INTERVIEW l Dr Audrey Verma on her research surrounding over-heating in the UK

Dr Audrey Verma is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow. Her Leverhulme research is on a different topic to the research that has been funded through the Pioneer Awards. With her Leverhulme research, she uses a case study approach to examine how people use digital-social methods to cope, counter and confront environmental loss, to reflect on what it means to be human and an environmental citizen in our digital era. As she moves into the writing phase of this research, she has started to develop her next project around heating inequalities, which has been funded by the Pioneer Awards.

Our world is becoming much warmer due to climate change brought on by a host of anthropogenic factors. With rising temperatures and large-scale risks brought about by unpredictable and extreme weather events, Audrey has observed and experienced a growing divide between those who can keep cool and those who cannot. While the eventual proposal Audrey wants to develop is a comparison across three countries, the pilot research facilitated by the Pioneer Award will focus on residential overheating in the UK. In the UK, while there has rightly been much attention on lower temperature limits and fuel poverty, there are far fewer commensurate conversations around mitigating soaring temperatures in homes and workplaces.

The big question Audrey asks with this pilot research revolves around the lived experience of the people who face this heat and are forced to live with it. Where questions of future-proofing an over-heating world should be more urgent within policy circles, there appears to be a pattern of technologically deterministic and individualising responses. Current thinking tends toward the need for better technical decisions and suggestions to change consumers and residents’ behaviours. While these ideas may be useful starting points, Audrey contends that there is a need to “turn from technocratic ontologies and deterministic fixes, to re-centre social assemblages in order to derive lasting, people-oriented policies.”

This means understanding the lived realities of high temperatures as told by residents themselves; to consider the issue of residential overheating within the wider contexts of policy, legislation, housing and construction issues, design, and public health. For instance, many new-build houses in the UK are mid- to high-rise apartments and office conversions. A large proportion of these residences are what may be characterised as intermediate housing, occupied by renting tenants, shared to full ownership leaseholders, affordable housing residents and social housing residents. Such new-builds are arguably also housing heat-traps most susceptible to being rendered uninhabitable in the coming decades. Heating inequalities thus relate directly to the existing housing crisis faced by Generation Rent, restrictive leasehold and tenancy laws, and intersects with the ongoing building safety and cladding scandal across the UK, exposing poor construction practices and safety legislation.

Audrey’s research thus returns focus to critical socio-political contexts even with issues that appear to lend themselves almost exclusively to technical discussions. In so doing, her work problematises ‘quick-fix’ thinking. In the course of discussing her project so far, Audrey has heard, for example: “Why don’t residents just open the windows or install air conditioning units?” These ‘clear’ options are however not at all simple: Opening a window for someone living in a heavily polluted setting can mean choosing between relief from heat and exposure to harmful levels of air pollution. Installing air conditioning units are not only prohibitively expensive and adds to the wider overall problem of climate changes, but tenants and leaseholders may simply not have this option due to contractual restrictions.

Audrey has started to work with a thermal camera, as you can see in the images that begin to give an idea in the difference in heat from outside to the inside of these types of flats. The first image shows a 43.4 degrees Celsius reading inside a west-facing higher-level flat that receives intense heat from the sun between about 1-7pm with heat retention throughout the night. The outdoor temperature on the day the reading was taken peaked at 37 degrees Celsius. The second picture has a 38.3 Celsius reading, which was taken in a corridor on a lower floor. Heatstroke can occur from 40 degrees Celsius and above, with bodily deterioration from 41 and above.

This year, Audrey is expanding her use of thermal cameras for the research and will be working directly with resident-respondents living in Fahren Heights (pseudonym), who will be recording diaries of what it means to live with that level of heat. Another component of this of this project is the extension of the Applied Comics collaboration that can be accessed here: https://appliedcomicsetc.com/projects/collaborations/. Here Audrey worked with three amazing comic artists, Nate Sterling (Kaimera Collective), Irina Richards and John Cei Douglas to start to conceptualise her research project and ideas. Where Audrey’s work is beginning rather than at dissemination stage, there are a few issues that she faces. The first is how to speak to policy-makers and funders, to convince them to invest in social research on the subject, not least as heating inequality is a currently under-examined issue that is highly likely to become a more urgent and salient policy area in the coming decades. The second is how to reach out to other communities and individuals in these situations, and the third is how to visualise something as intangible as heat. Audrey will be picking up on the work from Applied Comics and collaborating with Irina Richards to develop a finished comic that might help to address these more immediate issues.