Accepted paper:

'One is hypothetical and one is real…'. Accounting for "error" in low-carbon building performance


Catherine Willan (University College London)
Russell Hitchings (University College London)
Michelle Shipworth (University College London)

Paper short abstract:

Discourse analysis can reveal how actors account for "error" (Gilbert & Mulkay, 1984) in low-carbon building performance. It uncovers opposing repertoires of "theory" and "reality", and explores how, when and why these do - or do not - meet. The basis is empirical case study data from UK buildings.

Paper long abstract:

The UK government has sought to incentivise lower-carbon public buildings by employing carbon and energy performance contracts, which supplement local and national regulations and certification programmes, such as BREEAM. Despite this set of incentives, not all buildings will meet their performance targets. This paper uses empirical case study data from the UK to explore how actors in the construction industry rationalise these performance failures through discourse. Drawing on STS frameworks of "accounting for error" (Gilbert and Mulkay, 1984), it identifies interpretative repertoires through which differences in a building's designed and operational carbon emissions are represented as a dichotomy between "theory" and "reality". It will explore how, and in what arenas, actors keep "theory" and "reality" apart, and if, and when, they bring them together. It will consider whether divergences between the "theory" and "reality" of low-carbon buildings may be a convenient construct to mitigate risk for the public and private actors involved, and to avoid dealing with difficult issues, such as: pressurised public budgets; the nature of regulatory governance; technological complexities; unpredictable interactions; and shortfalls in industry skills. Moreover, it raises the question as to what extent such a binary conception of (low) carbon performance is helpful for either building projects or policy, when considering the full lifecycle of a building and the daily dynamism of energy use. A failure by actors to formally acknowledge the constructed - and negotiable - nature of both "theory" and "reality" means that alternative discourses, that could promote honesty and collaborative learning, are displaced.

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