Energy efficiency more important than war on terror

Addressing our gluttonous and unnecessary consumption of energy is as important to our survival as the war on terror - and far easier to resolve.

This was the message of architect Maxwell Hutchinson when speaking at a London conference hosted by Sustain magazine this week.

A former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects as well as a regular broadcaster, Hutchinson spoke in favour or refurbishment and restoration over demolition and new build.

He argued that if we were to take sustainability seriously we needed to address the huge waste of energy in our finished homes and during the construction process.

Some 30% of energy in the UK goes on lighting and heating our homes, he said, and this could be cut fairly easily by up to 20% through straightforward energy efficiency measures.

“We’ve known this for two and a half decades,” he told delegates at the 14 days to save the world conference.

“We all know we can save ourselves money by turning down the thermostat and switching off the standby.

“We don’t wear the right clothes for the right season therefore our homes have to be overheated.

“It’s nonsense, but still we do it. We don’t do obviously good things that we know and understand will benefit us.”

He compared the situation to that of a smoker who knows perfectly well that cigarettes are harmful and will reduce their life expectancy but keeps on lighting up anyway and said we also had to fight against our primordial desires for light and warmth.

“Primitive man spent hours and hours trying to light a fire, he’s hardly likely to want to let it go out,” said Hutchinson.

While poor energy efficiency in existing homes clearly frustrated the architect, he reserved greater scorn for the criminally wasteful process of demolishing old housing stock to make way for new, when restoration was clearly a more sensible solution.

“Local authorities in Liverpool and Manchester are being forced to knock down terraced houses under the government’s Pathfinder scheme,” he said.

“To refurbish one would take the energy of driving a car from here to Moscow and back. Knocking it down and build a new one uses enough energy to drive the same car six times around the world. It’s nonsense.

“Demolition is the least sensible activity one can imagine. It’s destroying and throwing away and its enormously energy intensive in itself.”

New build, too, is wasteful he said with huge amounts of embodied energy being poured into the ground as new foundations and perfectly good materials being skipped simply because they are surplus to the requirements of a particular job.

“It’s time that all of us in the construction started to realise that the energy used in the process is just as important as the energy in the use,” said Hutchinson.

The current ‘housing crisis’ would not have happened if we were better house keepers, he claimed, and a lick of paint here and cleared drain there could make a world of difference to the longevity of our housing stock.

“Most restoration is in fact delayed maintenance, if we looked after our homes better we wouldn’t need to refurbish,” he said.

“But we haven’t done so as individuals or as a nation, which is why we have to have this programme of refurbishment or worse still demolition.”

He said there were currently one million empty houses in the UK, the majority of which could be refurbished to make very good homes.

“All of this is not pious postering, it’s as important to the survival of the planet as the war against terrorism and a great deal cheaper and less politically embarrassing to see through,” said the architect, pointing out that the reputation of a generation was at stake.

“Will we be remembered as either the generation that took the time, took the initiative or ripped up, pulled down, gobbled and left in tatters the built environment.”

By Sam Bond

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