Tangible objects and digital interfaces: The next generation of eco-tech selection

Today we hosted the final seminar of 2016. It was a very thought provoking talk from Dr Deborah Adkins of the Dyson School of Design Engineering here at Imperial College London on the elements and interfaces that can help provide effective decision aids when retrofitting energy efficiency to old properties and buildings. She has kindly written us this complementary blog post.

We have some wonderful buildings that could last centuries. But their energy efficiency is appalling. Many people say that they would like to upgrade/retrofit existing homes with the latest eco-interventions but when faced with a slew of inconsistent information and marketing materials, the decision on what technologies and solutions to implement in a given application represents a significant challenge. The means to come to such decisions is the focus of my research.


The problem

A large proportion of the UK’s housing existing stock will still be in use in 2050 (with estimates varying around 70–75%)(Ravetz, 2008)(Sustainable Development Commission, 2006 [PDF]). If the 2050 target is to be reached then the 26 million existing homes in the UK, the majority of which will still be in use in 2050, will need to be refurbished to the highest standards of energy efficiency and energy generation. Hence a programme of retrofitting/refurbishment will be needed rather than ignoring the problem or hoping that old homes will be replaced soon enough with efficient new buildings.

Our research

A wide range of technologies have been developed to improve housing energy efficiency. The multitude of solutions provides an opportunity for property owners, developers and entrepreneurs to improve the energy efficiency of properties and develop business opportunities, and thereby contribute towards living standards and emissions objectives.

While increased use of technologies and energy solutions such as roof, cavity wall and floor insulation provide some benefit, the decision on what solutions to employ in a given application represents a significant challenge and the means to come to such decisions is the focus of this research. In the context of rising energy prices and specific government legislation and subsidies, end users are seeking out alternative energy solutions. In doing so, they become increasingly sophisticated in adapting behaviours and technology solutions to optimise their situation, adding to the challenge of selection.


The challenge of assessment and recommendation can be subject to detailed analysis considering energy usage, the lifetime of the property and technology concerned, first and lifetime costs, as well as types of users. Factors such as the type of occupants have significant influence on the effectiveness of energy and comfort solutions, whether the people involved are tenants or owners, and influences change within the time period of occupancy with for instance the requirements and energy behaviours of an owner-occupier altering with changes in personal circumstances, such as age of children and work. Assessment of these multiple factors has been subject to extensive research and models are available to enable assessments of different solutions.

Our plan

There are a number of well-established means for enabling engagement between diverse parties (see, for example (Childs and Garvey, 2015). Effective decision making needs to move away from “group think”. To optimise objectivity the decision-making team needs to be from a wide a stakeholder base. Ideally, the team should work together to encapsulate the decision in the form of a focus question. Independent facilitation by using, on the one hand, an external expert in the field, and secondly a purely independent facilitator who provides objectivity when dealing with group dynamics.

Our solution

The HOUSE (HOme User and Stakeholder Environment) research project is exploring through a series of case studies the behaviours of groups of stakeholders in negotiating decisions on eco-tech recommendations to customers. These case studies are being used to define an initial specification for smart devices that can be used on a scale architectural model of a home. When each device is applied to the home, software on a tablet or smartphone updates the display of the impact of the device on a series of measures such as first cost, energy bill and emissions.


A series of stakeholder workshops are being undertaken to explore the requirements for the system and also to trial different implementations of the prototypes, in order to identify preferred forms for the interactive elements and software and levels of refinement necessary for the architectural models for different classes of dwelling.


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