W6UP1 – Setting energy targets in context: a case study in the construction industry

W6UP1 – Setting energy targets in context: a case study in the construction industry
22nd December 2015 Catherine Willan

Setting energy targets in context: a case study in the construction industry

Catherine Willan, UCL Energy Institute

Overview & main findings

Academic analysis of the energy performance gap has neglected the role of construction contractors in meeting contracted carbon and energy targets for the buildings they build and manage. This dissertation focussed on how energy targets were set in a single case study non-domestic project. Through qualitative document analysis and interviews, it examined the influences and motivations that operated on the construction contractor responsible for the building’s construction and energy management. Its findings suggest that it is not enough for government and clients to set targets that hold construction companies contractually and financially responsible for the energy performance of buildings. What is required is also an understanding of the complex forces acting on the construction contractor, such as: misaligned incentives; commercial pragmatism; lacunae in regulation and guidance; understanding of the needs of the client; client management of expectations; and the difficulties of retaining and sharing feedback. Without addressing this intricate and specific social context, future policy targets for energy performance in non-domestic buildings will find it much harder to succeed in their aims.

Methods & approach

Data sources

This project benefited from the sponsorship of a UK construction company, who provided access to its information and staff.  The case was chosen because it has energy-related targets that have not been met, despite there being contractual incentives to do so.  Instead of exploring why the energy performance was not as planned, the research sought to uncover how and why the energy targets had been set in the first place. The process was inductive, generating explanations through an iterative analysis of data.

Qualitative data was collected from three sources:

  1. Observational field notes taken at site meetings;
  2. A wide range of commercial and legal documents; and
  3. Interviews with construction team members.

The conjunction of sociology and science

This project drew on Science and Technology Studies for its theoretical basis. This interdisciplinary conjunction asks us to reconsider science not as a repository of knowledge, but as a cultural activity whose processes may be studied (Collins, 1992, Shapin, 1995, Bijker, 2003).  These concepts may be applied to energy, in considering the formation of what can appear on the surface to be firm knowledge about a building’s performance or consumption, such as energy targets.  In particular, the study sought to apply Latour’s concept of the “black-boxing” of facts (1987), through which the often complex (and sometimes equivocal) origins of established ideas and processes are obscured.

Findings uncovered a complex web of factors underlying the targets

The dissertation uncovered not one, but a multiplicity, of inter-related issues underlying the formation of the energy targets at the case study site.  These are represented in the diagram below:



The dissertation concluded that:

  • Communication rests on the ability of people “to see the same things and respond to them in the same ways” (Collins, 1992: 5): differences between the way stakeholders “see” the energy targets produces a variety and unpredictability of responses to the energy target policy incentive;
  • Case study suggests energy targets are as much socially-constructed as they are technically-constructed;
  • Therefore precise contractual targets are not a policymaker’s panacea for the energy performance gap, as they may conceal assumptions, uncertainties and varying interpretations and motivations, which do not necessarily produce the result intended.


Bijker, W., 2003. The need for public intellectuals: A space for STS. Science Technology & Human Values 28, 443–450. doi:10.1177/0162243903256273

Collins, H.M., 1992. Changing order : replication and induction in scientific practice. University of Chicago Press, Chicago ; London.

Latour, B., 1987. Science in action : how to follow scientists and engineers through society. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Shapin, S., 1995. Here and Everywhere: Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. Annual Review of Sociology 21, 289–321.

Project Team

Catherine Willan 

Paul Ruyssevelt
Michelle Shipworth