The importance of knowing comfort for sustainability in the built environment by Line Valdorff Madsen (Aalborg University Copenhagen)

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




Unpacking the Concept of Home By Jennifer Hoolachan (University of Stirling)

Home’ and ‘place’ have been the subjects of a wealth of research within the disciplines of sociology, psychology, geography and youth studies in the past twenty years (e.g. Mallett, 2004; Manzo, 2005; Blunt and Dowling, 2006; Hopkins, 2010). Despite this, in 2004, Easthope argued that researchers working within the area of housing studies have paid little attention to these subjects. Since then, place and home have slowly appeared in housing research (Neumark, 2013; Jacobs and Malpas, 2013; Buffel at al., 2014) and the current emphasis on wellbeing and its connection to home and housing, by both the UK and Scottish Governments, demonstrates that home is currently of political significance (Randall, 2012; Commission on Housing and Wellbeing, 2013).

Attempting to define ‘home’, however, is the subject of much debate. Many agree that home differs from a house in that the latter is a physical structure, or commodity, whereas the former is a subjectively experienced construct (Manzo, 2003). Yet some have argued that more work is needed to explore how physical features contribute to how a home or place is experienced (Smaldone, Harris and Sanyal, 2005) thoriginal_HomeSweetHomeDETAILus demonstrating that it is not straightforward to separate the physical from the social.

Despite the contested meanings of ‘home’, there is a feeling (certainly in Scotland) that policy has neglected to account for the more qualitative aspects of home, preferring instead to prioritise the quantity, availability and economic value of housing. I do not only mean quality in relation to the physical conditions of a house (although of course these are of paramount importance) but the quality of people’s lived experiences that takes place within the shell of a house and its surrounding geographical areas. As such experiences are subjective, the challenge for policymakers and researchers is to grapple with how policy can account for these subjectivities in order to use them to improve individual and collective wellbeing.

This issue was the focus of a series of seminars I recently attended titled ‘Home not Housing’ funded by the Scottish Universities Insight Institute. Based on the ideas of knowledge co-production, this seminar series brought together individuals from a variety of housing backgrounds to discuss what home and wellbeing meant to them. The aim was to identify common themes amongst the hugely diverse views and experiences offered by the group and to use these emergent themes to feed into the development of wellbeing indicators and wider policy. Whilst some felt uneasy about what they saw as an attempt to quantify subjective experiences, many found it difficult to envision an alternative means of informing policy and indeed felt that this was the most effective way to proceed.

Interestingly, only one week later I found myself engaged in a similar discussion at a WithScotland event about qualitative methods in child protection research. Although everyone at this event was a strong supporter of qualitative research, there appeared to be an uncertainty about how this type of data can be effectively and meaningfully incorporated into policy. This reflects a wider belief that Governments have historically regarded quantitative research as more robust and important for feeding into policy and implementing change. Therefore, debates concerning the inclusion of ‘home’ in policy constitute part of this wider discussion given qualitative methods are usually the most appropriate means of examining topics on a subjective level.

In addition to an agenda for wellbeing, there has been a shift in Scotland towards the prioritising of policy outcomes. This suggests a political willingness to examine the impact of policies in relation to people’s lived experiences, rather than simply on tangible, largely numeric outputs. In other words, there is scope to explore not only how a policy influences the supply, availability or economic value of housing, but also how it impacts on people’s subjective experiences of home. It remains to be seen how committed the Scottish Government will be to incorporate the concept of ‘home’ into policy without slipping into the more familiar territory of housing. The challenge is not only to maintain this more holistic focus but to figure out how to draw upon qualitative research in a way that does not transform the rich detail of people’s lived experiences into quantifiable categories that lose their overall meaning. Events such as the ‘Home not Housing’ seminars are leading the way in these types of discussions.

As long as the Scottish Government’s willingness, to include subjective experiences in policy, is aimed at improving wellbeing for everyone, and is not simply a tokenistic, political exercise, then these types of debate are welcome. Discussions around ‘home’ were also taken forward by a group of early-career researchers at a recent symposium organised by myself at the University of Stirling. The details of these discussions are available on the Housing Studies Association website.

Jennifer Hoolachan, PhD Researcher, University of Stirling (@Jen_2603)


Blunt, A. and Dowling, R., (2006) Home. Oxon: Routledge.

Buffel, T., De Donder, L., Phillipson, C., De Witte, N., Dury, S. and Verte, D., (2014) Place Attachment among Older Adults Living in Four Communities in Flanders, Belgium, Housing Studies. Vol. 29 (6), pp. 800 – 822.

Commission for Housing and Wellbeing, (2013) Scoping Paper [online]. Available at [Accessed 27 May 2014].

Easthope, H., (2004) A Place Called Home, Housing, Theory and Society. Vol. 21 (3), pp. 128 – 138.

Hopkins, P.E., (2010) Young People, Place and Identity. Oxon: Routledge.

Jacobs, K. and Malpas, J., (2013) Material Objects, Identity and the Home: Towards a Relational Housing Research Agenda, Housing, Theory and Society. Vol. 30(3), pp. 281 – 292.

Mallett, S., (2004) Understanding Home: A Critical Review of the Literature, Sociological Review. Vol. 52 (1), pp. 62 – 89.

Manzo, L.C., (2003) Beyond House and Haven: Toward a Revisioning of Emotional Relationships with Places, Journal of Environmental Psychology. Vol. 23, pp. 47 – 61.

Manzo, L.C., (2005) For Better or Worse: Exploring Multiple Dimensions of Place Meaning, Journal of Environmental Psychology. Vol. 25, pp. 67 – 86.

Neumark, D., (2013) Drawn to Beauty: The Practice of House-Beautification as Homemaking amongst the Forcible Displaced, Housing, Theory and Society. Vol. 30 (3), pp. 237 – 261.

Randall, C., (2012) Measuring National Well-being, Where We Live, 2012 [online]. Available at [Accessed 27 May 2014].

Smaldone, D., Harris, C. and Sanyal, N., (2005) An Exploration of Place as a Process: The Case of Jackson Hole, WY, Journal of Environmental Psychology. Vol. 25, pp. 397 – 414.