The energy researcher who wants to build better to consume less

This Cambridge Life

The energy researcher who wants to build better to consume less 

Rihab looking at bookshelves

Against a global backdrop of rising energy demands and finite resources, Rihab Khalid set out to understand how buildings can become more energy efficient. As a result, she now advocates for building and energy policies that consider cultural differences and address the needs of women.

When I was first introduced to energy-efficient architecture I felt as though I’d found my calling. For me, energy is personal. I grew up in a community where for up to 12 hours a day we didn’t have access to electricity. It was the very absence of energy that made it so visible and valuable.

We came up with ways of working around power blackouts. Extremely mindful of our electricity consumption, we would schedule our activities in advance and often synchronise practices to make the most of the time when electricity was available. Although the number of hours we had electricity per day was limiting, many people in the Global South have access to far fewer hours than we did.

Energy access in a developing country like Pakistan, where I grew up, is a very real and widespread problem. Pakistan faces an electricity shortfall of 5,000MW with about 26% of its population (56 million people) still without basic access to electricity. Worldwide, 13% of people still lack access to modern electricity, which has implications for education, health and the climate.

The middle-class in the Global South is growing dramatically. In fact, definitions of middle-class are very much based around consumption, which includes resources like energy. Research indicates that by 2040, energy consumption in the developing world will have increased three-fold.

The picture is complex. Access to energy is essential to end poverty and give people equal opportunities. Simultaneously we need to ensure that energy is as clean, and usage as efficient, as possible to protect the future of our planet.

Providing access to affordable and sustainable energy for all, while ensuring the growth of inclusive and sustainable cities, is part of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. As buildings account for about 40% of global energy, understanding and developing energy efficient architecture becomes critical as we seek to realise this goal under increasing urbanisation and population expansion.

Rihab studying in the University Library

I won a scholarship to study for a PhD in energy-efficient architecture at Cambridge. Without the scholarship it simply wouldn’t have been possible to study here. From that moment on I felt a deep sense of gratitude and a responsibility to do something for my community. Even if I was just able to make a tiny difference to someone’s life, I would consider myself successful.

When I began my research, I found that most of the work being done within the field was focused on technological efficiency, for example building materials and construction techniques. Far less attention was being given to how building configurations affect occupants’ energy consumption and space use. When these factors were considered, it was in a highly standardised way that didn’t account for the complexity and variability of human action and behaviour.

Initially I too took the conventional route – looking at the efficiency of appliances, investigating insulation and doing cost benefit analyses. But questions remained: why was energy consumption continuing to rise in the Global South, despite improvements in appliances and building fabrics? Were our contemporary houses demanding more from us and were they meeting our needs?

Human behaviour is seen as the ‘wild-card’ within the architectural field as it is so difficult to quantify. Yet I felt that if I could unravel this factor, it would provide invaluable insights.

Rihab studying with laptop and books

I decided to incorporate social theories into my research which focused on domestic energy demand in middle class housing in Lahore, Pakistan. This meant I was able to investigate how the design of spaces influences occupants’ behaviour and how this in turn impacts upon energy use. Another key aspect was considering the underlying cultural context.

I found that household energy consumption was embedded in both the material and the social structures. These factors are interrelated, meaning a joint analysis is required for us to really get to the heart of energy demand management.

Another key finding was the gendered nature of energy use. Due to historical, cultural and religious constructs in Pakistan, women are mostly responsible for most household practices like cooking, cleaning and childcare which consume energy.

While the home is seen as the domain of women, the reality is that women are not typically involved in shaping either building policies or house designs. This disconnect means that their needs regarding space and energy are simply not met.

The conflict between building designs and cultural practices has implications for energy efficiency. For example, many of the women I spoke to had reservations about open plan layouts and large windows, modelled on Western homes, because the designs didn’t offer the necessary segregation or privacy for women to perform household practices.

Rihab in library corridor

We need to have more women at the decision-making level in urban planning and the energy sector. This way we can design policies and houses that consider women’s needs and practices and, in the process, make energy use more efficient.

I am part of an amazing network of female professionals who work across the energy sector in Pakistan. It’s been really heartening to see that there are women out there tackling these serious challenges we are facing. But there’s still work to be done to ensure women have representation when key decisions are being made.

Over the past year I’ve been involved in a project which seeks to understand gender equity and energy access in the Global South. We recently presented our findings at a workshop in Pakistan attended by professionals from across the energy policy sector. It was an exciting opportunity to get the conversation started.

I have high hopes – I feel that the tide is now turning towards more inclusive policies. This is what is needed, it’s critical for housing and energy policies to become equitable and sustainable. By bringing together energy research based on perspectives from the social sciences and humanities, along with more diverse voices, particularly those of women, I believe we can transform housing and energy policy, and in turn begin to tackle some of the global challenges we face today.

Dr Rihab Khalid is an Isaac Newton Trust Research Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College.

This profile is part of This Cambridge Life – stories from the people who make Cambridge University unique.

Words: Charis Goodyear. Photography: Lloyd Mann.