Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Innovative eco-social housing neighbourhood reaches completion in Wales


A version of this article was published on The Fifth Estate on 17 May.
 Glen Peters standing outside one of the  two-bedroomed semi-detached houses.
Glen Peters standing outside one of the two-bedroomed semi-detached houses.

The first tenants have moved into Pentre Solar, an eco-social housing neighbourhood being constructed in Glanrhyd, Wales. ('Pentre' means village in Welsh.)


Dr Glen Peters, chief executive of Western Solar, has an ambition for his company to supply 1000 homes and to work with housing associations and local authorities to provide social housing.


The South-facing front of a three bedroomed house with plenty of glazing to capture the sun's heat. Inside it falls onto a black, melamine-covered concrete floor to absorb the heat.
The South-facing front of a three bedroomed house with plenty of glazing to capture the sun's heat. Inside it falls onto a black, melamine-covered concrete floor to absorb the heat.

The North-facing rear of a three bedroomed eco-house. The homes are clad in local larch. This is projected to last at least 25 years before it needs replacing.
The North-facing rear of a three bedroomed house. The homes are clad in local larch. This is projected to last at least 25 years before it needs replacing. Much care in the detailing of the design should extend the cladding life well beyond this point.

Peters estimates the build cost is about £120 per square foot (AU$19 a square metre). This has led him to set a rental cost of the two-bedroom houses of £480 a month (AU$836), a level in line with the local 106 planning condition of no more than 80 per cent of local market rents. The three-bedroom houses are set at £620 a month (AU$1080). For the developer, this gives a 3.5-4 per cent return on investment.

A pair of two-bedroomed semi-detached houses. All the homes have solar roofs.
A pair of two-bedroomed semi-detached houses. All the homes have solar roofs.

Local materials and labour

Costs have been kept low and as much as possible of the houses manufactured locally from local materials. In total 80 per cent of the building is manufactured locally out of local timber and 40 per cent – the airtight frames – are manufactured in a nearby factory – a converted cowshed – to be assembled on site.

Peters says the multiplier effect of the benefit to the local community for every £1000 invested is £2200, a factor of 2.2.




The timber frames are kept out of direct contact with the ground to prevent damp from rising:

The timber frame footing kept out of direct contact with the ground to prevent damp from rising.
A footing protected from damp on the patio.


The homes’ design builds upon the developer’s experience of a prototype house, Ty Solar:

The prototype Ty Solar (Ty is Welsh for House so the name means Solar House in English) in West Wales.
The prototype Ty Solar (Ty is Welsh for House so the name means Solar House in English) in West Wales. In the background can be seen the first solar farm in Wales which finance the building of Ty Solar.
Ty Solar was constructed in 2010 using the profit from Peters’ solar farm, the first in Wales. It cost about £75,000 (AU$130,640) to build with a £47,000 (AU$81,870) grant from the Sustainable Development Fund.

The unit costs of the Glanrhyd houses, built on the site of a now-demolished garage, were higher than normal, mainly because of the land reclamation, provision of services and unusual weather-related costs, as well as complying with planning conditions in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

The three-bedroom homes occupy 100 square metres, the two-bed ones slightly less, but still feel spacious.

The company is focused on providing social housing as Peters believes there is a reasonable business in creating good quality affordable housing, as none of the large developers seem to interested in doing so.

While it is economic and technically feasible to build these homes, politically Peters’ route has not been easy.

”Politicians have been unduly influenced by volume building companies, and while they love the houses it has been difficult to persuade local authorities and housing associations of the benefit of backing this design, despite the fact that occupants have virtually zero energy bills. The key performance indicators imposed on housing associations are unduly skewed towards capital costs rather than tenant and community welfare,” he says.

He is hoping that when he has occupancy data to back up his case, more housing associations and councils will be interested in the model.

Zero energy bills

The timber frame houses are built according to passive house principles, though are not validated as such due the cost of doing so, versus the benefits.

Each monopitch roof sports 8kW of integrated photovoltaic panels. Over a year these generate surplus energy, providing an income from a feed-in tariff, as well as giving the occupants free electricity. Total energy demand is about 12 per cent of a conventionally built home. Beneath the solar panels is a galvanised steel sheet that laps over the timber frame.

They sit on a concrete slab, unlike the prototype, which was constructed using the box beam method with a suspended timber floor. Peters says concrete is more durable, with more thermal mass and has a lower maintenance requirement, although with a greater carbon footprint.

The windows are double, not triple-glazed, to keep costs low as Peters believes that the incremental benefit of the extra pane of glazing is cancelled by the cost in the mild local climate.

The insulation is all 27cm of recycled newsprint pumped into the cavity. This type of eco-insulation is in general the most economic and ecological. The paint is clay-based – breathable and with no off-gassing. Although more expensive per litre, it requires fewer coats on bare plaster.

The houses all come fitted out with the most efficient washing machine, condenser drier, kitchen, water-saving bathroom with occupancy sensors in areas such as toilets, internet connection, Wi-Fi and an outside socket for charging an electric vehicle. There are LED lights throughout.

modern eco-kitchen

modern eco-bathroom

modern eco-utility room

modern eco-living room in passive solar house
All of these relatively spacious homes are provided with the most energy-efficient appliances and exceptional attention to detail.

Communal electric car


A Nissan Leaf electric car charging outside a solar eco-house.
The Nissan Leaf charging outside one of the houses.
The occupants of the estate have been given a Nissan Leaf to use collectively, charged by the solar panels on the roofs.

“It’s a way of getting neighbours to cooperate with each other and eliminate the need for a second car,” Peters says.

Energy storage

The South-facing homes are generous in their space, their form determined by the maximum depth allowed by the passive heating.

The rest of the heating is provided in a surprising manner, using the best of old technology with new: solar electricity and storage heaters.

A storage heater charged by solar electricity.
An installed storage heater; proven, old technology meeting the new.
Storage heaters contain thermally massive blocks that are heated up by an element. They then release that heat gradually over many subsequent hours.

This form of energy storage was introduced to British homes in the 1960s and ’70s on a special tariff called Economy 7. Since nuclear power stations could not be switched off, unlike other forms of electricity generation, these tariffs allowed people to use nuclear electricity at night – at a lower rate when national demand was low – to charge the storage heaters.

The problem was that by the time the heat was needed, the following evening, they were often too cool and many people subsequently removed them and installed central heating instead.

Here, the idea is to let the storage heaters be heated up during the day by the solar panels on the roof, meaning they are able to provide adequate heating through the evening and night provided that there has been average sunshine (50 per cent of a June summer’s day) during the day.

