The engine is not responding:
A critical look at the automated low-energy home

Bjørn Berge

The Norwegian building regulations of 2010 and the passive-house clause expected to be introduced in 2016/17 represents a new era in Norwegian building traditions. For the first time mechanical systems is presented as a required feature of a living space. The fact that the direct effect of these measures on energy conservation and climate change is questionable, and that there are serious negative implications on indoor climate, have gradually become part of the public debate. This article will delve into the social, political and cultural aspects of what it now seems appropriate to call a fateful paradigm shift.

After my first flight in an intercontinental Airbus, I was told of its intrinsic technological principles. This may be part myth, but it is said that the plane is so finely tuned and optimized when it comes to speed and fuel consumption that it can no longer be operated by humans. It is dependent on a wide range of computer systems in order to maintain altitude and remain balanced. The purpose of the pilots is to communicate with air space controllers, and their presence can perhaps also be for the sake of appearance. Manual override is impossible and if the computer systems fail the plane will crash.

The same will soon be true for our houses, due to changes being implemented in building regulations in Norway and most EU countries. Indoor climate and energy will be managed by fine-tuned machinery beyond our influence. Computer controlled temperature, lighting, boilers, blinds, heat pumps, heat exchangers and ventilation systems will replace the opening and closing of windows, the lighting of the wood-fire oven, the need to wear a sweater on chilly mornings, the turning off and on of lights and the drawing of curtains. And the assumption that the computers are apparently better suited for the job has legitimized aggressive marketing and subsidising, with the expressed purpose of implementing the new technology as widely as possible.

The 2010 alterations to the Norwegian Planning and Building Act presented the first automation requirement. All subsequent constructions and refurbishments have to be provided with a balanced ventilation system with heat recovery. Even if this is not openly expressed it will be consequential when the energy and ventilation requirements are seen in context. The passive house-requirement is announced for 2015, and most likely there will be a zero-energy standard from 2020. These regulations will result in the increased application of technology. Meanwhile, the smart-house is under development. In addition to the aforementioned arsenal of energy conservation measures these houses will offer an array of additional services, like safety mechanisms for the elderly and the disabled. Are the doors locked? The stovetop switched off? And on an even more advanced level: heart-rate monitoring, medication control etc. These are all measures presented with the best of intentions, and therefore, like the energy- saving measures, well suited for inclusion in coming building regulations in the fire-safety and universal design sections.

Although these developments apply to all buildings I will in the following concentrate on housing. Our houses form the foundations of our lives and it is in them that we are the most vulnerable. The question is then, whether we are, with all our good intentions, on the right track. How do all the measures that are introduced, and then largely made mandatory, coincide with our perceptions of good housing and the opportunity to lead a free and meaningful life? Does standardised temperature, humidity and odour, all conditions of the technological choice, deprive us of the opportunity for personal experience and expression? And will we even be able to maintain the required discipline and amenability?
Is a focus on energy conservation what will help us manage the climate crisis? I do not believe so, at least not without a significant clarification of the premises currently applied.

Growth economics and technology choices

The EU energy directive of 2008, which forms the basis for current Norwegian building regulations and the plans for a general passive-standard, attaches great importance to the potential for job creation. There is an estimated 280 000 to 450 000 new jobs created in relation to energy certification, assessment, and the inspection of heating and ventilation systems. In addition, there are new jobs created in the production of energy-saving components and materials. Expectations also stimulate the stock markets. In the movie, “Money never sleeps”, which may be seen as a good interpretation of how our economy works, the arch-capitalist Gordon Gekko states that "green is the new bubble."

 Our economic system is built on the fundamental principle of infinite growth. The term “creative destruction” comes from economic theory. It describes innovation as the real driving force behind long term economic growth, the continuous replacement of the old by the new. We recognize this pattern in the computer world. First comes the basic product. Then the portable version, followed by the wireless. And finally a new version of the original product. In addition to being profitable it also needs to be complex enough to be commercialized. People should not be able to make the products themselves, and preferably neither to maintain them. This ensures consumption and consequently the flow of capital through society.

