Tackling climate change starts here

Published:  08 September, 2008

Decommissioning the carbon age — Gareth Vaughan.

The best way for the building-services sector to tackle climate change is to focus on the obvious, says HVCA president Gareth Vaughan.

As sustainability has become ever more fashionable, so has the danger of clients and engineers missing the point.

Sustainable design is not only about making high profile ‘green’ statements and procuring increasingly complex low-carbon solutions. It is also about making meaningful reductions in carbon emissions using cost-effective, appropriate and non-disruptive methods — while also ensuring impacts are long-lasting and will improve the experience of building users.

The All Party Urban Development Group has recently published a report that suggests many politicians feel the Government has lost the plot with its low-carbon strategy. Instead of focusing on making new buildings carbon neutral — something it has so far been unable to define — the Government’s focus must shift to existing buildings, which make up 99% of the current problem, the report says.

This is something energy experts in the building-services community have been saying for years — only for their pleas for common sense to prevail falling on deaf ears. The All Party Group believes the Government is ignoring the big issue in favour of headline-grabbing stunts.

At least 70% of all non-domestic properties will still be in use in 2050 — meaning that existing buildings are where the largest carbon savings can be made. To which HVCA members would add that a huge proportion of the problem can be tackled by focusing on technologies that are already installed in those buildings.

Radical

Specialist building-services firms are well equipped to tackle this issue immediately. We don’t have to wait for certain technologies to become more affordable because we have the skills to go back into underperforming buildings now to recommission the existing services, upgrade controls and fit low-energy systems. Add to this the ability to improve insulation and seal leaking building fabric and you are well on the road to the 20% reduction in carbon emissions we are supposed to achieve by 2020 — all without doing anything radical.

Sustainable design is not rocket science, but there is a growing perception among the general public that it has to be and that to make a difference you have to invest in radical solutions like ground-source heat pumps and wind turbines. Such technological elements do have their place and will play an increasingly important role in the future, but maybe they should be slightly further down the queue. We must address energy demand and waste first.

The All Party Group’s report also called for tighter Building Regulations that demand greater improvements from developers and in-depth research on what fiscal and other incentives would make businesses change their energy behaviour. The trouble with that, of course, is that the Government has not been able to effectively enforce the regulations we already have.

That has to be a priority over the next 12 months. The industry has invested in competent persons schemes (CPS) to try to raise professional standards and ensure that contractors can self-certify that their work complies with the Building Regulations. Yet this will not work if the regulations are not enforced and so can be ignored by other less scrupulous firms, which can potentially harm the reputation of all building-services contractors.

Commercial property is responsible for 17% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions. Our industry can have a major impact on these emissions now by using existing technologies and available skills. However, building owners and society as a whole would benefit from some form of incentive, such as a reduction in VAT or the application of Enhanced Capital Allowances on such investments. Alternatively, Government will need to enforce present legislation, something it appears reluctant to do.

Practical

I believe we are now entering the ‘Age of the engineer’ — a time when historians may look back and say that the early part of the 21st century was the time when engineers started to de-commission the carbon age. For few can doubt that there have ever been so many practical issues to face, so many practical problems to solve and so many practical difficulties to overcome, simply to ensure the long-term health and safety of the planet.

The Government is currently consulting on the definition of zero-carbon non-domestic buildings — making this an ideal moment to take stock and consider what kind of code and rating tools we need for the future.

As engineers, architects, contractors and other professionals involved in the construction industry, we must ensure that our collective voice is heard in this debate. It is so important that building owners are educated about the most appropriate solutions and not hoodwinked into making grandiose green statements when a solid, practical engineering solution may already be at hand.

As an example, over two thirds of centrally generated power is lost in waste heat from power stations and in transmission losses. This makes the argument for a wholesale switch to on-site micro-generation pretty persuasive, even more so when any over-capacity can be sold back to the national grid, as already happens in Germany and other European countries.

Losses from power generation are further exacerbated by the fact that most of the buildings receiving the supply then proceed to waste up to a further 50% because of poorly commissioned and maintained building services.

Building-services engineers, working alongside others in the professional team, have the opportunity to influence this issue at both ends of the spectrum. It is an opportunity not to be missed.

Gareth Vaughan is the new president of the HVCA and managing director of ductwork contractor E. Poppleton & Son.



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