Co-creation offers new opportunities to save energy, money and materials. The problem is that technical experts on collective private commissioning projects have difficulty communicating directly with end-users, argues Lidewij Tummers in her PhD research.

Collaborating on the development of corporate or residential buildings is becoming increasingly popular. Groups of households are joining forces in Collective Private Commissioning (CPC) projects to build customised energy-efficient houses or multi-purpose accommodation. This joint approach offers co-creators opportunities to make major investments that would otherwise not be feasible. Examples include investing in a heat pump, a professional washing machine, a water recycling system or a natural playground. Through clustered parking and shared cars, they create more green areas and places to play while for instance quietly contributing to a reduction in the urban heat island effect. 

In her thesis entitled 'From Passivhaus to active inhabitants. Learning from co-housing initiatives', Tummers explores the contribution that CPC can make to the energy transition. This can be quite significant, as was revealed in the nine projects she studied in the Netherlands (involving 10 to 60 homes) and reference projects in Belgium, Germany, France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. For example, active resident groups helped bring solar collectors to market. This calls for both technical knowledge and an understanding of how innovative solutions should be embedded in building design and regulations. 

In many cases, complicated technical design issues are involved. For example, installing a roof over a communal area between homes can serve as an inner courtyard or children's playground while also making a positive contribution to energy management. But how do you prevent a space like that changing into a hothouse or an echo chamber? And how do you design in such a way as to ensure that the space meets the regulations on fire compartmentation? The design, regulation and metering of systems that heat both shared and private premises also presents another potential challenge. An architect or engineer may know what to do, but needs to discuss it with future residents or users. According to Tummers, engineers often have the wrong attitude. They may be used to talking to corporations and contractors, but conversations with end-users call for different skills. “But this is exactly what's needed, because this is customised work”, says Tummers. 

Consultant engineers tend to think solely in terms of technology and regulations, and consider customisation expensive and risky. This short-term thinking results in additional costs at a later stage. “If the systems installed in homes are better matched with usage, energy management becomes more effective. This went wrong in the first generation of passive houses and balanced ventilation: expectations from the calculation models were not met.” Tummers calls for universities to focus more on the issue of co-creation, partly because many regulations are based on individual home ownership. This is despite the fact that sharing and leasing are becoming increasingly popular. 

The development of low impact collective systems could constitute an important contribution to energy transition by engineers. Her thesis outlines the basic conditions required to achieve this. Developing effective calculation models will be a subject for further research. 

In order to test the possibilities of co-creation, Tummers developed a decision-making tool on heating systems for CPCs. She also organised a conference on the subject. A European research network has developed as a result.

Published: November 2017