Warm as toast? Exploring diverse cultures of thermal comfort

This article was first published by UOW’s Global Challenges blog on 30 June and written by Natascha Klocker.

Think about a time when you’ve lived in, or visited, another country, one where the climate is very different from what you’re used to. How did you adapt? Were your strategies for keeping warm (or cool) dissimilar to those of the local population? Was your thermal comfort threshold noticeably different?

When I was a PhD student, I spent a number of years living in Tanzania.

Thankfully, I spent most of my time in the country’s temperate Southern Highlands, but I was also a regular visitor to Tanzania’s largest city: bustling, humid, hot and coastal Dar es Salaam.

My days in Dar es Salaam were spent in constant search of reprieve: an air-conditioned supermarket, a (rare) cool sea breeze, an ice cream, a swim, a cool shower (or three), a cold beer. Jeans and closed shoes were torture devices – to be avoided at all costs.

While I was sweltering, I watched Dar es Salaam locals walking about in the midday sun in three-piece suits, without raising a sweat and even managing to drink cups of hot tea.

As most people couldn’t afford air-conditioning, local buildings were designed to help residents cope with the heat: houses with outdoor kitchens and long verandas on which to while away the evenings; windows with flyscreens and metal bars but no glass (designed to keep malarial mosquitoes and thieves out, but to allow the evening breezes in).

When I think about the challenges of coping with thermal discomfort in an unfamiliar place, I also remember the many visitors from my Austrian homeland who have come to spend the Sydney winter with my family.

Despite coming from a country of snow and ice, these visitors have bitterly complained that they have never felt colder than in Sydney. Why? Because although Austria can be brutally cold, their houses are well-insulated and central heating is standard. People do not need to huddle around a single oil-filled column heater in ugg boots, a woolly jumper and a blanket.

As part of the Warm as Toast project team, I’m interested in how diverse migrant groups practise household sustainability. This includes thinking through the ways in which migrants who settle in Australia come to cope with the weather and building designs that greet them – and the sustainability implications of their actions.

Australia is a country of immense ethnic diversity. In 2011, one-quarter of the country’s population was overseas-born, and a further 20 per cent of us had at least one overseas-born parent.

The source countries of migrants to Australia have shifted enormously over time. Although many migrants continue to come to Australia from the United Kingdom; in recent years a growing share have arrived from China, India, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. But most household sustainability research in Australia has neglected this diversity, and has positioned Anglo-Australian households as the norm. Yet we know that environmental values and practices are shaped by ethnicity and migrant status. The composition and size of households, and the ways in which they are managed in everyday life, also differ across ethnic groups – with important implications for household sustainability.

My own preliminary survey research based on a sample of 578 Wollongong and Sydney households, shows that some ethnic groups (for example, Chinese Australians) are almost twice-as-likely to live without a home heater than Anglo-Australian householders (33 per cent versus 18 per cent).

On the other hand, just 10 per cent of households of South Asian ancestry reported living without a heater. Chinese-Australian households were also more likely than Anglo-Australians to report low rates of heater use in winter: 68 per cent said that they use a heater ‘some days’ or ‘rarely’ compared to 47 per cent for Anglo-Australians. Meanwhile, more than one-third of respondents of South-East Asian ancestry stated that they use their heaters continuously in winter, or at least for a few hours every day.

Through the Warm as Toast project, and particularly through its Twitter stream, we hope to learn more about how home heating is shaped by the ethnic diversity of the Wollongong population.

We particularly invite those of you from migrant backgrounds to share your experiences of adjusting to (and coping with) Wollongong’s weather, as well as your strategies for maintaining thermal comfort in the winter months.

Natascha Klocker is a Senior Lecturer in Social and Cultural Geography in the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research at the University of Wollongong

3 thoughts on “Warm as toast? Exploring diverse cultures of thermal comfort

  1. So fantastic that you are looking into this, Natascha. I moved to Melbourne from Montreal 11 years ago and said the same thing: “I’ve never felt as cold as in Melbourne”. We heated full-time with inefficient electric panels and leaky windows, and still were cold. I put on a jumper, scarf, and beanie when I sat down in the office, took them off again to step outside. Melbourne’s houses appeared to be built out of fear of the 10 days of 40 degree heat, but hopelessly draughty for the 200 days where the mercury in the afternoon only touches 20 degrees.

  2. Thanks for your reply Christian. I particularly like the idea of putting on a beanie and scarf in the office but taking them off to go outside. We do the same in our office in Wollongong. I hope you’re surviving the cold this winter!

  3. I too associate with Christian’s and your Austrian relatives’ sentiment of being in total disbelief of how it is possible to feel so unbearably cold in Australia. It intrigues me how seven years after my move to Australia, I am still reluctant to turn on that electric oil heater at home. Having grown up in the architectural wonderland of Scandinavia where it is a pride to build well-insulated and heat-saving homes, I cannot bear the energy waste that is enviable when I turn on the heater in Wollongong while a bitterly cold southern bluster sends the door snakes and curtains flying.

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