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Low & Zero Carbon: The rocky road to a sustainable future

Energy efficiency and sustainability are intrinsically linked. If we are to fine-tune the energy usage of our buildings effectively, we must give them the attention they need in terms of engineering, especially when considering sustainable heating systems, according to Mark Northcott.
Low & Zero Carbon: The rocky road to a sustainable future
Global environmental conferences such as the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit held in Denmark at the back end of last year are hugely important if we are to change attitudes and create the right conditions for co-ordinated action on global warming.

However, the non-binding Copenhagen Accord agreed at this event moved away from the model of mandatory commitments for the developed world and voluntary obligations for the developing world.

This apparent watering down of global environmental action did at least recognise that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time. It also acknowledged the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 deg C in a context of sustainable development to combat climate change.

Although the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit was concerned with action on a global scale, it does throw up a number of challenges at a more parochial level, specifically for the UK building services sector.
The vast majority of commercial buildings in this country - some estimate the figure to be around 80 per cent - are leased rather than owned and this tends to result in a disconnect between the owner and the occupier.

This, in turn, can make sustainable development difficult because the occupier inevitably (and, of course, understandably) wants to keep costs to an absolute minimum; however, the consequence of this is short-term thinking and planning which is not conducive to the most environmentally friendly approach.


However, sustainability is critically important, not just to the future of our planet, but also because it can actually reduce the cost of running a building. A staggering 92 per cent of the cost of a building over the course of its life is taken up by occupancy with operational and energy costs accounting for 6 per cent and initial construction cost a paltry 2 per cent, according to estimates from ASHRAE.

Since the cost of construction is so comparatively low and operational/energy costs are three times as much, it pays to invest in the best possible current energy efficient technology in new build projects and to 'future proof' the designs.

Art critic and social thinker John Ruskin put it best when he said: 'When we build, let it not be for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants thank us.'

Refurbished projects

However, new build is becoming relatively less important, with an estimated 60 per cent of building projects now involving refurbishment rather than being built from scratch. That moves refurbishment way up the top of the energy efficiency agenda.

American ASHRAE president Gordon Holness said recently: 'I strongly believe that ensuring energy efficiency in existing buildings is our greatest opportunity for a sustainable future.'

He estimates that 75 to 85 per cent of buildings that will exist in urban areas in 2030 already exist today and that if every single new building from this day forth were designed with net-zero carbon emissions, we would still only impact 15 per cent of the marketplace by the year 2030.

That is why it is so important to look at every element of the energy efficiency in refurbished buildings; it has an enormous impact on the specification of energy- using equipment, and none more so than heating technology.

Reducing carbon emissions involves an entire panoply of actions that are well beyond the scope of this article (for example, getting a building's occupants involved and educated, perhaps by installing a visual indication of the building's performance via LCD screens that contain live details of energy consumption).

However, in terms of heating, there is much that can be done.

We need to understand comfort rather than simply control temperatures. And that's where heating equipment manufacturers come into their own; we know what makes the best heating system for specific applications and understand the implications of using different combinations of technology in a diverse range of situations.

Involve the manufacturer

That is why I believe it makes sense to involve the manufacturer right at the start of the design process - they have an enormous range of skills and expertise to offer and can prevent fundamental design errors being made because they know precisely the performance characteristics of the equipment they supply.

So, for example, we know which controls will work best in what circumstances and we have an intimate knowledge of how different elements of the heating system - including the heat generators and heat emitters - work together.

We are also familiar with the latest technology; its strengths and weaknesses, and where it is most applicable.

There is a tremendous resource in heating manufacturers and I would encourage the professional team to use it to start making inroads to the vast challenges set out in Copenhagen.
11 February 2011

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