Energy measures at home: a focus on gender and family dynamics

Published on
May 8, 2017
Recently, ENP researcher Mandy de Wilde has started a research project with a focus on decision-making dynamics within families with regard to energy measures at home. The  project has been funded by the Innovation program MVI-Energy by the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO). In this interview she introduces her new research project.

What is the research project about?

The project aims to provide insight into the decision-making dynamics within households with regard to energy saving measures or renewable energy measures (so called ‘energy measures’). It does so by focusing on the living experience of families in general and women in particular. Research into living experience has shown that the domestic environment should be seen as an expression of the identity of those who make themselves at home there. Moreover, house and home are not the same. A house is a physical structure, while a home is a feeling enacted by residents through all kinds of practices: through furnishing the rooms, undertaking everyday household tasks, maintaining the house and engaging with relatives indoors and neighbours outdoors. As such, people do not so much maintain and improve their house, rather they make themselves at home continuously and actively. Energy measures, such as floor insulation or PV-panels, affect the living experience of people and therefore it is important to take this into account.

Moreover, with regard to living experience, research has shown that residents feel at home in gender-specific ways. Both women and men find comfort essential, but women attach great importance to aesthetic aspects while men attach importance to technological aspects. Furthermore, in general women identify strongly with their neighbours and value social engagement in the neighbourhood. In this project we aim to find out if and how these gender-related aspects trickle down into the decision-making process with regard to energy measures.

Nowadays, as part of the ongoing process of women’s and emancipation we can speak of an ongoing democratization within the family Men are no longer considered to be the head of the family and the person that makes decisions on behalf of the family. Research has shown that women often take the lead when it comes to buying domestic products. Moreover, children are gaining a voice in family decisions and as children grow older their influence on decisions affecting the family grows as well. If women, men and children enrol differently in decision-making processes with regard to their home, it raises the question how, as a family, households come to their decisions with regard to energy measures. Our research project aims to unpack this decision-making process.

Why is it important to know more about this topic?

The Netherlands has a housing stock of 3.5 million privately owned homes. Most of those homes display a high energy use. It remains difficult to persuade homeowners towards a decision to invest in energy measures. This is due to policy programs placing a narrow focus on energy measures - instead of combining these with residential preferences, envisaging homeowners as single decision-makers - while many decisions take place as a family and ignoring the life stages of homeowners – while a young family has different residential wishes than an elderly couple. In short, the living experience of families is often overlooked, while research teaches us that people often perceive energy measures in terms of comfort and homeliness instead of saving energy.

Moreover, the ongoing democratization within families ensures that, increasingly, decisions are the result of joint consultation by all family members. Present-day programs and products that are designed to affect decision-making with regard to energy measures neglect this family complexity: the family is seen as a 1-person decision-maker, while most privately owned homes are inhabited by 2 or more persons in different family configurations. Therefore, thinking in terms of a family as a ‘decision-making unit’ is more helpful if we want to design new programs and products that better match households’ wishes, needs and dynamics. For instance, in our research project we ask how women make decisions about energy measures from their living experience, but also vice versa how decisions made by women from their living experience can be linked to possible energy measures. To give an example, some energy measures have additional benefits to family’s living experience; heating on the basis of heat pumps is often combined with underfloor heating and panel heating. This means that radiators can be removed, there are more options to (re)decorate the house and there is less dust at home.

Methodologically, what are you going to do?

We will conduct in-depth social science research. We will conduct in-depth interviews at home with 40 families. We are also interested to find out how the mediation and assistance of professionals influences the decision-making dynamics of families. Therefore, we will also conduct in-depth interviews with professionals in the building industry, insulation and installation sector and the field of design to ask about their experiences.

As part of the research project, the empirical findings will be used to design tentative ‘approaches for affecting family decision-making’. These approaches will then be evaluated together with families and professionals before definitive approaches for affecting family decision-making will be presented. The choice for research methods in this stage of the research project will be dependent on the empirical findings.

What do you hope to contribute socially?

We hope that our research project will sensitize the (still male-dominated) building, insulation and installation industry to family and gender dynamics at play at home, so that in the future the industry is better able to meet the needs of families with regard to energy measures. Furthermore, we will develop practical ‘approaches for affecting family decision-making’ that will provide the industry with relevant insights and techniques for influencing family decisions with regard to energy measures at different stages of family life.

To ensure social and practical valorization of research results, we work together with energy network company Alliander, national energy cooperative Hoom and the neighbourhood program Buurkracht. At current, Hoom and Buurkracht work with residential approaches through which they stimulate and support homeowners to undertake energy measures at home but they are eager to learn how they can better match their existing approaches to the living experience of families in general and women in particular. Moreover, we  will reflect on our empirical findings together with an advisory committee of social partners, among others Dutch Green Building Council, VACpunt Wonen, VNG and Vrouwen van Nu.

Want to know more about family decision-making as regard to energy measures? You can find an English factsheet or Dutch factsheet here.

You can find more information about Mandy’s related research project ‘Residential approaches to domestic energy-led retrofit in the Netherlands’ here.