Becoming Dr Love: Part 1 (what I did in my PhD)

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Jenny Love, UCL Energy Institute

I have been blogging about energy-related topics for over a year now, and so far haven’t said anything about my own research. In this post and the next one (forthcoming), I’ll describe, hopefully in a fun way, how I went about doing research on making social housing energy efficient, and what I found out. This one, part 1, describes what I did and some of the adventures I had along the way.

The point was to go and find out why, when social housing is made energy efficient by putting insulation and double glazing in, not as much heating energy is saved as was predicted – instead, the house becomes warmer. Now, this could be because occupants find heating cheaper and decide to use more; it could be that they use their heating exactly the same after the insulation and the house keeps heat in better and so the temperature goes up; there are various other options.

Now, much as I love doing it, sitting in an office drinking tea and staring at graphs was not going to solve this one – I decided on a ‘mixed empirical methodology’ which involves going and finding out what is going on in the houses both physically and from the occupants’ point of view. On the physics side, I decided to measure (both before and after the insulation) temperatures, radiator activity (to find out how they used heating) and use of space (to find out if they were able to use more rooms in their house when the rooms got warmer). On the occupant side, I decided to interview people in their homes about their life there, the cold, the insulation, and other topics.

After gaining permission to do my research on a particular council estate, the first thing to do was recruit households. Now, other researchers use sophisticated-sounding ways to do this, such as ‘stratified random sampling’ and ‘systematic sampling’. Although it hadn’t been my intention, the method I ended up using to recruit people was: pity. Imagine: it’s snowing outside; you hear a knock at your door, and a girl and her friend are standing outside, teeth chattering. The girl is wearing oversized steel-capped boots she has obviously borrowed from a man, and a ridiculous yellow jacket like a lollipop lady. You have never heard of UCL Energy Institute and have no interest in what she is doing but since her lips are blue you bring her in and give her a cup of tea.

It was pretty much like that.

Some things stick with you when you go into random people’s houses. I now present an extract of probably one of the weirdest conversations I’ve ever had:

Occupant: “When we have the double glazing we’ll have to move Emily”

Jenny: “Emily?”

[Occupant points at very large model triceratops on the floor of the living room]

Jenny: “…Aah.” [for some reason the next thing that came into Jenny’ head was:]”For some reason I thought it was male.”

Occupant: “Oh, no. Listen to this: EMILY!”

Emily: “Raaaaah!”

Jenny: “Oh, it knows its name…”

Occupant: “Oh, yes. But it gets even better: put your hand in her mouth.”

Jenny: “I don’t know if I want to do that”.

[Jenny does it anyway]

Jenny: “Ooh, she’s teething me!”

Emily

So anyway, one month later I thought I had enough data from the houses, so went back to take the sensors out and interview the occupants. I arrived at the first house to be told that the children had taken the sensors down, and why had I put them up, they looked so much like toys. I apologised. I went to the next house and was told that the cat had taken the sensors down.

cat in 184 mary slessor

This very cat, yes, the one shown sitting here on my bag of sensors, out-intellectualised a PhD student by pointing out a flaw in her research design. I should invite it back to be my PhD examiner.

Aside from animal sabotage, some serious and quite sad things emerged in the interviews. One lady lived in the mouldiest house I had ever seen, and appeared to be trapped in a vicious cycle. She had COPD, which is a lung condition in which any cold caught goes to the chest and the sufferer ends up being rushed to hospital unable to breath. Her doctor had told her there was a simple way to stop this: turn the heating up to at least 18°C. But she couldn’t afford to do this. She was unable to work because of the condition, but that meant she was stuck in her house for longer, and couldn’t afford to have the heating on, so got more ill, so couldn’t work…etc…. I was wondering if the insulation would help break this cycle. I had never realised how important housing condition is in people’s lives. Staring at graphs or being in a lab would never have brought this kind of insight to my attention – you have to get out and chat to people in their own context.

After taking down all of the sensors which the children or cat hadn’t kindly done for me, I went back to UCL. It was a relief to finish wandering around in the snow, but equally it felt strange to go back to my plush office, knowing that the occupants were stuck in their freezing and sometimes mouldy houses. Anyway, it was time to analyse the interview data. I had thought I would cringe at hearing my own voice on tape, mostly due to my accent going strangely northern when I talk to people whom my subconscious decides are less posh than I am, but that was nothing compared to some of the questions I had accidentally asked:

“So, is there anything else you do in your bedroom to keep warm?”

[occupant changes the subject]

A year later, insulation and double glazing had been installed in the houses, and it was time to do my study again. Maybe because it wasn’t so stressful the second time round, I noticed a lot of things on the estate I hadn’t paid attention to the previous year: the prevalence of pubs, off-licenses and betting shops as opposed to healthier activities like anywhere to have a cup of tea, the lack of employment and purpose amongst the youth, and how recent welfare changes were affecting the people on the estate. I decided I did not want to just come in as the researcher and take from them, by gathering data, then leaving – I wanted to give them something back. I tried to show interest in their lives and always ask about them and their families – but I gradually realised that the main thing I had given them was a sense of value when I asked them to be part of the study. One occupant even reported that nobody normally wanted to know him, never mind study him. They felt they were giving something by being part of the study, and in that they felt valued. This had the side-effect of changing my opinion on how we should do social action in our communities – by involving people and doing things together with them, as this makes them feel more valued than just doing something for them of which they are the passive recipient.

I took extra care to make my sensors cat-proof and dinosaur-proof this time, but something I couldn’t avoid was that three sets of tenants had moved out since the last time I was there. I wanted to re-recruit the new people in those houses to be part of the study. This time I didn’t use pity, but cheerleading. As I was explaining the study to one potential recruit, another of my tenants, an elderly gentleman, came bounding up behind me, dancing around and exclaiming, “They’re good sensors!” The man whose front door I was stood in front of ushered me in quickly and shut the door.

In conclusion, having tried it I would recommend the method of collecting both physical data from sensors and gaining the occupant view from interviews. I would also recommend people who work in or want to work in policy to go and spend some time with the people that the policies affect. It was really special to do something together with the tenants for a while, and I learned a lot from them. In the next post you can read about what I actually found out!

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2 thoughts on “Becoming Dr Love: Part 1 (what I did in my PhD)

  1. Pingback: Becoming Dr. Love: Part 2 (what occupants do) | energyandlife

  2. Enjoyable to read. Would appreciate an RSS hyperlink to enable subscription in an RSS reader.

    Your point about policy workers could be applied to fellow academics, architects (how many would live in the houses for the poor that they design?) and of course politicians!

    Also is it fair to say that the connection between health and energy is most likely ignored. Having just returned from South Africa, it was a surprise to learn that national policy in that country doesn’t even recognise health as a factor in determining energy infrastructure development. Poor quality housing = poor conditions = poor health. Am about to read the next post now! 🙂

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