This may not be the case in the depths of winter and so the homes are also grid-connected. They export surplus energy when there is some – after the electric car and storage heaters have been topped up – and purchase it when not enough has been generated.

“Storage heaters are incredibly cheap,” Peters says, “and a well proven technology. Whereas the storage we had to start with in the prototype house – lithium-ion batteries – were designated a fire risk and we had them taken out. They are also much more expensive.”

A pair of two-bedroomed semi-detached passive solar houses.
A pair of two-bedroomed semi-detached passive solar houses.
The prototype house has been monitored and has well exceeded the predicted generation capacity, providing twice the electricity used over the year.

Peters says: “We have spent £2 million (AU$3.5m) researching and developing a sustainable timber building system that is 100 per cent British, powered by solar energy. We hope now to create 1000 homes across Wales and the UK, once the current political uncertainty is out of the way and we have won the argument on the efficacy of timber housing.”

David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy efficiency, sustainable building and renewable energy, including:
Find out more and buy the books here.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The cheap and reliable form of solar energy storage for homes that is already on the market

How should we store solar electricity? How about as heat? A Swedish research team is storing solar energy in liquid form, but it is still a way off being commercially available. A competing technology using molten salt is already on the market and shortlisted for a major renewable energy prize. But there is already a much cheaper and already well-proven solution now being used in a brand new context...

A shorter version of this article has appeared on The Fifth Estate.

The problem


Solar photovoltaic power it is increasingly being installed on buildings but a major challenge is that it is difficult to store so that it can be delivered when needed.

Storing solar electricity as heat is useful because the world uses more than twice as much energy in the form of heat as electricity. So for solar power to become ubiquitous, it needs to be delivered as heat more than as electricity – and round the clock.

Liquid solar energy

storing solar electricity as heat

The solution of researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden is a chemical liquid that can tranport solar energy and then release it as heat whenever it is needed. The research, described in March’s edition of Energy & Environmental Science, describes how the team came up with a way of copying the means by which plants store solar energy – in molecules.

Transforming it into bonds between atoms in a liquid chemical makes it possible to transport it as well as store it.

“The technique means that that we can store the solar energy in chemical bonds and release the energy as heat whenever we need it,” says Professor Kasper Moth-Poulsen, who is leading the research team.

“Combining the chemical energy storage with water heating solar panels enables a conversion of more than 80 per cent of the incoming sunlight.”

The research project has come a long way since it began six years ago when the solar energy conversion efficiency was 0.01 per cent and the expensive element ruthenium played a major role in the compound.

Four years later, the system stores 1.1 per cent of the incoming sunlight as latent chemical energy – an improvement of a factor of 100, and ruthenium has been replaced by much cheaper carbon-based elements.

“We saw an opportunity to develop molecules that make the process much more efficient,” Moth-Poulsen says.

“At the same time, we are demonstrating a robust system that can sustain more than 140 energy storage and release cycles with negligible degradation.”

The process is based on the organic compound norbornadiene, which upon exposure to light converts into quadricyclane.

Hybrid panels

The rooftops of buildings can take advantage of the benefits of installing both solar water heating and photovoltaic modules.

Typical efficiencies for photovoltaic modules are now at least 20 per cent. Solar water heating systems have an efficiency of between 20-80 per cent, depending on the application, location and the required temperature.

Solar water heating systems make use of the full solar spectrum, whereas photovoltaics can only harvest a much more limited proportion.

Some companies have used this difference to design hybrid panels which contain both solar water heating and photovoltaic cells, particularly since the water can be used to stop the photovoltaic panels overheating, making them more efficient. The downside is the expense.

The Swedish researchers think that one of the potential applications for their technology, when it has become more efficient, will be a new generation of hybrid panels that utilise the heat, which can be released from the liquid storage medium.

Concept diagram for the hybrid solar panels
Concept diagram for the hybrid solar panels
They say that combining solar water heating with their system allows for efficient usage of low energy photons for solar water heating combined with storage of the high-energy photons in the form of chemical energy.

Their simulations have persuaded them that these hybrid panels could be up to 80 per cent efficient. In terms of energy density they are comparable to a lithium ion battery.

The team will continue work on the technology to evaluate the potential cost and bringing it down by finding a way to mass produce the constituent chemicals, and to find a non-toxic solvent.

More than a pinch of salt

A totally different technology is from Sunamp, a British company that has developed its technology by collaborating with the University of Edinburgh School of Chemistry. It guarantees low-cost materials, exceptional long life, recyclability, safety and high energy density.

The technology has been shortlisted for the 2017 Ashden UK Awards alongside the work of the Passivhaus Trust and the Carbon Co-op, a community benefit society that helps its members to retrofit their homes.

An engineer installing the domestic solar salt battery.
An engineer installing the solar salt battery.


Sunamp’s form of storage uses a salt as a phase change material. This absorbs and releases thermal energy during the process of melting and solidifying respectively.

Similar technology is used on a large scale with concentrating solar thermal power stations, typically located in hot, arid deserts.

In this case it is used for storing energy from photovoltaic panels, waste process heat, or heat from heat pumps and micro CHP (combined heat and power) systems, in order to increase efficiency.

How does it work? In the case of storing solar electrical energy, an electrical element connected to the solar panels heats up the salt, thereby melting it.

The salt is kept liquid in a vacuum-insulated container. When heat is required, cold water is passed through the liquid in a heat exchanger, absorbing the heat and causing the salt to re-solidify. The heated water passes to the tap and the salt is ready to be charged again.

Sunamp’s batteries come in various sizes and can be used in series, meaning they can be used in anything from small homes to large hotels, for example. They take up much less space than a hot water tank, can store heat for longer and are more efficient.

The battery can store heat at half the weight of hot water in a tank storing the same amount of energy. Whether they are cost-effective depends upon the location and pattern of usage.

The easy solution


Tenants moving into a new passive solar mini-housing estate in Wales – Pentre Solar, Glanrhyd, near Cardigan – have roofs covered with grid-connected solar panels and zero energy bills.




Brand new passive solar homes for affordable social housing, covered in solar panels.
The brand new passive solar homes for affordable social housing, covered in solar panels.

Dr Glen Peters, CEO of Western Solar, which is behind the development, has an ambition for his company to supply 1,000 homes and to work with housing associations and local authorities to provide sustainable, solar-powered social housing.

The occupants of the estate have been given a Nissan Leaf electric car to use collectively, charged by the solar panels on the roofs. So that's one form of storage.

But the homes' heating is provided in a surprising manner, using the best of old technology with new: solar electricity and storage heaters.


An installed storage heater in a passive solar house; proven, old technology meeting the new
An installed storage heater in a passive solar house; proven, old technology meeting the new.
Storage heaters contain thermally massive blocks which are heated up by an element. They then release that heat gradually over many subsequent hours.

