"Energy saving" - the best PR strategy for sustainable housing?

The project aim is the clarification and PR-reevaluation of the thematic field "energy/energy saving" as a chance to study users and market forces close and factual to have a secure base for the development of new concepts, slogans and incentives in Austria.

Content Description




Did you ever rest in wintertime in the chimney-corner of a ski-hut? If you did, comfortable heat will be a lasting personal experience. It can be felt - outside the hut without a ski-pullover and near the stove with a pullover - that there is a human temperature optimum with its borders of "too cold" and "too hot". Why is it then difficult to present the field of heat and energy? Why do technicians, energy and environment experts often fail to operationalize their findings in a popular way? Why should a special interdisciplinary project of "Building of Tomorrow" study energy optimizing technologies and their PR explanations for building and housing?

The main thesis of this project: Heat, heating, the sense of energy is a basic, deeplying psychological phenomenon, an emotional and physical sensation lacking verbal expression, so that the quite recent concept of energy and its physical-technical abstractions shows only minimal social effects. Emotionally, some forms of science and technology are even labelled off as "cold". The warm chimney-corner and its measured image as heat island in a field of infrared radiation are light-years apart.

When the domestic installation background for cold or warm feet is computed in a difficult way, remains hidden in the bill of maintainance costs, does not even reach the cost level of the monthly cellphone bill, then all appeals to ecology, urbanism, culture or morals are not really fruitful. What is touching in the ski-hut, near the campfire, turns into a phantom in the building physics jungle of modern housing forms and dissolves into thin air.

All modular project results of this study fit together into the general thesis that "energy saving" is no safe ground for a sustainable economic strategy of housing, but needs a sensual and experience-near base. Productive learning is a composite of thoughts and feelings. This is not different for the field of energy. As housing decisions tend to be very complex, emotional orientation is needed leading -as with a special brand- to a personal solution, not to a compromise between ill-understood mental alternatives.

This study has analyzed energy public relations on different levels: In a comparative review of literature, by explorative interviews, in two group-discussions between experts and users, by the evaluation of common PR material issued by state and economy, via a delphi expert survey and in cooperation with a Passivhaus project and another study by the Vienna University of Technology.

Elke Doering-Seipel (2000, 605) is right when she points out "that circumscribed environmental situations - places - take on emotional qualities and that this emotional quality plays a key role in the understanding of human-environment-relations." Seen against this background of modern psychology, housing and building is not primarily cognitive-technical, but an emotional-social task. Contemporary European housing energy PR can be critizised as too top-heavy, using chiefly intellectual arguments and putting the weight onto the wrong leg.

What would happen to a Vienna hot dog stand if its owner communicated to potential customers mainly technical details about the production and preparation of his products? Hygiene and grilling techniques will not make your mouth water. The same goes for laypeople and high performance collectors.

To lean against a badly or well insulated wall at summer or winter outside temperatures says more to people than mysterious K- or U-values. The standard Passivhaus formula "15kWh/sqm/year" should follow after your own experience about room climate with automatic ventilation and heat recovery, not precede it. Emotions are necessary for a decision in complex situations, because they form preferences and build up individual meaning. Personal service experts know this.

Restaurants in Japan place models of their dishes, artificial, but tasty, near to the entrance, Chinese restaurants show color snaps of their products in the menu. They have it more easy, as the eyes, the optical sense of perception, play a greater role for eating than for housing. Some Austrian furnishing houses do no longer only exhibit beds, but offer a "studio" where customers can really relax in their products physically. You will not select a ski only for its varnish or an office chair only for its upholstery - likewise, the selection of housing quality needs more than sympathetic facade photographs and joyfully furnished floor plans.

The managers of prefab housing parks have realized this so they offer to their clients real-life 1:1 models of their products for choice, to walk right in. Even better would be "test lodging" in different housing and dwelling types. After all, a car is usually testdriven before the purchase decision.

Different from radioactivity which cannot be sensed at all or electromagnetic waves and fields which are not sensed by all, heat energy has the advantage of always resulting in subjective sensations. Real-life simulations or "test lodging" would save long energy discussions indifferent to lay-people. Various housing types could be experienced and tested in course of an afternoon excursion.

The project-team emphasizes three issues for improving energy PR:

1. Emotional relations

Energy solutions should have brand qualities and encourage long-term relations. Quality certificates and modular solutions go into the right direction, but in an emotionally indifferent way, offering no identification.

2. Everyday reality

Energy solutions and products must touch down from the universe of physics and technology into the everyday environment of their users and be of relevance there. Not every customer is a inventor fond of abstract thinking. Advantages and problems should be explained in plain, everyday language.

3. Social grounding

Energy solutions do not happen individually, exclusively, but exist in social contexts. These are to be taken into account. What will our neighbors say? What kind of opinions are to be expected in a group discussion with friends? Communicable, sociallly meaningful messages spread even without expensive advertising. And: not all social emotions are noble and constructive.

The success of innovative seat accomodations was aquired by sitting, not rational thinking. Products and ideas of everyday relevance help to position the energy and sustainability discussion, where the political and economic decisions happen - into the mainstream, into bulk consumption. A diffusion of innovations is successful when it offers clear steps to follow and understandable examples. State and politicians are called upon to promote sustainable economic processes via appropriate guiding principles and legal conditions.

Project Partners

Project manager: Dr. Alexander Keul,
Associate Professor,
Applied Psychology, Salzburg University

Mag. Eva Ruprechtsberger
PR Consulting Salzburg

Mag. Elisabeth Moser
AAI Salzburg


Dr. Alexander Keul
(Ass.Prof. at Salzburg University)
Angewandte Psychologie
Egger Lienz Gasse 19/8
A 5020 Salzburg
Tel/Fax: +43 (0)662 453689
E-Mail: alexander.keul@sbg.ac.at