Growth and profit in the private sector drives the state. And if the products can be said to be for a good cause, it gradually becomes almost routine for the authorities in European countries to apply industrial incentives. Increasingly often specific products are made mandatory. The sand in the kindergarten sand boxes can no longer be collected by volunteers from the nearest beach or sand pits, it is a specialized product that must be purchased from a central supplier. It is not acceptable to cover cow-stalls with straw; high pressure foam mattresses are required. Similarly, in construction policy, the simple approach is not the aim. Which is why natural ventilation is rejected in favour of more complex and highly mechanized ventilation strategies.

In line with the dogma of ‘creative destruction’ the passive house will also eventually have to be killed off. We have already had the zero model house, which in turn will be superseded by the so-called plus house. And as rigid and specialized as these building types are now about to become, there will be little opportunity for reconstruction and adaptation. Creating a need for significant amounts of demolition.

In many ways, the state has its back against the wall. Economic growth appears to be necessary for financing social security and road construction. Suspicions of improper and vicarious motives for new regulations and standards can therefore easily be founded on the fact that these serve to finance government as well as supposedly solve a problem. One might be tempted to speculate as to whether the climate crisis is a hoax, staged in order to ensure economic growth. It appears in fact to be a very good idea arriving at just the right time: Climate technology represents a whole range of new products, which we until recently had no idea we needed.

In Report No. 7 (2008-2009) the government determines that Norway has to "contribute to the development of technology that helps to show that it is possible to decouple economic growth from growth in greenhouse gas emissions." According to a number of economists and ecologists, this is an incorrect link, and an impossibility that can best be compared with the performance of a perpetual motion machine. The economy is inherently an open subsystem subordinate to the earth's ecosystem, which in turn is finite, without the possibility to grow; a materially closed loop. As long as the economic subsystem grows it will incorporate more and more of the total ecosystem, until the limit of 100% is reached.

And what about residents?

The results of technological development have always been presented as social and cultural progress. New inventions in medicine, transportation, communication, education, economy, housing, etc. - are all considered a kind of inevitable evolution and cultural development. But we often do not see the consequences of this so-called progress. The alteration, reconstruction and transformation of other aspects of human life is obscure. High-tech medicine has brought with it new diseases, computer networks invade privacy and overwhelm us with information, and new production technologies have created a more stressful workplace. 

We see the consequences in the building sector as well.  A wide range of construction materials introduced over the past fifty years have been shown to emit harmful gases. Other consequences are even less obvious; the British architectural critic Martin Pawley considers central heating to be a driving force behind the breakdown of the family in the Western world, as family members no longer have to gather around the fireplace.

Technologists tend to focus on the object and its new and ground-breaking aspects, thereby limiting their understanding of the influence it can have on the social environment into which it is introduced. In a Swedish study of residents in low-energy homes the automatic temperature controls the houses were equipped with were found to invoke feelings of pride and positivity. But when this was more closely examined, it turned out that almost none had taken them into use, or even knew how they should be connected and operated. And some of them showed an almost active lack of interest in its possibilities. The example describes a fundamental ambivalence that encompasses much of the technology we are introduced to: on the one hand an almost unfettered acceptance, on the other hand, fundamental shortcomings.

"We do not know where we are going, But we are on our way", 
Langdon Winner 

 Winner is, as this quote suggests, convinced that we have reached a time in which we are no longer able to challenge or criticize technological developments. 

The question will always be whether the technology we implement, the socio-technical world we create, is what people really want, and whether it is for the good of the planet.  This is a complex question, because you rarely know what you really want before experiencing what you have. By that time, it is often too late, as technological development is made irreversible be means of standardization and interception of alternative developmental directions.

The house as an incubator or self-expression?

Already in the interwar years Le Corbusier dreamed of building anywhere on the globe with "une respiration exacte." And now it is so. Our houses, and most of the other indoor spaces in which we spend our lives, are more or less fully air-conditioned, controlled by computerized systems. A necessary foundation for this automation has been to determine the exact level of comfort.

The EU standard for comfort is based on the so-called PMV scale, developed by the Dane Poul O.  Fanger. It includes air and radiant temperature, air velocity and relative humidity, with 0 on the scale representing "I feel neither cold nor hot." The reference condition of comfort is defined as absence of perception. The same method is applied for the norms of smell, where the ‘absence of smell’ is sought.