This form of energy storage was introduced to British homes in the 1960s and '70s on a special tariff called Economy 7. Since nuclear power stations could not be switched off unlike other forms of electricity generation, these tariffs allowed people to use nuclear electricity at night – at a lower rate when national demand was low – to charge the storage heaters.

The problem was that by the time the heat was needed, the following evening, they were often too cool and many people subsequently removed them and installed central heating instead.

Here, the idea is to let the storage heaters be heated up during the day by the solar panels on the roof, meaning that they are able to provide adequate heating through the evening and night provided that there has been average sunshine (50% of a June summer day) during the day.

This may not be the case in the depths of winter and so the homes are also grid-connected. They export surplus energy when there is some – after the electric car and storage heaters have been topped up – and purchase it when not enough has been generated.

"Storage heaters are incredibly cheap," says Glen, "and a well proven technology. Whereas the storage we had to start with in our prototype house – lithium ion batteries – were designated a fire risk and we had them taken out. They are also much more expensive – a couple of hundred rather than thousands of pounds."

This sounds like a solar energy storage solution that deserves far wider application. Good luck to the other technologies, but if I was looking for energy storage for a house, I know which I would choose.

David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy efficiency, sustainable building and renewable energy, including The Expert Guide To Energy Management In Buildings and The Expert Guide to Solar Technology and The Earthscan Expert Guide to Retrofitting Homes for Efficiency. Find out more and buy the books here.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Tory Government in the dock for "shameful" air quality plans

Air pollution in the UK is at unacceptably high levels and the Government has been criticised for not taking the issue seriously, following the release of a “woeful” and “disappointingly unambitious” draft air quality plan, particularly around construction site emissions.

Matthew Pencharz, who brought in the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) regulations for construction equipment while he was deputy mayor for environment and energy, called the draft plan “disappointingly unambitious”, calling on the government to help local authorities enforce environmental regulations on construction sites, and to push the use of clean technologies.

Annual UK emissions of NOx since 2000AD
Annual UK emissions of NOx since 2000AD

Emissions from commercial and domestic buildings and construction represent a small but significant proportion of overall UK nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. In London, construction equipment accounts for some seven per cent of emissions. These lead to unacceptably high NO2 concentrations and are important sources of pollution in towns and cities.

Plans slammed as “woeful”

Environmental lawyers ClientEarth had to take the Government to court to force it to publish the Air Quality Plan, with the government fighting against publication until after the general election.

ClientEarth previously had to sue the Government to force it to even produce draft plans by 24 April and final ones by 31 July, as the Government is in breach of the European clean air rules in many areas.

They also last week won a campaign to persuade the European Union to pass tough new industrial pollution rules that, they say, “could save thousands of lives each year”.

When he finally saw the government’s proposals, James Thornton, chief executive of ClientEarth, accused the government of “passing the buck” to local authorities. He said he had no faith in the central proposal – to set up clean air zones for urban areas – without the imposition of charges to deter the most polluting vehicles from entering the zones.

A clean air zone defines an area where targeted action is taken to improve air quality and resources are prioritised and coordinated in a way that delivers improved health benefits and supports economic growth.

“The plan looks much weaker than we had hoped for,” Thornton said. “The court ordered the government to take this public health issue seriously and while the government says that pollution is the largest environmental risk to public health, we will still be faced with illegal air quality for years to come under these proposals.”

Ed Davey, the former Liberal Democrat energy and climate change secretary, called the proposals “not a plan, but a cop-out” while London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, said: “We’ve dragged the government kicking and screaming through the courts to produce these belated proposals – but they are toothless and woefully inadequate.”

The proposals involve increasing the number of clean air zones from the current six that are in the planning stage to 27. They estimate that this will cut air pollution and provide cost benefits of over £1 billion ($1.76b).

But local authorities would have to exhaust all other options first and they would not be allowed to introduce charging.

Air pollution and construction

Breakdown of UK national average NOx roadside concentration into sources, 2015
Breakdown of UK national average NOx roadside concentration into sources, 2015


While diesel vehicles are by far the largest source of pollution in urban areas, construction sites are also accused of playing their part. Pollution comes from machinery onsite, vehicles going to and from the sites, and dust.

Construction dust is classified as PM10 – particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter, invisible to the naked eye. It can cause a wide range of health problems including respiratory illness, asthma, bronchitis and even cancer.

Diesel particulate matter consists of soot, sulphates and silicates, which easily combine with other toxins in the atmosphere, increasing health risks.

Diesel is also responsible for emissions of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide. Noxious vapours from oils, glues, thinners, paints, treated woods, plastics, cleaners and other hazardous chemicals widely used on construction sites also contribute to air pollution.

Construction activities can also cause water pollution from diesel and oil; paint, solvents, cleaners and other harmful chemicals; and construction debris and dirt. If land is cleared, soil erosion may send soil into natural waterways turning them turbid and destroying aquatic life.

The website Sustainable Building issues guidelines to construction firms to help them minimise all types of pollution. These include:

  • Minimising land disturbance
  • Leaving maximum vegetation cover
  • Controlling dust through fine water sprays
  • Screening the site, skips and trucks to stop dust spreading
  • Covering piles of building materials like cement, sand and other powders
  • Using non-toxic paints, solvents and other hazardous materials
  • Having a policy to manage toxic substances to prevent spills
  • Covering up and protecting drains
  • Collecting wastewater in settlement tanks then filtering before discharge
  • Disposing of remaining sludge according to environmental regulations
  • Using low sulphur diesel oil
  • Incorporating the latest specifications of particulate filters and catalytic converters
  • Not burning materials on site
  • Reducing noise pollution through careful handling of materials and the use of sound shields
The UK government’s proposals, however, are confined to noting that excavators and bulldozers and other vehicles or engines used in construction must be approved to demonstrate compliance with pollutant emission standards.

New emissions standards for non-road mobile machinery will come into force in January 2019 and new measures to tackle NOx emissions from generators by the end of 2018.

Pencharz called this response “disappointing” and said it should “do more to push the utilisation of clean technologies on construction sites to save both money and emissions and stimulate this high value manufacturing sector”.

The GLA brought in regulations in 2015 to begin the cleaning up of constructions sites. But the government in its draft only refers to regulations from 2019 for new machines, with no regard to the thousands of older, high polluting ones.

In addition, Pencharz notes, other local authorities do not appear to be being encouraged to bring in London-style regulations and, even if they did, any enforcement powers remain weak.

He points out that clean technologies such as batteries, especially for temporary power for construction and events, would markedly reduce air pollution emissions.

