Move over Kevin McLeod, there’s a hot new home design reality TV show on the block.

Called Renovate or Rebuild, the show has been picked up by Channel Nine and is set to air on the network’s lifestyle channel Life this month and on the main channel next year. In each episode, couples pinched from past seasons of The Block, Australia’s beloved home renovation show, are pitted against one another to rescue a poor family from their tired, depressing home in one of four different states. 

One team wants to knock it down and rebuild, the other wants to breathe new life into the place through an extensive renovation. The winner is the team that presents the design the owners like best.

This show has all the hallmarks of compelling reality TV: it’s fun, with big, bold characters and healthy dose of competition. What makes it different is its objective, to generate demand for efficient, healthy and comfortable homes.

Note the absence of words like “sustainability” and “green” – one of the brains behind the show, James McGregor from The Blue Tribe Company, says this is no accident. These words, rightly or wrongly, trigger our “tribal” instincts, and for many, still conjure up images of communes and tie-dye shirts.   

“The average consumer does not resonate this and will think ‘that is not my tribe and it’s not for me’,” James explains. “The target audience is not sustainability people – they would be looking for more detail.”

That’s why the script is focused on the benefits, such as a healthy, mould-free homes that are cheap as chips to run.

This is an example of the robust behavioural science underpinning the TV program, much of which was done by the now disbanded CRC for Low Carbon Living.

The original piece of research that catapulted Renovate and Rebuild into production looked at why past attempts to spark consumer demand for sustainable homes, such as by laying out business cases and framing it as “the right thing to do”, had largely failed.

The CRCLCL found that this top down information-heavy approach consistently failed to inspire consumers to change their ways because it assumes people are driven by rational thought. 

But what does trigger new behaviours, researchers discovered, is a nice bit of air on a mainstream, popular television program to induce an emotional response. 

McGregor says the explosive popularity of butler’s pantries, for example, can be traced back to a specific season of The Block.

Start with a TV program but don’t stop there: you need community

In the creation of compelling “edu-tainment”, he says you need a flagship product, such as a TV show, to get people emotionally invested.

Part two in any successful edutainment endeavour is a place to connect with others also looking to do more, with the ultimate goal of “social norming” sustainable homes and products. This is where social media is particularly powerful, McGregor says. 

The final stage is connecting people with solutions and a place to learn more. McGregor says the ABC’s War on Waste did a fantastic job of this secondary engagement piece, creating huge online buzz and providing many links to café waste management programs and the like.

Consumers are happy to learn this way and not be lectured too

Interestingly, following the launch of the pilot episode on YouTube back in 2019, the team ran a comprehensive survey to gauge how people felt about the subtle sustainability messaging. 

Despite not mentioning the words: sustainability” or “green” or “eco”, as already mentioned, most respondents recognised that the TV show was about energy efficiency and eco homes even without being prompted. 

But they didn’t seem to care: they were happy to have the sustainability messages delivered in a way that was digestible and factual, and didn’t feel like they were being lectured to. 

“It didn’t have that ‘if you don’t do this you are a bad person’ feel.”

Covid might have thrown filming into disarray (the last few episodes had to be wrapped up over Zoom, McGregor says) but there are some silver linings to the timing.   

Also in the post-pilot survey, respondents were asked what features really resonated to them about the two high performance designs proposed to the Sydney family of four.  

The response: comfort, energy efficiency and natural light, with comfort and energy efficiency particularly top of mind now after many had spent lockdown periods at home in draughty conditions. Not only have people been feeling uncomfortable, but their reliance on heaters and airconditioners has sent their quarterly bills skyrocketing.  

Once the show goes to air, the CSIRO will be running a longitudinal research program to better understand how people respond to this type of show.

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