Building sustainability

Terry Wyatt, president of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers, talks sustainability in UK buildings

With consequences of climate change becoming more apparent, sustainability is about acting for our survival and ensuring that we can have a decent quality of life. Buildings consume around half of all commercial energy and produce around 50% of UK carbon emissions. The building services industry is well-placed and singly more obligated than any other industry to provide the solutions and point the way to a low carbon future.

Renewable energy

A dramatic increase in the generation of electricity by renewable means is proposed by the UK government, with part of this envisaged to come from buildings producing their own power. There are several existing renewable energy technologies such as ground source heat pumps, wind power and photovoltaics available. Given the right incentives, these and other technologies will make a significant difference.

Nevertheless, set against the use of fossil fuels, renewables will have a negligible effect on cutting overall emissions over the next 20 years. And without step changes in the efficient usage of energy we have little chance of meeting the government target of a 20% reduction in carbon emissions by 2010. Renewables might be the long term answer to energy needs, but by 2020 they will just about make up for the reduction in nuclear power generation, which has zero carbon emissions.

Energy efficiency is key

Improving energy efficiency in buildings is vital if we are to have any chance of meeting the carbon emission reduction targets. Most UK buildings waste energy when they should and could be more energy efficient. The recent increase in fuel prices – if it is sustained – may concentrate people’s minds on energy efficiency, but much more must be done.

The UK has gone further than many countries in starting on the long path to dramatically reducing carbon emissions. And yet, knowing what is facing us with inaction, the response so far has still been tentative.

The building services industry is ready and willing to play its part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by designing and operating buildings to a much higher level of energy efficiency.

Energy labelling

Energy labelling of household appliances is now widely accepted and understood. The next stage will be energy labelling or rating for buildings. The current consultation document for revisions to Building Regulations Part L (implementing the EU Energy Performance of Buildings Directive) looks at the two main ways of rating buildings: absolute rating and index rating. While the absolute method can be expressed in values such as kilograms of carbon per m2p/y, the index method gives a relative value in a scale of 0-100 where for example a carbon-neutral building would be zero and one built to current Building Regulations would be 40. Government thinking is that the index rating is a more useful system to measure and compare building performance.

With the aid of the operational label that will also be required showing how well the building is performing, it will give owners a much greater stake in improving performance.

Code for sustainable buildings

The Sustainable Buildings Task Group included in its report to government earlier this year a recommendation for a Code for Sustainable Buildings.
The need for a code has been accepted by ministers and the aim is that it will drive up the quality and environmental performance in new and existing buildings. The government aims to complete it by the end of 2005, in order to take action by early 2006.

Building services engineering

Building services engineering is not a well understood term outside of the building industry. However, the profession has a unique role to play in designing and operating buildings that are comfortable to live and work in and at the same time sustainable in their use of energy and other services such as water. Far too many UK buildings, even some of those built in the last ten years, are failing.
The energy efficiency message has been broadcast by government for many years, but the message is still not getting through. This must change if the UK is going to meet its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol.

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