Whoever wins the general election will have an uphill battle improving British air quality cost-effectively.

David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy efficiency, sustainable building and renewable energy. See his website here.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

When certified smart meters still give wildly inaccurate readings...

How can you trust a smart meter when you know that it gives wrong readings – even though it has passed the certification tests?


Some meters currently on the market containing the technology now known to fail.
Smart meters can provide electricity readings up to six times higher than actual levels, according to a new study. These meters have passed standards tests. However these tests have failed to identify faults because the meters contain components not designed to measure some of the latest devices in use, and the standards have not yet caught up with this.

A version of this article appeared in The Fifth Estate on April 18.


It’s often been a mantra of energy efficiency that “what gets measured gets saved”. But what if the meters used for measuring energy give faulty readings? Two recent market studies have found that such meters are relatively common.

One study by scientists at the Dutch University of Twente found that smart meters can provide electricity readings that are up to six times higher than actual levels.

This unreliability is especially prevalent when monitoring the outputs of LED lighting when they are combined with dimmers.

Tests found that 60 per cent of the meters tested frequently gave results as much as 582 per cent (almost six times) the actual energy use, while some of the meters under-recorded consumption by up to 30 per cent.

Many types of LEDs have not been designed to be used with dimmers, but even those that did generated false readings in some meters. The electricity being consumed has an erratic waveform and many of the meters tested were unable to process this, which caused the inaccurate results.

“Okay, these were laboratory tests, but we deliberately avoided using exceptional conditions,” University of Twente PhD student Cees Keyer said. “For example, a dimmer and 50 bulbs, while an average household has 47 bulbs.”

The researchers dismantled the energy meters tested and discovered the ones giving excessively high readings contained a Rogowski coil current sensor. The meters giving a lower than actual deviation were fitted with a Hall effect-based current sensor.

Frank Leferink, professor of electromagnetic compatibility at the University of Twente, said: “The energy meters we tested meet all the legal requirements and are certified. These requirements, however, have not made sufficient allowance for modern switching devices”.

The standardised test for meters does not make allowance for waveform-contaminating power-consuming appliances. As a result, according to the researchers, it is an unsuitable method for testing meters. Professor Leferink and Mr Keyer advise any consumers who doubt their meter readings to contact their supplier.

In Holland, 750,000 of these meters have been fitted. The network company responsible, Liander, commented that the problem centres on meters installed between 2012 and 2014, with large companies most likely to be affected.

However, households with solar panels and electric cars are also likely to have been hit. The Dutch consumers association said that Liander “should be actively looking for the faulty meters and looking at eventual compensation”.

Millions of similar meters may be installed around the world. The only way for their owners to know if they contain the misleading current sensors would be to consult the manufacturer. They would then have to replace the meters at their own cost under present circumstances – an unacceptable case of testing standards failing the marketplace.

The study, Static Energy Meter Errors Caused by Conducted Electromagnetic Interference, was published in the scientific journal IEEE Electromagnetic Compatibility Magazine.

Industrial hot water meters

At the other end of the market, in industry, meters can also be inaccurate due to the temptation to cut costs by purchasing a cheap metering solution.
Water meters currently on the market.

Martin Wardell, managing director of data-logging software and meter company MWA Technology, says problems arise due to the use of low-quality products for metering hot water.

Wardell claims that the use of sub-par meters, whose life expectancy is extremely low, is “an indictment of the lack of care taken by consulting engineers” who fail to recommend or install heat meters using ultrasonic flow sensors. This type of meter will operate accurately for up to 20 years.

Leading manufacturers of energy meters, including Kamstrup, Diehl/Hydrometer and Itron, do not use mechanical flow parts/meters, instead opting for ultrasonic flow parts.

“What we are seeing more during our site visits is the combination of mechanical parts meters integrated alongside ultrasonic meters, resulting in the performance breakdown of the mechanical counterpart and the inevitable leaking,” he said. “Picking the right meter from the start saves money and complications.”

He puts the blame on estimators in building services and system integrators.

“They have been weaned on this low-cost solution and have the approach that as long as they perform for 12 months, they can wash their hands of any future issue.

“While many consulting engineers have realised that heat meters must be MIS Class II certified, when it comes to specifying water meters they specify WRAS approved and MID certified but they fail to specify the accuracy class. This should be R400 minimum, which are UK water utility grade meters.”

Standards for all energy meters can be found on this European Union website.


David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy efficiency, sustainable building and renewable energy, including The Expert Guide To Energy Management In Buildings and The Expert Guide To Energy Management In Industry. Find out more and buy the books here.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Skills gap challenges the rise in offsite construction

Offsite construction methods for building are on the rise, but there is concern over a lack of the necessary skills to meet the increase in demand.

Factory where building sections are assembled before delivery to the site.

Factory where building sections are assembled before delivery to the site.

A version of this article appeared on The Fifth Estate on 27 April.


Offsite construction for both office and house building – where sections are assembled in factories then transported to the building site for assembly – has a number of advantages:
  • Greater speed of construction
  • Lower assembly cost
  • Higher quality and sustainability – especially airtightness for energy efficiency
  • Increased reliability
  • Improved health and safety
  • Less disruption to the site’s neighbourhood.
Its use is increasing. In a recent UK survey, 42 per cent of employers with over 100 staff said they expect to be using offsite construction methods more in five years’ time, and all of them said they expected the use of precast concrete panels to increase. In particular, 91 per cent anticipated the use of precast concrete frames to rise.

Percentage by which construction companies think offsite construction will increase over the next five years.]

Percentage by which construction companies think offsite construction will increase over the next five years.
Types of offsite construction and how much companies expect them to increase over the next 5 years.

Types of offsite construction and how much companies expect them to increase over the next 5 years.

Benefits


The benefits are potentially huge. In the UK the use of “flying factories” by Skanska and Costain for phase one of the Battersea Power Station housing redevelopment resulted in a 44 per cent cut in cost, 73 per cent less rework and a 60 per cent reduction in time.

In another case, 80 per cent of the Leadenhall Building was constructed offsite by Laing O’Rourke, resulting in a 50 per cent reduction in deliveries to site. The same was true of Vinci’s Circle Health building in Reading, England, resulting in a 20 per cent program reduction and a 28 per cent cost saving.

Half of the clients of building companies expect offsite construction only to increase, according to the report. But if this is to happen, from where will the skills to meet this demand come?

The skills gap


The report outlines six key skills areas related to offsite construction:
  • digital design
  • estimating/commercial
  • offsite manufacturing
  • logistics
  • site management and integration
  • onsite placement and assembly.
Offsite construction skills and functions.
 Offsite construction skills and functions.


