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Carbon this, carbon that, carbon the other

Terms such as sustainability, low carbon and zero carbon have become commonplace. But are these descriptions justified and how do we measure their worth? Mike Malina has the answers
In 1979, I was a student who qualified as an engineer and I also became an environmentalist. As a result, during the 1980s and 1990s I often referred to the importance of saving energy and attempted to make the links to wider 'ecological' or 'green' issues as they tended to be labelled then. This was usually greeted by 'yes interesting, but...'. Energy was cheap and didn't really feature as a priority.

So I adopted the maxim: 'In the realm of ideas, everything depends on enthusiasm. In the real world, all rests on perseverance.'

It has been a case of perseverance for me ever since, knowing that one day people would take these issues more seriously. In the 21st Century, resources and energy prices have gone up, but in real terms energy is still too cheap. So mechanisms such as the CRC energy efficiency scheme - a carbon tax - have become more relevant for businesses focused on reducing and controlling energy use.

Nowadays, the talk is constantly of sustainability, low carbon and zero carbon. I have to say, though, that I'm a little frustrated by this. So many projects I survey do not fit these labels.

Often it's a case of installation of 'green bling' such as photovoltaic panels on roofs of buildings that lack good energy management, insulation and building control systems.

Back in my early days, I was championing solar photovoltaic and thermal and I still do. However, it is essential that we get the basics right first. That is why the 'energy hierarchy' strategy needs to be employed as a method to achieve lower carbon buildings.

It is a mystery to me that so little has been written from a holistic viewpoint on the absolute links between sustainable building services engineering and the wider environmental connections.

Much has been written about 'green issues' and there is a veritable library of handbooks and texts on building services. But these important subjects have not been brought together. In my view, it is essential that they are. There are many environmentalists, ecologists and 'new sustainability experts' as well as building service engineers, but very few cross the divide and work in, or with, both disciplines.

That is why it is important that we make an effort to educate all these professionals and encourage efforts to bridge the chasm and make these new connections.

So why do we continually find new and existing buildings in such a poor state when it comes to energy and their equivalent carbon performance?

Much of the time, it's a lack of joined up thinking and a case of short termism. As an industry, we have so much going for us and I still find building services an exciting sector to be working in.

What does concern me, however, is the lack of awareness and responsibilities. Worse is that, despite all the laws passed by our Parliament, so many are simply not enforced.

Ambitious targets
The Government has ambitious carbon saving targets - an 80 per cent reduction by 2050 or 33 per cent by 2020. Not a chance!

Don't get me wrong. I like ambitious targets. But they have to be realistic. It is time ministers who have a connection or are responsible for these targets enter the real world of buildings as we find them.

Costs tend to override everything in construction, particularly in hard economic times, but the mindset of the industry needs to change so that it realises that just a little more thought and early intervention will pay massive dividends for the future. Savings on operating costs and handover will actually have the biggest impact of all since the energy consumed over the lifetime of a building is phenomenal.

So what is it that constrains progress? A major issue is that, often, when a client wants a building, it's not actually for their own use. The client may be a developer. They therefore have no obvious incentive to be interested in whole life costs.

However, legislation in this area is developing in order to tighten up the process and address this issue. Another driver is the growing role for corporate social responsibility (CSR).

As a society, we have to be more realistic about the sustainability of the world in which we live. If concerns about the future of the planet are not sufficient motivation, the other factor that developers should realise is that they will get a better return on investment on a building that will operate efficiently over its lifetime.

Lower operating costs equate to significant added value for a building's occupants. In a buyer's market, those buildings that have a higher level of energy performance will be the more attractive and sought after. Low efficiency buildings are harder to market than their higher efficiency equivalents.

If a client is planning to occupy a building themselves, there is obviously a clear incentive for them to specify a building which will run efficiently. In particular, it's about reducing the whole life costs of a building and therefore reducing the overall cost of ownership. The bonus, of course, is a reduced carbon impact and greater energy efficiency.

So my challenge is this. I invite the Energy Minister/Climate Change Secretary to come on a building survey with me in order that they can see what is really happening! There, I have thrown down the gauntlet and await the response with anticipation.

// The author is director of Energy Solutions Associates //
1 February 2012


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