Sustainable Homes

This study asks: what kind of space is the sustainable home, and what are its affordances for public engagement with the environment? To answer these questions, this study undertakes an object-centred analysis of three sustainability spaces on the Web. Using tools of textual analysis (Google Scraper, Open Calais) and visualisation (Bubbleline, Dorling), it explores how the sustainable home is 'multiply' constituted, made up by different objects in different publicity spaces, with various consequences in terms of its affordances for environmental engagement.

Classified under Case Studies (Sustainable Homes), Mapping Approaches (Public engagement, Digital epistemology), Tools Applied (Design software, Digital methods, Issue crawler), Users (Academics, Issue professionals, Journalists), Styles Of Inquiry (Opening black boxes, Retrospective), Visualizations (Tag cloud), Controversy Types (Artificial, Perpetual), Conceptual (Very existence of controversies, Controversy shapes, Controversy spaces)

What kind of space is the ‘sustainable home’?

An object-centred analysis of three green spheres on the Web

Noortje Marres

Design: Christian Thumer and Matthew Falla,, with thanks to Marieke van Dijk

Research: Erik Borra, Esther Weltevrede, Michael Stevenson, Rosa Menkman


Recent social studies of sustainable homes provide conflicting assessments of the affordances of these settings for environmental citizenship. Critical analyses view the home as a site where citizenship is turned into a private, calculative activity (Rutland and Aylett, 2008; Scolum, 2004). Others view the domestic context more favourably, as providing a place to experiment with 'object-centred' forms of environmental engagement. Here homes figure as spaces for affective involvement with material things and arrangements, enabling shifts in habits and sensibilities (Hawkins, 2006; Verbeek, 2004). In the following Web analysis, we turn to publicity around ‘sustainable living’ on the Web, with the aim of treating this disagreement empirically.

We ask: Does ‘the sustainable home’ predominantly figure a site for private, calculative activity, or is it enacted as a space for public engagement with the environment? And what role do domestic objects play in this respect?

Deciding to explore these questions in a comparative mode, we delineate three different source sets or spheres (Foot & Schneider, 2007) in which “sustainable homes” figures on the Web:

1. Green home blogs: English-language blogs that feature the home as a place for adopting sustainable ways of life.
2. Green commentary: English-language blogs that comment on wider issues of sustainability and the low-carbon economy (as reported in the news).
3. Green issue network: A hyperlink network consisting of large US and UK governmental and non-governmental organisations.

(The first two source sets were located by snowballing, including reverse snowballing (following in-links backwards, with the aid of technorati). The issue network was located with the aid if Issue Crawler, with the green home blogs source set providing the starting points.)

Figure 1: Issue network disclosed by green home blogs, Issuecrawler, March 2008

We opt for a comparative analysis mainly for two reasons:

a) In this way, we can approach our object - the ‘sustainble home’ - as a multiple object (Mol, 2001): we can consider variation in its articulation, depending on the media, genres, actors that disclose it. Such an approach, we hope, would also provide a way of geting at variances in the affordances of sustaianble homes for political and ethical engagement with the environment.

b) We would like to explore whether the notion of ‘public controversy’ can be extended to include cases like these, in which a given object is variously articulated in different publicity spaces. (Mapping controversies could then also be becomes a way of making visible divergences, and possible contestations, among object articulations, which are not necessarily explicated as such in the media under scrutiny).

1. Green home typology: What kind of object is it?


We begin with an exploratory question: what kind of object is ‘the home’ according to the three source sets?

Figure 2: Home bubbleline, July 2008


1. Query 'home' for each source set using Google Scraper.
2. Mark up the top three returns for each source according to categories
3. Count the number of mentionings per category;
4. Visualise results with the aid of the Bubbleline visualiser.

Findings and further questions

The green issue network focuses on new and purpose-built homes and products, while on commentary sites and green home blogs the home figures prominently as an activity space. Furthermore, the home does serve as a space of calculation in all three source sets, both in the narrow sense (carbon footprinting) and in the broader sense of a preoccupation with resource efficiency and certification. However, the significant divergence between the source sets rather concerns something else, namely the difference between purpose-built structures and existing homes, and between activities and products. Can we deduce from this that different sustainable homes instantiate different forms of "environmental change": innovation versus renovation, buying versus doing? If so, this raises particular questions about public engagement: is it oriented towards the future or situated in current locations? Is it enacted through consumption or domestic activities?

2. “What you can do”: green home blogs versus the green issue network


In this second exercise, we seek to further "dis-aggregate" the sustainable home. We ask what kinds of objects and activities 'the sustainable home' is made up of, in different media spaces, and: what this can tell us about the forms of environmental engagement it enables.

In order to test the hypothesis that the sustainable home turns engagement into a private and calculative acitivity, we turn to a publicity genre which can seem to instantiate this idea: Web pages with advice on ‘what you can do’ ‘to help save the environment’, how to ‘take action now,' and so on. Such tips for personal action abound both in the green issue network and on green home blogs, but not so much on green commentary sites, so we only consider the former two. We are interested to find out how prominently resource efficiency figures on these pages, as that would tell us something about the extent to which personal engagement here figures as a calculative activity.

We ask:

Do tips about "what you can do" enact environmental engagement mainly as a matter of resource efficiency - of ‘economizing’ on electricity, gas and water - or do other modes of activity and things come into play?

