Theories of Change and Cooling our Energy Use

A Reflective Essay for Transition Design on Theories of Change [revised]

There is a unit of measurement sometimes used in architecture called a clo that describes the amount of insulation particular clothing provides to remain comfortable in a room kept at an ideal 70 degrees Fahrenheit. While used infrequently in industry, the term is sometimes used by sustainability-focused academics when contemplating eco-friendly heating and cooling strategies. The mere existence of a term for the amount of clothing one should wear to remain comfortable inside is a demonstration of the proliferation of strategies for reducing energy consumption in building heating and cooling. Each strategy, product, or method aimed at getting people to reduce the energy required to keep their homes at comfort level embodies a particular theory of change. Two main theories of change (TOCs) dominate the field of heating- and cooling-based energy reduction.

A prominent TOC in the field involves passive heating and cooling — finding methods other than fossil fuels of raising or lowering a building’s temperature to that comfort level. The theory of change embedded within passive heating and cooling is that buildings should be structured from the ground up to contain these alternate solutions to our energy intake. However, this method is slow-moving and hard to iterate on. Once built (or ‘concrete in’), the practices these buildings establish become very hard to alter.

Alternatively, to take advantage of existing structures, the idea of providing feedback to the home or business owner on their energy consumption has gained prominence. The theory of change in this case is that if you show people the data behind their energy consumption, they will be inclined to try to lower it. This ‘knowledge is power’ TOC is exemplified in many gasometer projects where researchers try to reduce the time gap from when people use the energy to when they receive the information of their usage (typically their energy bill). The theory behind the Nest follows along a similar line of thinking. However, it no longer expects people to do the work of adjusting energy use but hopes to automate the lowering of consumption based on learned patterns.

However, both of these TOCs run into problems. First, energy consumption is a social practice and these TOCs do not take that into consideration. Though individually performed, Scott et al. argue that “…practices are inherently social in nature.” [1] For example, though we may see that our AC is using excessive amounts of energy, the social expectation to have a ‘cool’ home in the summer during a dinner party might push us to leave it running all evening despite the ticker running on the dashboard in the kitchen.

There are some examples of heating and cooling strategies that do begin to take practices into consideration. For example, when I worked in LEED certified buildings, as part of their certification process, they conducted surveys with occupants. In a portion of the survey on heating and cooling, they asked/suggested that perhaps rather than turning on the AC or fan, we put on a sweater. Yet, that did not provide the supporting framework to create a practice shift (from turning the heat on high to simply adding more layers —i.e. increasing clo). However, recently there was a governmental campaign in Japan focused on practice-based change. In government offices, men (and women) were no longer required to (and were discouraged from) wearing suits in the summer, meaning less cooling was needed to maintain comfort. [2] While this does consider social practice as part of the TOC, it sets artificial bounds for what may be accomplished.

Thus far these strategies have capped the ability to create continuous change because they maintain the idea of the ideal level of comfort. Cameron Tonkinwise argues that “sustainability is the choice to maintain one particular kind of ecosystem” for this very reason. [3] By setting a practice as ‘sustainable,’ we as designers are establishing what the acceptable level of use is for our users. In studies done by Rayoung Yang et al., for example, the Nest made modest overall gains in energy saving because users would stop monitoring the device over time and the automatic functionality would allow comfort to “win out” over energy savings. [4] Built into the Nest is the assumption that a homeowner would like to maintain their home at that ideal level of comfort.

That ideal level of comfort, though, has been culturally defined and now is reinforced by products and practices. Many ‘standards’ today were in fact manufactured at some earlier point in history in order to sell goods. Take for example ice water, which, practically thought of as a ‘need’ now, was not traditionally common in many parts of world. Ice traders convinced consumers that ice cold beverages were desirable in order to sell more ice. [5] For a greater change in energy consumption we need a radical redefinition of what that ideal level of comfort is.

Is there a Nest that helps people become comfortable with their home being 100 degrees in the summer? Kossoff et al. call for “everyday life… to be ‘decolonized’…” [6] Rather than catering to these manufactured paradigms, design should open up spaces. Rather than structuring systems to ‘behavior-change’ people into predetermined structures of ‘sustainability,’ design should broaden the meaning of sustainability. But, if the bounds of change are no longer pre-determined by the designer and the change itself must be continually changing, what would a theory of that change look like? In this case, tools would be needed that are less about driving the temperature closer to a pre-set level of comfort and more about the social issues that would arise as we try to explore the bounds of comfort. We would need a redesigned Nest that doesn’t adjust the temperature when we are away from home but helps us negotiate the awkwardness of convincing people to stick around for dinner as we work to redefine that cultural norm.


  1. Scott, Kakee et al. 2011. Designing Change by Living Change. Design Studies 33 (3): pp. 281
  2. Japan promotes ‘Super Cool Biz’ energy saving campaign. (2011, June 1). BBC. Retrieved from
  3. Tonkinwise, Cameron. 2013. It’s Just Going to be a Lotta Hard Work: Radical Sustainability Innovation. Unpublished article on Academia: pp. 4
  4. Yang, Rayoung, Mark W. Newman, and Jodi Forlizzi. “Making sustainability sustainable: Challenges in the design of eco-interaction technologies.”Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2014. pp 830
  5. Greenspan, Sam. “The Ice King.”. 99% Invisible. 2 Feb. 2016.
  6. Kossoff, Gideon, Cameron Tonkinwise and Terry Irwin. 2015. Transition Design: The Importance of Everyday Life and Lifestyles as a Leverage Point for Sustainability Transitions. Paper delivered at the International Sustainability Transitions Conference, University of Sussex, UK. p 1–7. Available online: pp 11–12
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