Getting back to basics

Bolting renewable technologies onto poorly performing buildings is not a good recipe for improving lifecycle costing, says Paul Jakeway, Marketing and Communications Manager for Vaillant.
Renewable building services systems are creating huge excitement and bringing a certain glamour to the industry. They also have an important role to play in improving the carbon footprint and lifecycle costing of buildings, but the industry has to address some basic, more down-to-earth issues first.

Reduction of energy waste from conventional systems must be the first priority before system designers turn their thoughts to adding renewables to a building. Token green statements, such as inappropriately sited wind turbines, are not helpful if the conventional services continue to waste energy and money.

We often look to the Government to provide leadership on this issue, but the perpetual state of confusion surrounding Energy Performance Certificates for buildings, along with the bad publicity for the grants provided by the Low Carbon Buildings Programme, have undermined the role of legislation and turned some people away from renewables.

It now seems increasingly unlikely that the April 2008 deadline for public (and some commercial) buildings to display energy certificates will be hit.

This summer’s planned consultation, which was supposed to include the commercial property sector, seems to have been quietly shelved, with the likelihood that certificates will only be introduced for local authority and central government buildings.

A missed opportunity? Certainly. The extension of certificates to the wider commercial sector could make a massive contribution towards cutting energy consumption and, officially, the Government still insists this will happen in 2009.

However, delays and uncertainty over the role of legislation doesn’t change the fact that British firms literally threw away £570 million last summer – or the equivalent of 15% of their total energy spend – according to the Carbon Trust.

On average, commercial buildings in the UK are consuming 35% more energy than they were designed to and the purely financial imperative of putting that right is a ‘no brainer’. Getting back to basics by re-commissioning or refurbishing many of the systems that have been running well below their optimum for years is an obvious and relatively inexpensive first step. It would do wonders for the lifecycle costing of building services.

The industry has a lot of clearing up to do, as far too many buildings were never properly set up in the first place. In many cases, the initial design of the system might contain all the right aspirations and many of the right techniques, but on too many occasions something went badly wrong between that point and implementation.

Often the timetable was squeezed so the commissioning team either ran out of time or was never engaged in the first place.

To achieve low lifecycle costs, engineers must work hand in glove with specialist contractors and system manufacturers as early as possible in the process to ensure the systems they design can be properly and accurately implemented. This will become ever more important as the demand for new and renewable technologies grows.

The sector must also ensure it has the right number of skilled people to meet energy efficiency and sustainability targets in the coming years. As David Frise, chairman of M&E Sustainability points out: “Renewable and low carbon technologies present a fantastic opportunity for our profession, but we are not training anything like the right amount or calibre of people to do the work.”

He is urging more employers to tackle this problem and more colleges to run the right kind of courses with enough practical elements to ensure engineers are fully equipped to work with the full range of technologies on site.

London planning authorities have announced that from 2010 all planning applications will have to include provision for generating 20% of the proposed building’s power via on-site renewables.

Many developers have argued that this is impractical and expensive, but Ken Livingstone himself has urged them to focus on the basics of reducing energy demand so that the 20% target becomes easier to achieve.

Delivering a truly sustainable, long-term design is almost impossible without full collaboration between the design and installation teams. Managing the energy demand downwards and then applying low carbon/renewable technologies is the ideal formula for low lifecycle costs, but is totally dependent on a joined up process.

Improving the energy efficiency of the existing systems and then adding solar collectors for water heating is proving to be a winning combination for many specifiers. The solar technology is now proven and evacuated tubes, for example, can convert up to 75% of daily solar energy into heat. Also, many plumbers and heating engineers have the right basic skills for designing and fitting solar products with only some additional specialist training required.

This is a practical and basic approach that does not involve complex design work and massive up-front expense, but can deliver impressive savings very quickly and continue to do so for the lifetime of the building. Solar collectors can provide over 50% of the hot water requirements for the average UK family with no carbon penalty, and via a system that is immune from future energy price rises, and requires only minimal maintenance.

Building services contractors have the skills to provide remedial work, put under-performing systems back on track and start to lower the emissions from existing buildings. Many local authorities and developers accept they have to embrace low carbon solutions, but most are unclear how to assess and implement renewable technologies to achieve the necessary carbon targets.

As an industry, we have a great opportunity to position ourselves right at the heart of the Government’s strategy for combating climate change by making the most of our basic skills. The more glamorous stuff can wait!

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