Keeping warm, keeping cool at home: new AUSCCER-SBRC project

On reading Chris Gibson’s post on wood fires in his Sydney home, my immediate thoughts were of my own wood fire memories. Being in country New South Wales rather than inner-city Sydney, they are perhaps not so surprising. At my childhood home we spent winter evenings in the living room around the fire, but more vivid memories stem from visits to my grandparents’ farm in northern NSW. During Christmas or Easter visits, one of the main jobs for anyone in the family was stocking the woodshed: finding the best fallen dry wood on the farm, sawing it up and carting logs back to the house paddock, feeding the logs through another saw and/or splitting some into smaller pieces for the kitchen stove or for kindling. Us kids helped stack the wood and collected piles of pine cones to use as fire starters. A good job was done when the shed was full. Daily chores included cleaning and resetting the fireplace. One year it was so cold we had to light the living-room fire on Christmas Day!

These are fond memories, mainly because of the people and places, some long gone from my family. But they feed into how I think about fire as warmth and my ideas of cosiness. I’ve hovered over plenty of heaters too, but rarely would I consider that cosy. The act of sitting around a fire (rare for me now), or even reading about it, reminds me of those memories, and I like that. Chris talks about the sociality of fire and the ‘materiality of the carbon being burned’. I’ve never lit a fire just for me, so it’s always been a social experience. I can appreciate the materiality around making the fire possible (though I probably didn’t as a child) as well as simply enjoying its warmth. Then again, if I had to perform the tasks around household fire now, every day, I wonder if I’d focus so much on the memories, or if I’d just get caught up in the drudgery of the chores.

Ideas of cosiness and comfort, chilliness and discomfort are part of a new AUSCCERSustainable Buildings Research Centre project, Keeping warm, keeping cool at home. We will measure actual temperature and humidity inside homes, as well as use a mix of human geography methods to record participants’ experiences of thermal-related comfort or discomfort and any associated changes in behaviour. In the analysis we will be able to match up the human experiences with the actual thermal conditions of the house/room. We’ll also measure energy use and some characteristics of the building that affect thermal conditions.

I’m looking forward to seeing whether any participants use fire to warm their homes. It might pose an interesting challenge to fix our temperature-measuring gadgets close to the heat source, not to mention measuring the energy used to heat such a home. Although beyond the key research questions, I’ll be interested to see whether memories emerge as part of peoples’ ideas of cosiness. Further questions can include whether memories lead to valuing some forms of cosiness or warmth over others? And then does it actually influence a decision about the way we heat our homes. Or, ultimately, does it come down to what is available, practical and/or cheapest?

Kate Roggeveen is a researcher in the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research. Kate can be followed on Twitter: @KateRoggeveen

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