Figure 3 and 4: “What you can do”: green home blogs vs green issue network


1. Manually extract pages on “what you can do” from the issue network and green home blogs
2. Extract terms from these pages with the aid of Open Calais? (using only industry terms)
3. Manually categorize terms, and count mentionings per category
4. Use Dorling Visualizer to visualize the relative sizes of categories
5. Use the Analyzer to determine unique terms per category per source set.
6. Manually mark up these unique terms according to 4 values : economy, supply, usage, service
7. Re-arrange Dorling visualisation to show the distribution of categories accross these values.


Energy and services are big in the green issue network, while food and things (products, appliances, materials) are more prominent on green home blogs. In the issue network, more objects and activities are coded in terms of efficiency (saving, efficient, cost) than on green home blogs, and this framing is especially predominant in relation to energy. (These findings contrast with the emphasis on calculation in the Googlescraper results for green home blogs. As such, they may also tell us something about the genre of “what you can do”). Green home blogs place much emphasis on home made entities, from food to cleaning materials. Comparing this to the relative prominence of services in the issue network, one could interpret this as a difference in emphasis on infrastructure versus domesticity, and perhaps, in terms of public versus private. However, the different ontologies disclosed by personal action on the environment can also be taken to articulate divergent kinds of economies: a service economy centred on energy, or a ‘craft’ economy concentrating on food and other stuff? While this is a question rather than a finding, it suggests to us that an analytical focus on the reductive power of the sustainable home (turning citizenship into a calculative activity), might lead us to miss out on the more 'expansive' work of articulation performed with the aid of green homes, of different possible domestic economies.

3. Sustainable perspectives: the space-times of sustainable living


In this last exercise, we further explore the issue of the relative ‘smallness’ of the sustainable home as a space for action on the environment. That is, we are interested in the scope of sustainable homes (Michael and Gaver, forthcoming), the question of what kind of spaces they open up. Thus, our question is whether 'sustainable living' is primarily oriented towards the immediate surroundings of everyday life, or whether it also involves reference to, consideration of, or even intervention in, spaces that lie well beyond it?

In taking up this question of the “spatio-temporal” coordinates of the green home, the exercise finds inspiration in a diagram featured in the Limits to Growth report (1972):

Figure 5: Human Perspectives (Limits to Growth, 1972)

This classic figure plots human concerns across time and space, moving from more immediate to distant times and spaces. (The figure locates the majority of people's concerns in the here and now, and as such it passed a rather bleak verdict on the public's capacity for sustainability, i.e. its ability to consider implications that are distant in time and space in the present).

Drawing an analogy with this figure, we ask: what is the spatio-temporal distribution of the concerns raised in the three green source sets on the Web? Are green home blogs similarly pre-occupied with the here and now? Do the green organisations represent more global concerns? Does it make even sense to apply this spatio-temporal grid to these ‘digital formations’?

Figure 6 and 7: Green home blog perspectives, and the spatial distribution of the source sets' categories compared.


1. Distill categories from three source sets, and visualise them using the Tag Cloud Generator
2. Manually attribute spatio-temporal coordinates to these categories:

x : the everyday (1) – infrastructures and collectives (2) – elsewhere (3)
y: the present (a), the next decade or so (b), further into the future (c)

3. Visualize


1. The spatio-temporal framework of human perspectives does not apply to the three source sets.

One of the main ‘findings’ or realizations in which this exercise resulted, is that is next to impossible to locate the ‘concerns’ of green blogs, commentary sites and the issue network in the ‘Euclidian’ space-time. assumed by the Limits to Growth report (see on this point Nowotny, 2007). This for two reasons. Firstly, in many if not most cases it proved difficult to locate categories temporally: is peak oil, ge-engineering or renewable energy something of the future, present or past? I would say it’s either uncertain or all of the above. A similar problem arose in relation to spatial coordinates: is waste/water/pharmaceuticals a concern of everyday life or a global issue? Again I would say all of the above. Thus, we decided to drop the temporal coordinates, and to accept the ‘non-exclusivity’ of the spatial coordinates of the objects involved. Thus, objects could be located in all or any combination of the three spatial levels: everyday life, collectives and infrastructures, and global objects.

2. Taking non-exclusivity of the spatial coordinates as a starting point, the exercise does however yield a spatial distribution of concerns.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, green home blogs tend towards the everyday. However, it is not the issue network but critical commentary sites that are most concerned with objects that have a global dimension. Notably, while the issue network is much concerned with consumption, it includes no entitites that are more or less unique to everyday life. These initial findings may also have consequences for our understandings of sustainability. As a general project, sustainability is concerned with the effort to make that which is distant in space and time (carbon emissions, future generations, and so on) relevant in/to the here and now. However, the sustainable sites under study unsettle the neat space-time geometry that this project seems to presuppose: consideration of proximate objects here does not necessarily exclude attention to distant ones. Accordingly, we ask: do these sustainability spaces on the Web disclose alternative 'topologies' whichi problematize the equation of the domestic with the small-scale and the proximate? Could sustainable homes be locations where the space-times of public engagement are re-imagined? This may or may not be the case. In any case, one thing cannot go unnoticed in this respect: the issue network disclosed by green home blogs (see Figure 1) presents a highly centralized, governmental geography, with US and UK government and consumer organisations taking centre stage.

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Attachments of PlatformSustainableHomes

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