Conditioning Demand - Older People, Diversity and Thermal Experience

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Environment and Development


The goal of this project is to understand the diversity and dynamics of thermal experiences in an ageing society and their implications for current and future energy consumption. The project team will investigate the issue of energy consumption as a socio-technical phenomenon by unpacking the social and material dimensions of energy and carbon challenges related to 'thermal experience' in domestic settings in the UK and France. The empirical research follows two key forms of future change: the demographic trend of an ageing society and the development of energy-efficient technologies. Our aim is not only to understand the implications of these two key dimensions of social and technological change, but also to detect potential synergies, gaps, and mismatches between them as they relate to residential thermal experience.The methodological approach combines qualitative, quantitative, visual, and spatial methods in two work packages. In the first work package, the project team will interview older residents across a range of domestic living situations and socio-economic categories to understand the diversity of thermal experiences within this population group. Interviews will take place in the interviewees' domestic settings to allow the researchers to collect data on the spatial and material aspects related to thermal experience. In the second work package, the project team will study how older individuals are adopting energy-efficient technologies that alter thermal experience, including heat pumps, solar hot water, and mechanical ventilation with heat recovery. The researchers will again interview older residents in their domestic settings but will expand the interview pool to include those actors who are engaged in the promulgation of the energy-efficient technologies, including energy modellers, technology designers, installers, and building maintenance and operations personnel.The empirical data from the work packages will be systematically analysed by the project team using qualitative data analysis software and the findings will be disseminated on the project website, through academic and trade journals, and at various conferences. The outcomes of the project will be relevant to a diverse array of disciplinary communities, including scholars of sociology, architecture, urban planning, engineering, science and technology studies, geography, and environmental psychology. The researchers will also reach out to non-academic stakeholders including NGOs, community organisations, and the general public by elucidating the multiple factors that shape thermal experience. Finally, the project will build research capacity in the study of people, energy, and buildings by training four post-doctoral researchers as well as an interlinked cohort of doctoral students and EDF's research and development group.

Planned Impact

Communication and engagement are principal ends and means of the project, both during the research phases as well as after the project is completed. The project team will use the research activities as an opportunity to dialogue with various stakeholders in policy, third sector, and professional/trade organisations on the tensions and synergies between people, technologies, and the built environment. Examples of relevant organisations include the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Department of Communities and Local Government, Local Government Association, the Care Quality Commission, National Energy Action, Age Concern, Centre for Sustainable Energy, Heat Pump Association, and the Solar Trade Association. Stakeholder dialogues will be fostered through three workshops and a conference facilitated and led by the project team throughout the research project. The events will include presentations by the project team members and facilitated discussions to interpret and critique the findings as well as identify gaps in the research and opportunities for future study. Furthermore, the events will allow for face-to-face interaction amongst the stakeholders and serve as networking opportunities to develop new relationships with stakeholders, strengthen existing ties, and catalyse collaborative endeavours. Beyond the research activities and project events, the project team will engage with stakeholders through the project website. The website will initially serve as the key communication hub for the project team members and as the project progresses, it will evolve into a dissemination device for the research findings and serve as a site for debate and discussion about delivering and experiencing comfort in residential settings. Information on the website will be jargon-free and include general information pages as well as summaries of the findings and suggestions for future research. A third engagement approach will involve the dissemination of the research findings through written media. The findings of the project will be compiled in an EDF/EPSRC report and will also be submitted as articles to high-profile, peer-reviewed international journals aimed at academics and practitioners. These publications will integrate the qualitative and quantitative findings while also elucidating the importance of visual and spatial methods of research. Some of these written documents will also be available on the project website, such as a literature review, EDF/EPSRC report, and visual outputs of the empirical research such as network maps and photos from the field. Impact activities will be coordinated by the Principal Investigator and Research Officer with input and assistance from the project team. The Research Officer will be responsible for coordinating and managing the workshops, developing and maintaining the website, and maintaining communication channels both within the project team itself as well as with outside stakeholders. This individual will work in close contact with the institutional public relations, outreach staff, and press office to ensure delivery of the impact activities.