Increasingly, workers will need these skills to move between offsite and onsite environments and so the training for these six areas must evolve to meet the changing demand, says the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB).

Of businesses expecting to use offsite construction over the next three to five years, 38 per cent told the CITB they believed they will need new or significantly improved skills within their workforces. Handling and assembly skills are those most in demand, with 81 per cent of employers citing them.

Seven in 10 also mentioned skills relating to the operation of powered equipment, health, safety and welfare, site preparation, disposal of waste, team working and quality control.

Mark Farmer, author of the 2016 Farmer Review on the future of construction for the UK Government, says there is a need to attract high quality talent from among the new generation of students who aspire to a very different, digitally led career.

In the foreword to the new report by CITB, he says we need a two-pronged approach:
“Firstly, adopting more integrated precision engineered ‘pre-manufacturing’ techniques, in turn supported by growing client led demand. Secondly, to evolve a new skills and training landscape alongside the more traditional pathways that enables and supports the implementation of innovative techniques and technologies.”

So let’s take a closer look at the emerging required skillsets:

Designers

Designers will need a new range of digital capabilities. Arguably the most important is the adoption of 3D digital models with rich data (using Building Information Modelling) so that designs can be robustly tested and agreed in advance of manufacture to avoid costly errors and modifications at later stages.

Aligned to this is the need to integrate the design function into early stage planning with the contractor and client. This is a significant break from the norm and challenges designers to adopt a more holistic approach to their role.

Estimators

Given that cost saving is one of the key advantages of offsite, the estimating function becomes an even more crucial one in the sector.

Estimators must account for – and have an understanding of – materials used, transportation costs and risk factors.

For offsite projects, the costing model often puts a far higher proportion of the cost at the outset (that is, before being onsite).

But this can deter clients. Being able to make the case for an alternative value proposition is, therefore, vital.

The technical skills required include developing whole life cycle costs, analysing tender documents and contracts, developing tenders, and understanding the use of BIM.

Offsite manufacturing skills

Offsite manufacturing requires technical skills, like welding, joinery, pre-casting and steel fixing, already present in the construction workforce, plus product and process knowledge.

Product knowledge of concrete, light gauge steel, hot rolled steel, open and closed timber frame, cross laminated timber and structural insulated panels are perfect for most factories in the current market.

Many factories use traditional trades, meaning there is still a healthy market for these skills and those who train them.

However, a growing number of companies are moving towards having multi-skilled operatives who are comfortable with a wider variety of tasks and responsible for quality assurance of finished components.

This means that machinists and other multi-skilled operatives would benefit from basic design knowledge to understand what a finished output should look like and to address any issues that might affect assembly onsite.

Logistics

Offsite logistics requires more patience and control, while the traditional function is frequently “more chaotic”.

Much of this skillset revolves around coordination and integration, so it is important that those involved develop soft skills such as listening and distilling information, as well as problem-solving capabilities.

As with other functions, skills in understanding and using digital models and data become vital here, particularly with regard to planning and project management.

Onsite assembly

Onsite assembly often relies on pre-existing core “tradespeople” skills. However, additional skills, both technical and soft, are also required, together with those traditional ones.

For instance, a crane operator needs new skills in handling much larger, unstable pre-manufactured loads.

Similarly, ground workers need to work to much tighter tolerances so that foundations match precisely the dimensions of the components being assembled.

Technical understanding of products and materials is a key requirement across all roles.

Quality assurance, process management and problem-solving skills are also crucial competencies for both assemblers and site supervisors.

Site management

Adaptability and communication are the key skills for the site management function when it comes to offsite construction.

The role hinges on being able to integrate onsite and offsite functions in one project. In this sense, soft skills, such as time management, attitudes and behaviours are arguably as important as technical skills.

Digital skills are required in reading and using BIM models, to help with correct sequencing and installation. Quality assurance skills and behaviours are also important.

The way forward

Whereas there will always be a space for onsite construction, at least some offsite construction for a project offers so many benefits that it is bound to increase. The infrastructure and industrial sub-sectors have been somewhat slower to adopt the offsite agenda than housing and office space, but they are expected to catch up.

Steve Radley, director of policy at CITB, says:
“The greatest potential currently lies within the housing and commercial sectors, where mass customisation can create the buildings we need more quickly and to higher standards. There are also opportunities to bring the benefits of offsite to large-scale infrastructure projects.

“Successful offsite management hinges on the effective integration of both onsite and offsite functions – and this requires a comprehensive understanding of both aspects,” he adds. 

For anyone considering starting out in the industry, this is a good message to take on board.

David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy efficiency, sustainable building and renewable energy, including The Expert Guide To Energy Management In Buildings. Find out more and buy the books here.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Developers and politicians failing to protect against climate-related flood risk

Flooding in Germany

With five million Europeans under threat of increased coastal flooding, policymakers – under pressure from persistent demand for low-cost development on the coast and inland – lack understanding of flood risk reduction and management, according to several new pieces of research.

This is a version of an article that appeared on 13 April in The Fifth Estate.

European homes are at risk from flooding from two directions: on the coast from sea-level rise and storm surges; and in floodplains and valleys from run-off during periods of extreme rainfall.

New analysis detailed in journal Earth’s Future shows that the five million Europeans currently under threat from once in a century floods (like those experienced in May last like) could face the same risk once a decade by mid-century and every year by the end of the century, as the climate continues to change.

The research is the first to take into account not only sea level rise due to warming temperatures, but also the impacts of climate change on tides, storm surge and waves when estimating future flood risk.

The authors used observations of the different factors plus climate models to estimate how each factor might change along the coastlines of Europe under different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios.

They found existing coastal protection structures were not up sufficient for protecting the five million homes most vulnerable under high-end warming scenarios.

Governments and building owners in these areas therefore face a stark choice: increase defences or move. Developers need to wake up to the risk of continuing to build in these areas and planners need to question whether approvals should be granted for development. Insurers will need help if they are to continue to provide cover. And property owners are likely to see the value of their properties drop.

Which areas will face the worst potential damage?

Seas are rising worldwide by about 3.2 millimetres a year, though rates vary from region to region because of local land rise and subsidence. If greenhouse gas emissions aren’t curbed, global seas could rise on average by 0.52 metres up to 0.98 metres by the end of the century, according to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

In Europe, the North Sea region is projected to face the highest sea level rise – nearly one metre under a high emission scenario by 2100 – followed by the Baltic Sea and Atlantic coasts of the UK and Ireland. Sea level rise is the main cause of the flood risk, but even more intensive extremes of weather along most of northern Europe will also generate significant local effects.

