concept of comfort via the social practice theory framework, changes the focus from technologies and measureable parameters, to the relationship between the material and the social that characterizes daily comfort in our homes, by focusing on shared everyday practices of, for example, heating, refurbishing, laundering and cooking: practices involved in home-making. This can also shed light on how conventions guide everyday practices of comfort and how other meanings (of e.g. family life, gender roles, taste) take part in this. It means that the ‘building user’ is not merely a user of a technology, but rather an everyday practitioner and home-maker that interacts with energy technologies, the material structures of the house, the social relations of families and others and that have both bodily and mental sensations. All these things are involved in shaping comfort. So, what does this mean for the future of energy consumption in the built environment? Well, one thing is sure, the concept of comfort needs a redefinition, as we cannot achieve truly sustainable homes without recognising that comfort is shaping our homes and the practices within them, and this is essential to the way energy is consumed within the four walls of the home.
Blunt, A. & Dowling, R. (2006) Home, Routhledge, London
Danish Energy Authorities (2014), Energistatistik 2013, Energistyrelsen, København
Gram-Hanssen, K. (2010) Residential heat comfort practices: understanding users, Building Research & Information, 38 (2)
Gram-Hanssen, K. (2013) Efficient technologies or user behaviour, which is the more important when reducing households’ energy consumption? Energy Efficiency, 6 (447-57)
Gram-Hanssen, K. (2014) New needs for better understanding of households’ energy consumption – behaviour, lifestyle or practices? Architectural engineering and Design Management, 10
Maller, C., Horne, R. & Dalton, T. (2012) Green renovations: Intersections of daily routines, housing aspirations and narratives of environmental sustainability, Housing, Theory & Society, vol 29 (3)
Mallet, S. (2004) Understanding home: a critical review of the literature, The Sociological Review, 52
Nicol, F. & Stevenson, F. (2013) Adaptive comfort in an unpredictable world, Building Research and Information, vol. 41 (3)
Roaf, S., Brotas, L. & Nicol, F. (2015) Counting the costs of comfort, Building Research & Information, vol. 43 (3)
Shove, E. (2003) Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience – the Social Organization of Normality, Berg, Oxford
Shove, E. (2010) Beyond the ABC: Climate change policy and theories of social change, Environment & Planning A, vol. 42
Shove, E., Chappells, H., Lutzenheiser, L. & Hackett, B. (2008) Comfort in a lower carbon society, Building Research & Information, 36 (4)
Statistics Denmark (2014) Statistical Year Book 2014: Living, Danmarks Statistik, København
Strengers, Y. (2011) Negotiating everyday life: The role of energy and water consumption feedback, Journal of Consumer Culture, 11 (3)
Strengers, Y. (2013) Smart Energy Technologies in Everyday Life – Smart Utopia? Palgrave Macmillan, London
Line Valdorff Madsen Aalborg University, Copenhagen