Social media offers valuable insights into what green home refurbishment actually entails, writes Laura Dixon.
“Boiler fitted, loft insulation done, loft hatch fitted, heat exchange fan fitted. Scaffolding up for cavity wall to be done next week. Then I guess we’ll start snagging…”
Michael Keeves’ Facebook post sounds like a brag about how eco-friendly he is. But it’s actually proof that a pioneering project which uses social media to engage a small community in a retrofit scheme is working.
At Rampton Drift in South Cambridgeshire, 13 former Ministry of Defence houses built over 40 years ago are being fitted out with £320,000 of energy-saving and micro-generation technologies, from efficient boilers to photovoltaic panels. It’s a joint endeavour involving the district and county councils, Cambridge University, and contractors Willmott Dixon. The aim is to showcase the transition to low-carbon living, and assess which measures are most successful in cutting energy use, in preparation for the launch of the Green Deal [see 'Profit potential and jobs in greening old buildings'].
As part of the research, the householders have committed themselves to two years of monitoring. The spotlight will be on both their energy bills and their behaviour throughout the refurbishment, and digital communication is a key part of it.
“The residents have a Facebook page where they can log in and comment on various aspects of the work, and we send regular email updates on the progress of work”, says Tracy Mann, Principal Lead for Community Infrastructure at South Cambridgeshire District Council. “We will also be creating a website that displays the real-time energy usage of their homes, anonymously, for everyone to see.” This means residents can compare their consumption with that of other households, and even compete with their neighbours, without revealing their identity.
Crucially, the council updates information regularly on the Facebook page as well as by email, and there is no issue of editorial control: residents are free to speak their mind. The council’s hope, as stated on Facebook, is that others will “see the longer term benefits of a range of different energy efficient technologies”, and be able to access “a wealth of information as to ‘How was it for you?’”.
To date, the Facebook page largely reveals the frustrations felt by homeowners over the project.
“Waiting for money back for panels but still £3k out of pocket. Not happy, outraged. Your thoughts?” says Shaun Rivers.
“Thought the scaffolding had gone up quite well until I discovered I couldn’t open my back door!” says Lizz Mayers. “Luckily they are due back tomorrow and will be able to adjust it.”
Such a public commentary on progress could be intimidating to some developers. How might any negative comments affect outsiders’ perception of the project? Could they dissuade other householders, or even prevent future projects from going ahead?
But while there are risks, there are also significant benefits to be gained if developers can hear what the local residents are saying and respond. Moreover, whatever is said, this online chat builds a sense of community that is crucial to keep the residents engaged over the two-year period.
“It’s certainly helpful to know what they are talking about and what their expectations are”, says Michael Willoughby, Communications Manager at Willmott Dixon, Rethinking. “In theory it could help increase participation and prevent disputes. A future where contractors use social media for customer engagement on a project-by-project basis certainly makes sense, and could well be on the cards.”
“We’ve got so much to share in terms of community engagement for future projects”, says Mann. “We’ve seen that the more empowered the residents have been [through having editorial freedom on Facebook], the more they step up to their responsibilities” – whether it’s being at home to welcome the installers, or making sure the changes are properly monitored.
This is particularly important because the project needs the participants to go on contributing to the research for the next two years: a year and a half after the refit has been completed. But digital communication is just part of the bigger picture.
“We see that at the moment, door knocking works best, and that social media is better at the younger end of the scale”, continues Tracy. “We also know that people want to be informed all the time about everything, and any mechanism that helps keep them updated is essential.”
At the end of the day, even the best technologies and most attractive subsidies will be unable to cut domestic emissions, unless householders are prepared to open their doors. Finding ways to engage with them and gain their trust will be key.
Laura Dixon is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Green Futures
Photos: Comstock Images / thinkstock; Hemera Technologies / Getty / thinkstock