Two recent articles in Building caused quite a stir
when they reported on Carbon Trust research into today's new wave
of low carbon buildings. Five
years spent following over 30 major projects from design, through
construction and in use revealed an inconvenient truth - low carbon
buildings simply aren't performing as promised.
In a little under ten years, all new buildings will supposedly
be "zero-carbon". But our analysis has highlighted the glaring gap
between design and actual energy consumption. Even many of the
"flagship" projects featured in the Low Carbon Buildings Programme
have struggled to better "good practice" benchmarks for carbon
emissions defined twenty years ago. Astonishingly, some of these
buildings are using as much as five times more energy than their
designers originally estimated.
I've been lucky enough to meet the clients, designers and
engineers on these projects and there's no lack of commitment or
enthusiasm to deliver low carbon buildings - on average they
committed to better than halve the regulatory minimum.
So why isn't this being achieved in practice?
All too often, designers focus on regulatory compliance rather
than delivering a building with low running costs. Complexity is
often the enemy of good performance. One high-profile public
building with four different renewable and backup heating systems
was so difficult to control that the gas boilers seemed to be
running instead of the heat pumps for most of the year.
Without the right metering installed, building managers often
find it impossible to diagnose and solve problems like this. But
almost every project has problems here. Why? One reason is the
tendency for contractors to hand over the keys and walk away,
rather than stay involved during an extended handover. This leads
to some real howlers - didn't the installer of the gas meter we saw
placed inches from a wall so it was impossible to read ask
themselves what it might be for? And who signed that off?
The consequences of all this can be costly. In one case, poor
commissioning of a building's systems added £10/m2 to
the client's energy bill in the first year. And tightening Building
Regulations should deliver big savings in new buildings. But if
these aren't achieved in practice our analysis suggests the cost
could be as much as £5bn over the next decade.
I think the problems are deep-rooted and structural. The
Government needs to reaffirm its commitment to decarbonising the
UK's buildings - and it needs to be prepared to use a big stick to
create demand if necessary. But it strikes me that won't be enough
- we also need a step change in the way our buildings are designed,
delivered and operated.
Firstly, we need to better understand how our buildings are
really performing to create a true market in low carbon buildings.
We support the UKGBC and others in calling for the roll-out of
Display Energy Certificates across the UK's non-domestic buildings
to reveal the best and worst performers.
With DECs as a common language, clients could confidently
specify the energy performance they want - and hold designers to
account for achieving it. As DECs are prominently displayed,
occupiers of gas-guzzling buildings would face a risk to their
reputation. Investors could finally quantify the elusive link
between sustainability and value - and so mobilise the capital
needed to decarbonise new and existing buildings. And only with
real data could the government use taxation as an effective lever
to cut carbon by penalising the worst offenders.
Secondly, this fiercely competitive industry needs forums in
which to share and learn tough lessons. Carbon Buzz is one new initiative to pool
data that compares design and actual energy consumption from
different designers. It's already providing valuable insights, but
it needs to be at a much greater scale to have real impact.
But most importantly, we need new ways of working that align the
interests of landlords, tenants, designers and investors in the
actual energy performance of their buildings. One potential model
is a unique partnership between the Carbon Trust, investors
Threadneedle and developer Stanhope. Low Carbon Workplace is different
because it requires occupiers to commit to eco-friendly operation,
and provides them with ongoing support to help them to achieve
certification and recognition to the new Low Carbon Workplace
Two years ago our report - Building the Future, Today - showed
how by 2050 we could cut the carbon from the UK's non-domestic
buildings by 80%. And there are success stories - we worked with
Hampshire County Council who cut the carbon from their office in
Winchester in half in a major refurbishment. But if we are ever to
realise the potential benefits of more efficient buildings, we will
need to see changes throughout the sector. I've highlighted a
couple of promising initiatives that might show the way forward - I
hope they are just the beginning.