Mark Gaterell: We need a shift of emphasis to meet our carbon targets

7 July 2011

The sustainability agenda has focused on energy efficiency of buildings, but what about their performance, asks Mark Gaterell

The government’s response to the Innovation and Growth Team (IGT) low carbon construction recommendations is critical to the future of the industry. A consistent policy framework is essential for reassuring industry about its direction, that the investment in skills, recruitment and operational changes are for the long-term and it should resist being shaken by any shorter-term expediencies.

An essential part of the transition to a low carbon economy is the need for the government to recognise that delivering high levels of energy efficiency today is only the start — we must ensure that such efficiency can be maintained over the whole life of a given building, often in the face of great uncertainty. Introducing this so-called “resilience” in buildings through effective retrofitting and new build is likely to be the cheapest way to deliver our challenging carbon reduction targets.

What’s missing so far is any evidence of what really works. Does better insulation mean more comfortable, healthy living conditions or just suffocating homes susceptible to overheating?

Refurbishing the UK’s housing stock is in itself a vast job. It’s estimated that to meet the targets a city the size of Cambridge needs to be refurbished every week for the next 10 years. It would be a very expensive white elephant if properties simply become more efficient in the short term at the expense of their whole-life performance.

Worryingly, however, we still seem to struggle with being able to deliver buildings that perform as designed even under today’s conditions. The evaluation of a building’s actual performance is not a standard part of the construction and commissioning process. There continues to be an assumption that a building will simply perform according to the design specification. Research has overwhelmingly shown, however, that construction quality and how a building is used are critical factors, with huge variations in energy consumption from identical buildings.

It is widely recognised that we have to bridge this gap between design and in-use performance, but this means being brave enough to share lessons from our failures as well as celebrating successes. Only having done this can we begin the essential task of learning how to design and build in such a way that we achieve projected levels of energy consumption.

More attention is also needed to the levels of awareness and understanding of sustainable construction issues. The Green Deal will bring the issues and some of the practicalities to the attention of more people, but authoritative, reliable advice is needed on the available technologies and the choices involved. For many it’s a new market and for the sake of the reputation of low carbon construction, the emphasis needs to be on the quality and cost-effectiveness of any measures, but we must also be honest about the sensitivity of different technologies and choices to changing future conditions.

The government’s response to the IGT recommendations offers an opportunity to address some of these issues. The development of a joint government and industry board is to be welcomed as a vital first step, but much will depend on the exact terms of reference.

Its acknowledgement of the need to establish the necessary evidence base as well as developing mechanisms through which consumers can be confident that their investment in energy efficiency or renewable energy technologies will deliver the benefits anticipated, safely and reliably, is again critical if we are to meet our targets.

Mark Gaterell is Professor of Sustainable Construction at Coventry University and leads the Low Impact Buildings Grand Challenge Initiative

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