Traditional engineering is the key to sustainability

Delivering sustainable buildings — HVCA president John Miller.
Growing demand for sustainable buildings is creating increased demand for traditional building services skills, says John Miller, president of the Heating & Ventilating Contractors’ Association.When people talk about sustainable buildings they tend to have a mental picture of renewable energy and exciting new cutting-edge technologies. While these are playing an increasingly important role, it is traditional engineering skills and tried-and-tested equipment that are laying the foundations for a sustainable future. M&E contractors are also finding their brand of expertise in greater demand as main contractors struggle to deliver the sustainable solutions their clients want. They are now far more likely to take advantage of specialist expertise much earlier in the delivery process. On average, commercial buildings in the UK are consuming 35% more energy than they should. This is usually because the building services were never properly commissioned in the first place. Reducing energy demand has to be our industry’s first, and main, task. Renewable technologies will play an increasingly important role, but we will not enjoy their full potential unless we first address energy demand and take a back-to-basics approach. Politicians and planning authorities are currently locked in a dispute with the property industry over the role of planning in promoting sustainability. The Greater London Authority’s new target for 20% of building energy requirements to come from on-site renewables in all planning applications from 2010 has received a particularly hostile reception. However, the Mayor of London himself has the perfect riposte: ‘The 20% target is easy to achieve if the developers improve the standards of their buildings to make them less energy intensive,’ said Ken Livingstone at the recent Low Carbon World conference. ‘If you cut energy demand before adding renewables, you only need to achieve 20% of a small amount. ‘We could save 20 Mt of carbon in London by improving efficiency and changing behaviour without the need for any new regulation or technologies,’ he added. Practical Straightforward practical steps can be taken quickly if engineers know what they are about and have the correct skill sets. For example, space heating typically accounts for 50% of energy consumption in commercial buildings, with hot water taking care of a further 15%. Replacing existing inefficient boilers and improving the heat-distribution systems could save as much as 30% of the energy currently consumed by buildings. Also, many systems are set up at too high a temperature, so the plant works too hard. Every extra degree Centrigrade leads to a further 5 to 10% increase in energy use. Using variable-speed pumps and controlling the temperature of radiators via thermostatic valves are sensible moves that can have a significant impact on energy consumption without compromising occupant comfort. Building-services engineers understand these things, and we can implement them relatively easily — but addressing the behaviour of building operators and occupants is more difficult. There is currently little incentive for building owners to address the issue of inefficient plant as the costs are usually wrapped up in a single service charge paid by tenants. While energy costs have increased in recent years, this has not been significant enough to encourage a large proportion of landlords to invest in improving plant. However, growing pressure on corporate bodies to explain how they are addressing their carbon footprint is changing things. While Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reporting remains a voluntary measure, it is increasingly being factored into calculations by potential investors. Companies with a good reporting record are viewed as a being a better long-term financial prospect. A recent survey carried out by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) revealed that 89% of major UK corporations now provide some form of carbon data in their annual reporting and that over half have this data verified independently. This means energy engineering is a financial issue discussed at boardroom level and, as building users, companies are starting to exert pressure on landlords, energy providers and their specialist supply chains to help them achieve their CSR goals. Dirty washing Also, from April 2008, all buildings over 1000 m2 accessed by the public will have to display an energy performance certificate displaying both asset and operational ratings. A year later, the private sector will have to follow suit. In other words, building owners will have to display their energy dirty washing in public. The deadline of 6 April 2008 applies to a wider range of buildings than many people realise, as it covers schools, hospitals, museums, leisure centres, libraries, art galleries, prisons, police stations, army buildings and all central- and local-government premises occupying over 1000 m2 ‘useful floor area’. The list also includes means private-sector buildings offering services to the public either on behalf of or sponsored by local and central government. By 2009, all private-sector buildings of that size will be obliged to employ suitably qualified energy inspectors to produce a rating on their behalf and, even more significantly, carry out any improvements to energy consuming systems that the inspector identifies. It is also almost certain that the European Commission will broaden the scope of this legislation to cover smaller buildings, so that retail and small office environments are also captured in the next two to three years. The HVCA and the Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA) are now working together to develop a joint sustainability agenda for the whole M&E sector to equip contractors to respond to these challenges. This is important, not just for the technical advice it will deliver to members but because of the message it sends out to the industry at large about the importance of collaboration to make sustainability a reality This M&E Sustainability initiative is seeking to raise awareness among the combined membership of the two associations that the skills many properly qualified contractors already possess can contribute significantly to the drive for sustainable buildings. It has also identified where skills gaps exist and will seek to deliver, in partnership with others, the necessary training infrastructure for working with new technologies and meeting new design aspirations. Members of the two associations, working together to deliver integrated solutions, can then be promoted as experts in ‘integrated energy systems’ — able to take an holistic approach to the growing building-services-engineering needs of customers and clients. John Miller became president of the Heating & Ventilating Contractors’ Association earlier this year and is also managing director of York-based M&E contractor JH Shouksmith & Sons Ltd.
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