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Walker G (2015) Thermal comfort in care homes: vulnerability, responsibility and 'thermal care' in Building Research & Information

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Tweed C (2017) Interdisciplinary perspectives on building thermal performance in Building Research & Information

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Lewis A (2014) Energy Use in an Ageing Society: The Challenges of Designing Energy-Efficient Older People's Housing in Manchester Memoirs - Being The Memoirs and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society

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Devine-Wright P (2014) Low carbon heating and older adults: comfort, cosiness and glow in Building Research & Information

Description A Changing Context
Demographic change has multiple implications for housing and energy policy, and for those designing and managing residential spaces. The living experiences of older people are enormously diverse, reflecting differences in physical ability and health, financial resources, aspirations and domestic living situations.
Some older people are in good health and are active. They are improving their homes, adopting new sustainable technologies and leading full and mobile lives. Others live comparatively sedentary lives and spend more of their time at home. Those that live in poorer quality, energy inefficient houses and existing on low incomes this can present challenges of fuel poverty.
Older people with greater health problems may need to move into different living arrangements (such as extra care housing and care homes) where comfort is managed in very different ways.
Vulnerabilities related to thermal comfort can become serious and are complex. Being too cold or too hot presents physical risks, as changes such as lower metabolic rates and poor blood circulation become important. Sight loss is also an important issue, and one with implications for how controls and visual information are designed with older people in mind. Some individuals with dementia can find it difficult to use thermostats and timers, and to communicate thermal discomfort to carers. It can also introduce risks, such as not recognising the danger of hot surfaces.

Understanding Comfort
This study of thermal comfort has explored this diversity of experience. Rather than assuming that engineering approaches which control the temperature of buildings are sufficient, we recognise that comfort is the result of a combination of factors, including levels of physical activity, the extent to which occupants can exercise control over heating and cooling systems, and the cultural and social underpinnings of how comfort is experienced and managed in everyday life. The researchers also paid attention to the ways in which people adapt their activities to maintain comfort; whether opening windows and blinds, changing clothing, or modifying their food and drink intake.
The Role of Practitioners
Designers, building managers and other practitioners are increasingly being called upon to accommodate the diverse needs of older people and the ways in which their experiences of thermal comfort affect their health and quality of life. The situation becomes more complex with the increasing emphasis on energy efficiency and low carbon heating technologies. New technologies can allow for significant energy savings but they also create new operational demands and change the way that occupants maintain comfortable conditions. Evaluating how new technologies fit into the diversity of living arrangements of older people and how their needs are provided for is therefore increasingly important.
Exploitation Route A context sensitive approach should be adopted to ensure that energy savings are realised. This should take into account the different ways in which occupants adopt and use energy efficient technologies.
Consider the impact of low carbon heating on how different spaces may be used after an upgrade. This may mean that projected cost savings are offset by changing living patterns and increased comfort levels.
Consider the daily and long-term maintenance and operating requirements and who will provide these. Some technologies, such as biomass boilers, might not be appropriate for older occupants because of the physical effort needed to run and maintain them.
Consider the many ways that comfort is achieved in houses. This might provide opportunities for lower cost options that do not involve significant disruption or the adoption of new comfort practices. This includes lighting, colours, air movement, and other textures, sounds and smells.

A proactive approach to ensuring that users are able to easily and effectively use controls is needed. Building managers and estate agents have an important role in communicating information and guidance and accessible user manuals are vital.
Building managers are crucial yet often overlooked. Where the are in place, they should be trained to understand the intentions of designers and also to provide accessible guides that can be distributed to occupants.
Engineering and architectural teams have an important role to play in optimising the efficiency and effectiveness of heating systems. They should take the opportunity to better coordinate their design efforts, particularly when utilising new technologies.

Possible design solutions identified to the problem of overheating in extra care housing include
• not heating corridors, except near entrances and large areas of glazing;
• introducing mechanical ventilation into corridors to alleviate problems caused by the lack of through-ventilation in single aspect dwellings;
• taking steps to prevent excessive solar gain;
• minimising excessive heat loads by using traditional forms of construction (rather than timber frame) to ensure buildings have a high thermal mass;
• using thermal modelling at the design stage to identify potential problems with overheating.
Control interfaces, such as thermostats and timers, should be carefully designed or chosen to ensure that they are suitable for older people with diminished physical and mental capacities.
Scheme managers can be key to ensuring that occupants are comfortable. Managers should be trained to improve their understanding of how a building's designers intended comfortable conditions to be maintained. The manager can be the key to ensuring that occupants are comfortable.

In managing thermal comfort in care homes, the wide range of occupants should to considered; including the presence of carers and other staff as well as residents with varied needs.
Given the importance of keeping residents warm and safe is in an effective care service, new technologies and thermal comfort regimes need to minimise unreliability and physical risks.
The adoption of new technologies in care homes has to be understood in terms of both infrastructure and operational context.
Care staff need to be trained on the many ways in which the thermal needs and expectations of residents can be achieved, keeping them safe (which includes avoiding overheating in the summer) whilst maintaining their autonomy and dignity.
Sectors Construction






Democracy and Justice

Description "Care provision fit for a future climate"
Amount £90,000 (GBP)
Organisation Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2015 
End 03/2016