Least affected will be southern Europe, with the exception of a projected decrease along the Portuguese coast and the Gulf of Cadiz, offsetting sea level rise by 20-30 per cent.

This conclusion confirms the result of a separate report from 10 years ago that the regions most prone to a rise in flood frequencies are northern to northeastern Europe, while southern and southeastern Europe show significant increases in drought frequencies.

The cost will be in the many billions. Storms Desmond, Eva and Frank, which battered parts of Britain between early December 2015 and early January 2016, caused damage estimated to cost insurers £1.3 billion (AU$1.66b) in claims. Multiplying this throughout Europe under the above scenario will see potential costs in the many billions.

Thomas Wahl, who studies coastal flood risks at the University of Central Florida, calls the research “an important step in the right direction and, to date, the most comprehensive analysis of changes in coastal extreme sea levels under climate change for Europe”.

Flood resistant homes?

As I covered in February, the British Building Research Establishment has developed a flood-resilient home designed to be able to resist floodwaters up to a depth of 600mm. In addition, the home features a number of innovations aimed at reducing the damage and disruption caused should floodwaters actually penetrate into the interior of the house.

But this type of development isn’t necessarily helpful. Another paper published recently in Science of The Total Environment found that while combined investment in property-level flood protection and sustainable urban drainage systems could certainly reduce surface water flood risk in times of extreme rainfall, the benefits could be outweighed by continued development in high-risk areas.

The researchers examined surface water flood risk in London, looking at how risk reduction could be achieved by homeowners and government, and the role of flood insurance and the new flood insurance pool, Flood Re, in the context of climate change.

Flood Re is a levy system in the UK agreed between the government and insurance companies to provide flood insurance coverage to homeowners who would otherwise be ineligible for it because of where they live.

Simulations showed that the scheme helps to provide affordable insurance, even under climate change but will face increasing financial pressure as the frequency of incidents increases.

The researchers say that if the intended transition to risk-based pricing is to take place then a determined and coordinated strategy will be needed to manage flood risk, something that isn’t currently happening.

This will involve a number of measures, including the provision of incentives for householders to make their homes flood-resilient, putting limits on new development in risky areas and installing neighbourhood-scale resilience infrastructure such as sustainable urban drainage systems.

The limits of land management

Other known broader scale methods of reducing the impact of extreme rainfall events include river restoration and tree planting. These aim to restore processes that have been affected by human activities such as farming, land management and house-building.

However, more research shows that although such measures can play a valuable role in flood prevention, a lack of monitoring means their true potential remains unclear.

Experts led by Dr Simon Dadson of the University of Oxford compiled evidence on natural flood management, published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

It shows that measures to restore natural floodplains by “making room for the river” – for example by removing flood walls and other obstacles – do indeed reduce flood water levels.

But Dr Dadson cautions: “One of the main problems decision-makers face is that differences between catchments make it difficult to transfer evidence from one location to the other – and we don’t yet know whether the effects in small catchments can be extrapolated to larger ones”.

He adds: “What we’ve found is that when it comes to natural flood management, there are some interventions for which there is very strong evidence, but these tend to be in small-scale river catchments.”

For measures such as tree planting that aim to change the way rainfall runs off the land, the evidence of the impact on flooding is mixed.

“Natural flood management can help if implemented well in carefully chosen locations, and it can bring important benefits to landscapes and wildlife, but it’s not a silver bullet for the problem of flooding,” Dadson says.

He recommends that policymakers establish more systematic large-scale surveys and monitoring programs, and feed natural flood management into planning at the catchment scale.

With governments therefore lagging behind in their response to the increasing rate of risk rise to property from flooding, perhaps the best advice occupants can take is simply: move to a less risky location.

David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy, buildings and sustainability. See his website here.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Trump, Putin and a new "axis of fossil fuels"

When Trump and Putin finally meet, we could well see the emergence of a new axis of resurgence for the fossil fuel industry.

A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said a week last Friday that the Russian leader is keen to meet with US President Trump. That now seems an age ago, since Trump's U-turn on Syria.

It seemed likely then that the meeting would be soon. But when they do finally meet, as they must, even if they don't have policy on Syria and the Ukraine in common, there's something else on which they do share much: a love of coal, gas and oil.

A pre-sarin-attack-in-Syria version of this article appeared on April 6 on The Fifth Estate.

Both Trump and Putin support this industry – and the mining industry in general – and deprecate climate change and the Paris Agreement.

People close to the powerful Russian oil community say that both countries see energy cooperation as one of the few common grounds to move the strained relations forward.

Putin and Trump have much in common on the topic of energy. As InsideClimate has pointed out last year:

Russia is the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. Yet the plan it submitted under the Paris agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 is one of the weakest of any government and actually permits Russia to increase carbon pollution over time. The Paris Agreement went into effect last November, but Russia is the only major emitter that has not ratified it. Instead, it has laid out a timetable that would delay ratification for almost three years.

Trump’s climate-sceptic appointee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, has not confirmed whether the United States will remain in the global climate change pact.

Artic exploration

The meeting looks likely to happen in Finland once it assumes chair of the Arctic Council. This is significant because the Council is a forum for discussing access to the mineral rights of the sea-bed within the circle.

Due to climate change (which Trump does not believe in) and melting of the Arctic sea-ice, more energy resources and waterways are now becoming accessible.

Both leaders want access to the vast reserves of oil and gas known to exist there. Their desire is vigorously opposed by environmentalists. Putin’s government famously imprisoned Greenpeace activists in 2013 for protesting about Russian oil exploration in the Arctic.

Igor Yusufov, Tillerson and Russia

Igor Yusufov, Russian energy minister (2001-2004) who presided over the privatisation of the industry is now, oddly, head of US$3 billion energy investment Fund Energy. This fund does deals in oil and gas projects with the likes of US oil service multinational Halliburton.

Yusufov has issued a statement supporting greater cooperation between the two superpowers. He believes that Russia and the USA will discuss the development of coal production and corresponding technologies. Russia is in possession of the world’s second largest coal reserves.

Yusufov has known Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, formerly head of ExxonMobil, since 2002. He is enthusiastic about Tillerson’s involvement in building bridges between the two countries – and forging links on energy.

Tillerson has been involved in Russian energy projects since January 1998 when he took over ExxonMobil’s operations in Russia and the Caspian Sea region.

ExxonMobil and Gazprom did very well out of Tillerson’s involvement in Russia. Both sides will be hoping this success can be repeated.

In connection with the ongoing suspicions about Mr Trump’s connections to Russia, and the degree of support he received from Mr Putin, John McCain, a senator from Arizona, has said he is “very concerned” about Tillerson’s 2013 acceptance of Russia’s Order of Friendship from Mr Putin.

