Housing retrofit: the household-inclusive way? Perspectives from China and the Netherlands

Frank J. de Feijter

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


This social-scientific thesis focuses on the organised interactions between retrofit providers (landlords, social housing employees, government officials, builders and installers) and householders of apartment building improvements for energy saving in housing retrofit projects in China and the Netherlands. Starting point of this thesis are the disappointing results in realising the expected energy saving after the housing retrofit intervention. Solely technical approaches of improved insulation and installations for heating, cooling and ventilation are less effective for energy saving as expected. The most important uncertainty to realise the expected energy saving are formed by the organised activities between providers and householders in retrofit processes and the energy consumption practices of householders ‘before’ and ‘after’ the retrofit. This relates to questions around how to connect the technical and institutional retrofit approaches with the needs, preferences and possibilities of householders and how to ensure that householders embrace the sustainability transition. Nevertheless, empirical studies with this approach on the participation of householders in retrofit processes are rare.

To contribute to bridging this knowledge gap, the different chapters in this thesis exemplified a broad range of conceptual tools to include roles of providers and householders integrally in the policy, the participation process, and the technology domain of housing retrofit. More specifically, this PhD thesis focuses on the roles of retrofit providers and householders in the process phases of design, construction and operation. In every phase, their roles are operationalised with sets of provisioning practices, intermediation practices and domestic practices as units of analysis from a sociological perspective. These units of analysis help to focus on the ways in which providers and householders express their needs and wants of safety, quality, privacy openness, thermal comfort, health and sustainability in the social context of the organised retrofit process.

Empirically, the purpose of integrating the everyday lives of householders in housing retrofit interventions is used as an opportunity to become more sensitive to the different ways of decision making about the scope, the quality and costs aspects of the retrofit items. Focusing on the wider diversity of social dynamics in housing retrofit, a qualitative, flexible and culturally sensitive explorative approach is considered as needed. To include a broad variety of experiences from retrofit providers and householders, diverse relationships between residents, government officials and installers, and a broad range of sites, neighbourhoods and technology options, this thesis focuses on Beijing (China), Mianyang (Sichuan province in the south-west of China) and Amsterdam (the Netherlands). Besides a review of the literature, more than 240 householders and more than 90 retrofit providers have been interviewed in China and the Netherlands.

Conceptually, this thesis uses a practice theory-based approach to analyse housing retrofit with a specific emphasis on routines and complexity of housing retrofit and everyday life. The practice-based methodology of ‘zooming in’ is used to unravel the ‘agency dimensions’ of social practices in a combined analysis of the material-functional and socio-cultural aspects of routinised domestic life ‘before’ and ‘after’ the retrofit project. The methodology of ‘zooming out’ is used to examine the ‘structural dimensions’ of social practices and the questions around power relations, chain collaboration, and retrofit policy. A practice-based approach acknowledges that problems and solutions of housing retrofit do not derive only top-down, or outside users’ everyday life but also arrive from routinised interactions between retrofit providers and householders in the retrofit process.

The main question is:

What forms of interaction between retrofit providers and householders have been developed in the design phase, the construction phase and the operation phase in housing retrofit processes in China and the Netherlands and how can they be explained from a comparative retrofit policy and practice perspective?

This thesis concluded that empirically, the interactions between retrofit providers and householders are usually complex and of different kinds in an overall supply side dominated retrofit context. The conventional approach to housing retrofit is rather technical. The different service arrangements and retrofit products come along with assumptions of householders as generally passive end-user. The common examples of Chinese and Dutch householders being disciplined and orchestrated by builders and government regulators can exist side by side with active householders affecting their own lifeworld and that of their fellow residents. This goes beyond simple assumptions of organising retrofit projects in China as supposed to be top-down and the Netherlands as supposed to be bottom-up. The empirical findings from Beijing, Mianyang and Amsterdam show that the relevance of householders is exemplified by their role in suggestions on preliminary plans during the retrofit design phase, their quality control in the retrofit construction phase and pro-active education in the retrofit operation phase.

This underlines the relevance of analysing the interconnectivity of domestic practices, retrofit intermediation practices and provision practices. Finally, it helps to understand that householders may only be called upon to ‘do their bit’ when provisioning practices and retrofit practices of intermediation are organised in ways that fit their domestic practices. Thus, a crucial step to strengthen future retrofit policies in China and the Netherlands is to focus on how retrofit interventions are socially ‘made available’ to householders. This could drive beyond the artificial production-consumption division, engage chain collaboration and mutual trust for inclusive housing retrofit policies in China and the Netherlands.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Spaargaren, Gert, Promotor
  • van Vliet, Bas, Co-promotor
Award date9 Jun 2021
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463958172
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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