The result is that buildings must be well - in fact extremely well - ventilated. And to achieve this while adhering to the ambitious level of energy efficiency now required in passive houses, it has been necessary to implement heat exchangers on the exhaust air together with the necessary controls. There are several ways to arrange this. A widely used method employs CO2 sensors in every room, where the CO2 concentration is expected to indicate the user load. This remains a pure automation technology based on the PMV scale, and must not be confused with user control. The sensory experiences of the residents will continue to be overridden, resulting in something very close to a passive incubator state.

Paradoxically, one of the pioneers of modern architecture, Richard Neutra, defends the idea of an "omnisensorial experience" - that we need a wide range of sensory challenges, not just to protect our own humanity, but also to experience architecture. And anthropologist Edward Hall adds that we are approaching an antiseptic architecture "where all sensations other than visualizing tend to disappear". He believes that this not only deprives us of opportunities to experience and develop as individuals, but also affects memory, given the fact that smells, to a greater extent than images, are capable of arousing deep memories in us. One may also wonder what conditions necessitates the ventilation of a bedroom to the extent of 26 m3 fresh air per hour per bed space, as is required by the building regulations...

In fact, studies have indicated that it can be downright healthy to have fluctuations in thermal conditions. And that the threshold for "0" on the PMV scale will be dependent on sex, menstrual cycle, race, obesity, season and time of day. Also, age plays a part - children naturally like cooler conditions than adults, but will quickly become used to warmer environments. The consequence may be that our children will choose a higher temperature faster, resulting in an overall increase in energy consumption. The automation of indoor climate can in itself provide similar results, as it turns out that the tolerance for cooler and fluctuating room temperatures is much lower among residents of automated buildings,. The reasons for this are uncertain, but it is believed to be linked to the fact that people have greater influence over their own situation in more naturally ventilated buildings.

Every area of technical / functional organization of modern society can be regarded as a type of instrumentalisation we are condemned to submit to. Technology stands, in many cases, between ourselves and nature. Perhaps also between ourselves and our own nature. And it regulates our relationships instead of us.

"Early this morning, I was in a bad mood and decided to break a law and start my car 'without buckling my seat belt"

confesses sociologist Bruno Latour. 

"It first flashes a red light FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELT!", And then an alarm sounds: it is so highly pitched, so relentless, so repetitive, that I cannot stand it. After 10 seconds I usually swear and put on the belt. This time, I stood the alarm for twenty seconds and then gave in. My mood had worsened quite a bit, but I was at peace with the law – at least with That law. I wanted to break it, but could not. Where is the morality? In me, a human driver, dominated by the mindless power of an artifact? Or in the artifact, forcing me, a mindless human, to obey [...]? "

A similar regime will be an unconditional basis for automatic energy conservation in homes. To turn off the fan because it is too noisy, or to open the bedroom window at night so that the exhaust air escapes the heat exchanger, is a form of sabotage, not only against one’s own energy bill, but against society as such.



Will we master it?

Most people are acquainted with the phenomenon "techno stress", for example, when your computer crashes or mobile phone suddenly turns itself off. And the risk escalates as we are increasingly surrounded and made dependent on technical solutions that we lack knowledge of. The smart-house technology appears as a set of impenetrable black boxes, where input provides output, thereby maintaining and managing an ever-wider range of residents’ needs at any given time. Norwegian government report NOU 2001:22 presents the smart-house with unrestrained euphoria, all the while noting that "Confidence in the system can cause the user to change behaviour and stop controlling risk factors themselves (such as turning off the stove)”.

Many would argue that humans have a fundamental need to care for themselves, to master their own life conditions. Up until 4-5 years ago, the complaint "Why can I no longer replace the light bulb in my new car"? could still be heard. Today, this regret is outdated. A technology needs only a few years to establish itself and become accepted as a matter of course. In many cases this means that our manoeuvrability is reduced, and with it our ability to influence and control our own lives. The psychologist Richard Stivers believes that technology in this way colonizes our experiences, opinions, feelings and consciousness. Thereby, over time, breaking down our sense of discernment and responsibility.
Since the requirement for a wood-fire oven and chimney was removed from the Norwegian Technical Regulations of 2010, there is nothing so uninhabitable and dysfunctional as a passive house during a power outage. An occurrence expected to increase in frequency in the future due to climate change. The engine is not responding; all ventilation and heating systems grind to a halt, and any form of human intervention is futile.