The man Tillerson will be talking to is foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, whom Yusufov speaks admiringly about and says “also possesses a profound knowledge in energy”.

Trump will be jealous of Russia’s achievements with its coal industry. Contrary to the state of affairs in the US, which he wants to reverse, in the last five years Russian coal production increased by 12.7 per cent. Yusufov attributes this to the benefits of privatisation.

Much of the increase is due to open-cast mining, which has lax environmental controls – another (non)-policy favoured by both Trump and Putin.

The end of the Paris Agreement?

Yusufov says that Russia is concerned about the likely slowdown in global demand for coal due to the Paris Agreement. But its Energy Ministry still forecasts an increase in production to 425 million tons in 2020 and to 480 m tons in 2030.

How does this square with being a signatory of the Paris Agreement? It doesn’t. Russia says one thing and does another. This is its form of Orwellian “doublethink”.

An example is Yusufov’s statement: “We see [the Paris Agreement] as a cornerstone of the future environmentally conscious world. At the same time we clearly understand, that at this stage the Russian economy would not survive without hydrocarbons our companies explore and produce.”

At least Russia is honest about wanting to have its climate cake and eat it.

As with the West’s misplaced faith in carbon capture to achieve this dual end, Putin believes in nanotubes. He mentioned them in Paris prior to the climate change conference. He said that these Russian-made fibres, one billionth of a metre in diameter, will “cut Russian CO2 emissions by 160-180 million tons”.

Russia currently emits 2322 Mt CO2 a year, or 5.4 per cent of global emissions.

In the US last week, Trump signed an order – which would need to be passed by Congress – rolling back former President Barack Obama’s climate change policies, including the Clean Power Plan to slash carbon emissions from power plants.

This would damage the United States’ ability to meet its Paris commitments.

Only the U.S. Congress stands between this emerging alliance and the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The world will be watching this summit more closely than it has watched any summit in the last few years.

David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy, buildings and sustainability. See his website here.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Why does the UK have lower energy bills but rising fuel poverty?

Note: A version of this piece first appeared last week on The Fifth Estate.
 
Average fuel bills have fallen and investing in energy efficiency does not need to push up energy bills according to new research from the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC). Yet a recent debate in the Houses of Parliament on fuel poverty shows that ministers still lack the necessary political will to tackle its scale and are complacent about the effect of their efforts.

The UK ranks 14 out of 16 western European countries for fuel poverty, and ranks bottom for the proportion of people who cannot afford to adequately heat their home.

Yet household energy bills have fallen since the Climate Change Act was passed – despite fears expressed at the time that measures to tackle climate change would push bills up.

So why has fuel poverty slowly been creeping up? The fuel poverty gap, which is a measure of the difference between a household’s energy bill and what it can afford to pay, increased from £235 in 2003 to £371 in 2014, according to Rebecca Long-Bailey the Labour Party Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Real wages have fallen over the last decade since the banking crisis and the austerity politics era begin. That's part of the picture. But there is more.

Compared to Sweden. Britain’s winters are mild yet due to good insulation of homes levels of fuel poverty in Sweden are about half those of the UK. A typical Swedish wall is three times more energy efficient. So what is going on in the UK?

Why have fuel bills fallen?

Graph: Changes in annual energy bills from 2004 to 2008 and from then to 2016.
“Changes in annual energy bills from 2004 to 2008 and from then to 2016.” Source: CCC analysis. Estimates are for the average dual-fuel household with gas heating. 2016 estimates are based on consumption of 3,550 kWh for electricity and 13,500 kWh for gas. Note: 2004 is the first year for which comparable data is available to allow comparison over time.

Fuel bills in Britain have fallen not because of energy prices falling or homes being better insulated but because more energy efficient goods are on the market. This is in line with patterns found in Australian energy consumption.

Although the cost of measures to deliver a cleaner, low-carbon electricity system have added around £9 a month to the typical UK household energy bill in 2016, this was more than offset by a cut of over £20 per month due to reduced energy demand mainly from more efficient lights and appliances (according to the CCC’s fourth independent assessment of the impact of carbon budgets on energy bills).

This assessment finds that typical households which use gas for heating/hot water and electricity for everything else, paid (in real terms) £115 less per year for energy in 2016 than they did in 2008 when the Climate Change Act was passed. The total annual bill includes just over £100 to pay for decarbonisation measures.

Improvements in energy efficiency have saved the typical household around £290 a year since 2008.

This is largely due, as Green MP Caroline Lucas pointed out in the Parliamentary debate, not to the refurbishment of homes but to a European Union directive – the Ecodesign Directive – which, she said, is projected to produce average annual savings of £153 by 2020 – 20 per cent of the average annual energy bill.

This has been so successful that it has led to the virtual phasing out of all inefficient goods, including household appliances, boilers and windows, below the A rating since the energy rating label for goods was introduced 20 years ago.

It has encouraged the development of ever more energy efficient products. Consumer surveys show that about 85 per cent of European citizens look at energy efficiency labels when they purchase products.

The European Commission last week therefore decided to replace the current confusing A+++ to G labels for products by a clear and easier to use A to G labels to make energy labels more understandable.

Once this is approved by the European Parliament and the Council, product registration and public databases will be provided to make it easier for people to compare the energy efficiency of household appliances.

Fuel poverty and policy

But still fuel poverty is rising.

A household is said to be living in fuel poverty if its income is below the poverty line and it has higher-than-typical energy costs.

On 21 March, British MPs debated fuel poverty. The minister responsible for energy reminded everyone that in 2014 the Government adopted a target for England for improving the homes of all fuel-poor households to a band C energy efficiency rating by 2030. Along the way they are to be improved to a band E rating by 2020 and to a band D rating by 2025.

Only 7 per cent of fuel-poor households currently live in a band C rated property – most in much worse homes. Improving E, F or G-rated homes to band D can reduce energy costs by an average of £400 a year.

This is a lot more than the money saved by switching appliances to the most efficient, however much that helps. Besides, the poorest people cannot afford to buy new appliances.

A revised Act of Parliament that obliges energy companies to refurbish customers’ homes is about to see 500,000 homes improved over the coming 18 months. This is an extension of the Electricity and Gas (Energy Company Obligation) (Amendment) Order, which will prolong the Energy Company Obligation scheme from 1 April 2017 to 30 September 2018. It is well overdue and its tardiness has created uncertainty in the industry.

Seventy per cent of the support available under the Act will be directed at low-income homes. However there is currently no clear indication of what will happen to the obligation after 2018.

New private rented sector regulations will target the least efficient F and G-rated properties from 2018 by requiring landlords to improve those properties to at least a band E.

But is this enough?

