Building Expertise: A System of Professions Approach to Low-Carbon Housing Refurbishment

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Environmental Change Institute SoGE


Energy use in existing housing is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in all developed countries. These emissions need to be reduced significantly and rapidly over the next 40 years to meet international targets and to help stabilise the climate, and therefore low carbon refurbishment of existing housing needs to play a key role. The technologies that might be used are broadly understood, but many are only deployed at very low levels compared to their future potential, and the technologies are not as familiar to building-related professions as they will need to become. These professionals have a strong influence over decisions about what work gets done, and so they have a major role in tackling climate change.The role of social science in this area of energy research has focussed largely to date on the behaviour of owners and occupiers of housing. Yet, the large number of housing-related trades and professions all play a role, both in implementing technical change and influencing owners and occupiers. Our research will address the implications of low carbon refurbishment for the relevant professions (architects, surveyors, engineers, estate agents, builders etc.), and their role in promoting and/or resisting change. The questions we will be investigating include: How might different professions react to the threats and opportunities implied by low carbon refurbishment? How might the need for low carbon refurbishment change the roles and interactions of professions? How are existing professions developing to meet the challenge? Which professions will gain control over the new activities involved in low carbon refurbishment? Or will new professions be needed to carry out new roles? If so, what are these roles and how will this shift influence other professions? Does the level of skills and knowledge required imply the professionalization of some roles currently seen as trades? How do the relevant institutions (trade associations, training organizations, professional bodies) view this issue and how are they preparing for it?To address these questions we will draw on two broad areas of existing knowledge - research in socio-technical systems (the process of technical innovation and associated social change) and the theory of systems of professions (which has studied the interaction of professions). Our goal is to bring the insights of the two approaches together to address the issues of professional interaction in meeting the challenge of low carbon refurbishment.We will conduct interviews with past and current innovators in this field, as well as surveying a broader range of 'mainstream' housing professionals. We will study decisions in ongoing innovative projects to understand decision making processes. And we will interview a broader range of stakeholders, including policy makers, professional organisations and trainers, to get an understanding of their attitudes and the institutional framework within which change might occur. We will do this work in both the UK and France, in order to draw comparisons and to understand the similarities and differences, and therefore help inform conclusions about the role of existing cultures and institutions.Our main findings will be academic reports, papers and conference presentations. However, we expect the results will be directly useful to both policy-makers and built environment professionals. We will engage with these groups both in the course of the research and to disseminate the final results. We will therefore present our research findings at conferences, events and in trade journals, and maintain a dedicated website to make our research accessible. We will organize final seminars for policy-makers to highlight the lessons learned from the research.

Planned Impact

The primary outputs of the research will be academic reports, papers in the peer-reviewed literature and conference presentations. However, we expect that the research will produce outcomes of direct relevance to society and the project team is committed to ensuring that these are disseminated effectively. We have allocated a significant resource to this goal The potential impact is large. Energy use in existing buildings is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions that need to be reduced significantly. Low carbon refurbishment of existing housing needs to play a key role in delivering a low carbon energy system. Understanding the processes that affect low carbon refurbishment can therefore generate very significant social, economic and environmental benefits. Larger technological interventions will involve more disruptive change for housing occupiers and for housing professions. Change in the housing professions may therefore be critical for a successful energy transition. International comparison in housing professions is relatively unusual and may therefore have significant impact, in particular because trans-national energy suppliers, including EdF, currently have very large energy efficiency programmes in both France and the UK, which might be improved by better understanding of the changing role of housing refurbishment professions. We expect the research will benefit policy-makers and built environment professionals and will engage with both in the UK and France. Our research methodology includes communication with these audiences in the course of the research, not just a final dissemination exercise. We will provide speakers and articles for relevant existing channels of communication in low carbon refurbishment, rather than create new, project specific, channels. We will present our research findings at conferences, events, trade journals and other discussion fora. We will maintain a dedicated website. We will undertake dedicated dissemination activities towards the end of the project, not only through international conferences and peer-reviewed journals, but also directly to meet the needs of non-academic stakeholders, as follows. For policy-makers, we will organise and run seminars in both the UK and France to highlight the lessons learned from the research, including the international comparisons. These events will involving people with a relevant policy interest, including government officials in key departments, government agencies and key sub-national authorities. For industry stakeholders we will engage by targeting through their established channels of communication. This will include speaking at relevant building industry conferences and events (eg Ecobuild) and writing articles interpreting outcomes for specific professions in the journals of the professions and trade bodies of the housing sector. We will summarise the key findings of the final report in a policy briefing document (in English and French). The project team has a good track record in disseminating knowledge to the non-academic community, including through a variety of high profile dissemination networks for the energy and housing sectors. Members of the team also have relevant and direct experience of work in Government and industry in the UK and USA, and of collaboration with industrial stakeholders.


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Description Small and medium enterprises perform most of the repair, maintenance, and improvement work in both the UK and France. Some of these builders have innovated their practices in ways that that allow them to capitalise on the developing need for low-carbon refurbishment. Some have multi-skilled their workers; some have reskilled their workers; others have developed new service offerings. The innovations made by firms in both countries are strongly related to the different policy contexts in the UK and France, as well as the technical challenges instilled in their housing stocks.
Exploitation Route see website
Sectors Construction,Energy,Environment