1. EPILOG: Towards a more effective energy efficiency?

I have in this article tried to describe how many of the rapid and often irreversible choices now being made with the aim of increasing energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions within the building sector have problematic aspects. The consequences can potentially result in fundamental changes in the functionality of homes. And several of the measures will have socio-cultural consequences that in turn could easily undermine their effectiveness.

And behind the choices is invariably the premise of coinciding stimulus to economic growth. This has largely spread into the research programs, which have gone from being science in the public interest to science for private benefit.

The question is whether or not climate change is too serious to have this growth requirement imposed upon it. If the situation is perhaps now so critical and the threat so great that one must seek the best solutions, irrespective of commercial considerations. And that the process therefore must be based on the recognition that parallel exploration of several solutions can not only provide a more robust response, but also keep open a possibility of retreat if faced with a dead end, as will certainly occur.

While the passive house strategy focuses on the highest possible performance at the moment of completion, it may well be that the gain over time will be greater if this narrow focus is abandoned in favour of an approach supporting more democratic and personalized solutions. Even if this means a slight reduction in the technical energy efficiency. 

2. EPILOG: But where did the saved energy go?

Let us assume that we have - through a more holistic approach - managed to develop technological requirements for a secure and sustainable energy efficiency in our buildings. Is it then certain that this will lead to reductions in overall energy consumption and CO2 emissions?

The basic problem is that energy represents the one thing that is always needed to create or use something. And again, the demand for economic growth is lurking in the shadows. The economist Robert Ayres argues that energy efficiency can already explain 60% of economic growth in the U.S. over the past 100 years, while increased input of capital and labour only explains 40%. If this is correct, and also applies in future, we can assume that energy efficiency leads to strong economic growth. And the result is well known; increased consumption of raw materials and pollution, and thereby increased strain on natural areas and biological diversity. Ayres concludes that this growth stimulation will be so powerful that the results can quickly result in a net increase in energy consumption.

The pattern can be easily traced in the building sector. The building regulations from 1960 to 1990 introduced more rigorous insulation requirements on several occasions. Resulting in the development of more energy efficient materials, heating and ventilation systems. In the same period energy consumption in the housing stock rose by almost 40%. The background was a corresponding rise in floor space. But for apartment buildings there was also an increase in energy consumption per square meter, as the heating season was extended and the room temperature turned up. Larger parts of the area are also heated, partly because storage areas in basements and attics are now almost completely integrated into the heated areas of the house.

The phenomenon is described as “the rebound effect” and the cause is as follows. When energy use and costs are reduced, it results in increased disposable income. Several consumer researchers have already noted that in addition to building bigger houses people are also renovating and replacing furnishings more often. In addition, the desire to travel rises and we buy more electronics, clothing and other consumer goods, which are commonly produced with low efficiency coal burning in Asia. The worst case result of increased energy efficiency in the building sector can consequently be that total greenhouse gas emissions rise, a so-called “back fire”.

We have basically three ways of controlling energy consumption: consuming more efficiently, consuming differently or consuming less. We are currently concentrating on the first option, to consume more efficiently. This does not seem to work. Increased energy-efficiency that does not result in an overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is pointless. To consume differently means to use the money for things that exert less stress on the climate, like stamp collecting, the hairdresser and cultural experiences, not to mention a focus on architectural quality over quantity. Here, the possibilities are many. And finally, we have the option to consume less, which for the building sector primarily means reduced floor space.

Many would argue that the answer lies in a combination of these three methods of action. And customized tools for global distribution of the burdens of such an approach have already been developed, including the so-called "personal carbon quotas". And this will not necessarily be in conflict with the welfare of our community, says economist Tim Jackson in his book Prosperity Without Growth. While U.S. consumption has doubled over the last forty years, the proportion of Americans who consider themselves happy has dropped steadily throughout that period. And in a survey done by Statistics Norway, 31% said in 1985 that they were materially satisfied, while this had dropped to 21% in 1999. In the same period, the floor space rose from 30 to 50 square meters per person. The same tendency is found in most of the world's richer countries. Such results can be considered empirical evidence that a return to a lower level of consumption would not make things worse, quite the contrary. And in the case of Norway, former industry minister Finn Lied’s statement that the building of the nation was already completed by the mid-1970s was perhaps appropriate.

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