Voluntary programmes for building retrofits: opportunities, performance and challenges

Street view, NYC
Street view NYC.

With apologies for the major gap between the last blog post and this one. I have literally been all over the place since, and am now back in Norwich at UEA (see the July 4 post). But only for one day. Next week it’s Cambridge and then Amsterdam.

Quite a lot has happened since the last post. The book, Governance for Urban Sustainability and Resilience, is again a couple of being published. I just sent out my last comments to the print proofs and I am awaiting the final version of the cover. I have also decided to make some minor changes to the book I hope to publish with Cambridge University Press later next year (see one of the first blog posts I wrote), but more about that later. The really exciting news is that the journal Building Research & Information (BRI) has recently accepted another article – it has the same title as this blog post.

In the BRI article I particularly look at why it is so difficult to come up with effective governance tools that incentivise or mandate building retrofits. I have selected 20 cases from my larger data-set – all cases are from the United States, Australia and the Netherlands; and all cases are voluntary environmental programmes (VEPs). I study these by looking at how particular design conditions of the VEPs relate to their outcomes.

I am particularly interested in how well the VEPs have performed in attracting participants, and in contributing to a desired collective end (i.e., reduced carbon emissions, reduced energy consumption, etc). In terms of design conditions I am interested in whether and how the rewards for participants (i.e., financial gain, non-monetary gain, and showcasing leadership), the stringency of the VEPs (i.e., their rules, and the enforcement of these rules) and the role of government combine in causing these two outcomes.

For those following my work and that of other scholars who study VEPs it will come as no surprise that the VEPs in my study have done rather well in attracting participants, but have performed poorly in contributing to a desired collective end. This is an issue that is found time and again in studies on VEPs. Of course this begs for the question: how to design VEPs in such as way that they not only attract considerable numbers of participants, but also make sure that these participants actually act to the goal of the VEPs?

The VEPs in my study that are related to achieving a desired collective end are all characterised by a similar ideal type design: they do not ask participants to do all too much more than what is required by governmental regulation, but still reward them with considerable monetary and non-monetary gain.

At the same time, the VEPs in my study that have (thus far) failed in achieving a desired collective end are also all characterised by a similar ideal type design: the costs of participating in these VEPs do not outweigh the gains for their participants.

This part of my research paints an insightful picture of the ability of VEPs to overcome problems that stand in the way of building retrofits in the transformation of urban areas. That is, it indicates that it should be made very clear to (prospective) participants of VEPs that the benefits of these programmes (i.e., financial gain, administrative support, having their leadership recognised), outweigh the costs of participating and acting towards the goals of these programmes. Such programmes may then be expected to achieve positive outcomes in terms of building retrofits. However, at the same time not too much should be asked from participants. The current research also indicates that programmes that set high participation criteria are unlikely to achieve successful outcomes.

Exactly because of this combined set of insights not too much should be expected from VEPs for building retrofits. If no high participation criteria can be set, then programmes are unlikely to stimulate participants to take far reaching action. Furthermore, if only high gains make participants act towards the goal of these programmes, then it is unlikely that large groups of building owners will wish to be involved in such VEPs. For instance, showcasing leadership can be highly attractive to large corporations since it adds to their social corporate responsibility strategies. Showcasing leadership is, however, unlikely to be an attractive incentive to households, or small enterprises. Furthermore, the financial gains of energy retrofits of large office buildings may add up to tens of thousands of dollars annually for a large property owner, but at best to a few hundred dollars for a household. Such a small saving will likely be considered futile within the household’s finances, which may take away the attractiveness of the financial rewards that many VEPs build on.

Are you interested in the article? Please send me an email and I am happy to provide you with a working paper version of it.

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