The failure of policy

There has been an 88 per cent fall in the number of measures taken to retrofit homes since 2010 as a result of government policies, according to Long-Bailey.

Policies to date have failed to support the development of a large-scale sustainable market for energy efficiency investments.

The Association for the Conservation of Energy believes this is “because there has been a lack of a stable and long-term framework within which the energy efficiency supply chain can develop its market. Energy efficiency policies have proved susceptible to decisions driven by short-term political priorities”.

The Committee on Climate Change estimates that 4.5 million cavity walls remain un-insulated, 10 million easy-to-treat lofts could benefit from additional insulation and seven million solid walls are still without any insulation.

The case for further government intervention is clear, but the political will to spend money on this area is lacking.

The economic benefits of insulating homes

It’s not just about bills. It’s about human health and winter deaths, of which 8000 were said to occur last winter due to fuel poverty. But if that fails to persuade MPs to take action there are financial arguments too.

Analysis by consultants Frontier Economics suggests that the net present value of investing in insulating homes could be as valuable as the High Speed 2 rail link being backed by the government. It sees this type of investment as an infrastructure priority.

Opposition parties Labour and the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalists are united with the NEA that the National Infrastructure Commission and the UK Government must act on the strong case for domestic energy efficiency to be regarded as a hugely important infrastructure priority.

A further report by Cambridge Econometrics found that for each pound spent on insulating homes £1.12 is generated for the Treasury and £3 for the economy in GDP, and 42 pence is saved by the NHS.

The future effect of climate change targets on electricity bills

If it will not cost – but benefit – the taxpayer, will it cost the bill payer?

Graph: Central estimates for changes in annual household energy bill from 2016 to 2030.
“Central estimates for changes in annual household energy bill from 2016 to 2030.” Source: CCC analysis. Estimates are for the average dual-fuel household with gas heating.
The CCC calculates that the gradual shift towards low-carbon electricity could add a further £85-120 a year to a typical bill by 2030 if further policies to meet UK climate objectives are put in place, but that further improvements in energy efficiency have the potential to deliver even more savings for households in future (around £150, or more if wholesale costs continue to rise). That’s a net benefit to consumers of at least £30.

It points out that, “There is also a range of opportunities for business arising from the transition to a low-carbon economy. The UK low-carbon economy already makes up 2-3 per cent of GDP and employs hundreds of thousands of people.”

Jesse Norman, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), concluding the debate on fuel poverty for the Government, called their target to reduce fuel poverty “ambitious”.

But seen in this context it does not appear nearly as ambitious as it could be.

David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy, buildings and sustainability. See his website here.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Post-occupancy study reveals how to really cut energy use in offices

One of the buildings studied in the research.
 Note: A version of this article appeared in The Fifth Estate on 21 March.

A new comparative study on the energy performance of existing office buildings has thrown light on the impact of tenant behaviour and the value of comfort.

Energy efficient buildings will only perform as intended with close collaboration between project teams, property managers and technical staff, a new study commissioned by Skanska, Go4Energy and Cushman & Wakefield has found.

The study analysed 20 office buildings in Poland, 16 of which hold LEED or BREEAM certification – meaning they are intended to be highly energy efficient.

By separating the energy consumption of tenants from the building’s total energy consumption, the research highlights the importance of tenant behaviour on performance.

Go4Energy analysed the energy use of the buildings and found that “the share of electrical energy consumed by tenants in the building’s overall energy balance ranged from 14 per cent to 65 per cent”.

The tenants have a significant impact on the energy consumption of the building and the electricity it consumes, dependent upon what type of tenant they are and the technological processes they use, which is why the share of electricity consumed by tenants varies so much.

The study is intended to make it easier to develop better, more targeted energy management systems for buildings in order to realise further improvements.

Waldemar Olbryk, director for support functions at Skanska, said the report was “a comparative analysis” between their buildings and other office buildings in Poland, and that no such study had been done previously.

“We looked at them in terms of their features, age and environmental specification,” he said.

Suisse Credit building, Poland
One of the buildings studied in Poland.

The investor must care

The study found that the influence of the investor was a decisive factor in the designed energy performance of the building.

By supporting certification systems, the investor can achieve more than 30 per cent energy savings during the operational phase, meaning that the operating cost is reduced by up to £500,000 a year for the new office building studied in the report.

Certified buildings have a higher potential for energy savings due to the implementation of energy efficiency processes from the beginning, the report said.

But once completed and in use any further savings can only be made by the implementation of proper management processes.

The European perspective

European policymakers have identified the renovation of Europe’s inefficient building stock as a way to boost energy efficiency, as well as the economy. More than 75 per cent of European building stock is inefficient and the annual renovation rate across the EU is languishing at just one per cent.

The EU is currently revising its Energy Efficiency Directive, in order to put measures into law that will help it meet its UN commitments to cap global warming.

The European Commission’s bill is being amended by both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. Both members of the European Parliament and national diplomats must agree on an identical text before it becomes law. At the present moment Malta holds the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, and this is one of its priorities.

But leaked documents reveal that although member states will accept the executive’s proposed 30 per cent increase in energy efficiency compared to 1990 levels, they want them to be non-binding rather than compulsory.

Previously, in October 2014, EU leaders watered down the 2030 energy efficiency target to 27 per cent from a 30 per cent binding goal. Now, the Commission, which has vowed to put “efficiency first” in its energy policy, is arguing that the Paris Agreement justifies returning the draft target to 30 per cent.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament has backed resolutions demanding a 40 per cent binding efficiency target and is likely to call for greater ambition in the bill.

One of the results of the Polish study is a proposal to create a mechanism enabling the analysis of buildings according to the study’s methodology, which could help the wider European agenda.

There is a proposal to coordinate this project with the National Association for Sustainable Building Construction, which could bring huge savings across Europe, where the construction industry accounts for nine per cent European GDP and employees 18 million people.

Efficient buildings are evolving

The progressive areas of the industry are moving beyond where the EU leaders are debating, however.

Currently, the selling point for office buildings is around “performance based” comfort. This means the comfort level available for the user forms the basis of monitoring and verification by the management systems. The user’s working conditions, including ventilation, HVAC, lighting and so on are automatically adjusted and controlled.

With such buildings the most important goal is no longer to bring the greatest savings for the building owner but to provide a balance between the economics and the comfort and health of workers in the buildings.

Due to this trend, the definition of comfort is constantly expanding, in contrast to the traditional idea that there is only one factor (energy) that needs to be managed at the expense of others (for example, environmental quality of the internal atmosphere).

This is a valuable study that deserves translation into English (currently it is Polish only) and wider dissemination.

David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy, buildings and sustainability. See his website here.