43.1 Cheap and Beautiful: Explaining Energy Inefficiency within Construction

Satu Reijonen , Department of Organization, Copenhagen Business School, Frederiksberg, Denmark
Susse Georg , Department of Organization, Copenhagen Business School, Frederiksberg, Denmark

Few would deny the importance of media in influencing our understanding of the challenges of climate change and in drawing attention to the ways in which climate change can be combated. This paper inquires into how the Danish media defines the difficulties in achieving energy efficiency in a sector of the economy that accounts for approximately one third of the EU’s CO2 emissions, the construction sector. Drawing on insights from science and technology studies as well as discourse analysis, the paper 1) identifies different types of arguments for why energy efficiency is not achieved, 2) problematizes the media’s implicit understanding of decision-making processes within construction, and 3) questions what consequences this understanding of the construction process’ character has for achieving energy efficiency.

The paper is based upon data retrieved from four daily newspapers[1] and six weekly or monthly professional magazines which represent the views of architects[2], building sector[3], engineers[4], municipalities[5], and business life in general[6] over a ten year time period, 1999-2008. This mix of newspapers and magazines covers not only the debate on energy related questions within the construction sector but also more broadly in society. These debates are seen as establishing and enacting particular distinctions of what energy efficiency entails (within the construction industry) and what means are considered relevant in terms of achieving or not achieving this goal. The media is not only a place in which the debates about climate mitigation take place, the media also brings and gives life to certain debates.

The paper shows that despite a seeming agreement on the necessity of enhancing energy efficiency in existing and new buildings, different media – and different professional groups – offer different explanations for energy inefficiency and suggest different means for achieving energy efficiency. Based on media content analysis of the media debates, we identify four different modes of argumentation for why energy efficiency is difficult to achieve. These are:

1)      A lack of information, knowledge and know-how of different products and solutions
2)      Negative incentives for energy efficient actions
3)      Different modes of calculation and comparison that favour less energy efficient alternatives
4)      Other priorities in conflict with energy efficiency

The first mode of argumentation builds on a deficit model, i.e. implicitly maintaining that if decision makers had more information regarding the technological possibilities for increasing energy efficiency, e.g. new window frames or forms of insulation, and on how these technologies are likely to affect other dimensions of the building, e.g. indoor air-quality, then they wouldbe more likely to choose energy efficient alternatives.
With regard to the negative incentives for energy efficient alternatives, several financing related issues are discussed, e.g. how property taxation and rental legislation are likely to make building owners and/or developers opt for less energy efficient alternatives.

The third set of arguments focuses on how choice is affected by different ways of calculating the economic costs of enhancing energy efficiency. Taking only the sales price of energy effective technologies or solutions into account is seen as hampering the adoption of energy efficient technologies, even though these are considered to be cheaper in the long run. In this case, inclusion of the long term costs of increased energy efficiency is seen as something that can lead to choosing more energy efficient technologies/products.

The fourth set of arguments is concerned with the conflicting priorities that crop up in construction processes. Much of this debate revolves around the building owners´ and architects´ aesthetic or quality related ambitions for a building as well as conflicting visions of what architectural work ought to include. For example, energy efficient elements such as solar panels are described as not fitting visually with building design, thus, implicating a conflict between the energy efficiency and architectural expression.  Similarly building owners are criticized for giving the more visible aspects of renovation higher priority than energy efficiency; and in terms of architectural practice, energy efficiency concerns are seen as jeopardizing the creativity of the architectural processes.

Implicit in each of these four different modes of argumentation is an understanding of construction as rational decision-making process. Moreover, the decision-making processes are seen as focusing on three distinct priorities: 1) energy efficiency, 2) economic profitability, or 3) aesthetic and other quality concerns. In the media, these three different grounds for decision making are treated as separate, as if they could not exist in the same decision-making situation.

The paper discusses three questions related to these findings: First, much of the media debate is premised on the idea that things could be otherwise: information could change opinions, better incentives could change action and the parameters of calculations could favour the choice of other more energy efficient solutions. Yet, this does not happen. We discuss how the prevailing modes of knowing and becoming knowledgeable as well as choosing between alternatives are (re)produced and kept in place, and how these processes can be transformed. Second, we question the media’s implicit separation of energy efficiency, aesthetics, and economic profitability. Instead we argue that in practice, decision-making is often influenced by a number of different concerns and ambitions that emerge over time. The third issue we address is the media’s portrayal of construction as a rational decision making process. However, rather than continue is in this vein, we argue that it is necessary to attend to the emergent character of goals and opportunities. Portraying construction processes as choosing rationally between different alternatives, based on pre-existing priorities, will not help us understand the complexities of the ‘greening of construction’, nor will it help us to overcome the manifold and multifaceted barriers for enhancing energy efficiency.


[1] Jyllands-Posten, Politiken, Berlinske Tidende and Børsen
[2] Arkitekten, Arktema
[3] Byggeriet
[4] Ingeniøren
[5] Nyhedsmagasinet Danske Kommune
[6] Ehrvervsbladet, Børsen