Future comforts: re-conditioning urban environments


Elizabeth Shove and Heather Chappells


Vast quantities of energy are required to heat or cool buildings to provide what are now regarded as acceptable standards of thermal comfort. Paradoxically, likely responses to global warming, such as greater reliance on air-conditioning, threaten to increase energy demand and emissions of CO2 and exacerbate rather than mitigate climate change. This project examines the link between global warming and the technologies and conventions of indoor environmental management. Starting from the proposition that concepts of comfort are socially and technically constructed, it examines the ambitions and approaches of practitioners and policy makers currently involved in specifying the indoor climates of the future. What assumptions of human ‘need’ are constructed and embedded in the built environment and with what consequences for conventions of ‘normality’ and associated patterns of resource intensity? The research, which involves a review of relevant literature, interviews and interaction with key actors (in the UK), is designed to engender and inform academic and non-academic debate about the future of the indoor climate and the ways of life associated with it. The goal is to consider how comfort might be defined and achieved under changing climatic conditions but in ways that do not exacerbate recognised environmental problems.

Questions of thermal comfort have been addressed by building scientists, urban planners, social scientists, historians and anthropologists but there has been no concerted effort to bring these lines of enquiry together or to analyse the different perspectives on offer. The three stages of the project contribute to the development of a more interdisciplinary approach. The first step is to collate and analyse literature on the history, specification and provision of thermal comfort, to review different perspectives and lines of enquiry and take stock of the social and technical issues at stake. The second step is to record the views of property developers, manufacturers, research scientists, utility managers and regulators currently involved in shaping the future of comfort in the UK. Interviews with practitioners will help locate, compare, and better understand the ambitions and expectations of those in a position to influence the co-evolution of comfort-related technology and practice. The third step is to organise a workshop in which relevant interest groups, identified during the previous stages of the project, come together to consider the definition and provision of comfortable conditions within the built environment.

In focusing on the social and technical construction and transformation of thermal comfort this project promises to make an important contribution to debates about human activity, urban systems and environmental change. Specifically the project will:

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