27 March 2012

Redefining Sustainability and the Decline of Ecobuild

So, it is that EcoBuild time of the year again!  I gave a presentation in the session “Changing behaviour for the energy efficient operation of buildings” about how buildings can be designed to improve occupant behaviour and energy consumption.  The session was very well attended, standing room only, with over eighty people in the room.  Not bad for the last session of the day.

John Connaughton of Davis Langdon who opened and chaired the session provided a good overview of the issues encountered when trying to encourage more energy conscious occupation.  John explained how we have become a “powered up nation”; in love with our gadgets.  This has led to a dramatic rise in small power consumption that has negated much of the savings made by more efficient systems and higher performing building envelopes.  In his office John has used thermal imaging to show occupants the energy wasted by transformers and adaptors.  He also identified that as energy performance improves occupants tend to increase their comfort levels by turning up the heating or air conditioning.

Following John, Joanna Eley of AMA Alexi Marmot Associates explored her research work with the Cabinet Office that demonstrated how difficult it is to use traditional methods to change occupant behaviour.  She described a number of initiatives that have been developed to address this issue, including CoolBiz, a Japanese Government backed scheme that encourages employees to change the way they dress for work to suit the climate, rather than simply relying on heating and cooling systems.  Joanna also presented the work of Dan Lockton, who designs products specifically to affect user behaviour, including a light switch that looks messy when it is on; and is tidied up by switching it off!

Peter Fisher of Bennetts Associates introduced his talk with a comparison of the work of Dieter Rams and Jonathon Ive, using the Braun Razor and the Iphone to illustrate that both the simple razor and the complex phone have been designed with an obsessive focus on simplicity and ease of use.  He drew the analogy with the work of his practice, who strive to achieve buildings that occupants can understand and are intuitive to use.  To illustrate this philosophical approach he presented their recently completed project for the refurbishment of Hampshire County Council Headquarters in Winchester.  This is a great scheme that I have had the pleasure to visit.

For my presentation I focused on user centred design and the need to redefine the way we think about the interrelation between the social, economic and environmental aspects that make up sustainable development.  I proposed that the traditional Venn diagram composed of three equal overlapping circles was no longer appropriate and proposed that we should move to a target model that places social and user needs at the centre of the design process, with the economic constraints defining the outer edge of the target with the environmental responses developed to satisfy the needs of both.

I also described work that we have been developing with Doug King of King Shaw where we challenge the metrics that we measure to assess the performance of buildings.  We believe that considering energy use per square meter is irrelevant and that we should as an industry move to measuring it on a per occupant basis!  When this approach is applied it produces some very interesting results, including higher levels of energy use in passively conditioned offices when compared with mixed mode solutions due to the higher densities of occupation that can be sustained in the latter.

While the presentations at EcoBuild continue to offer a broad range of both subjects and speakers, I am not sure that the trade show element has managed to stay relevant.  In many ways the use of the “eco” prefix that is applied to the show and all products on display, from toilets to solar panels, regardless of their actual performance characteristics, reflects a wider malaise in the construction industry, namely its failure to holistically embrace the social, economic and environmental aspects that must be addressed in the quest for more sustainable outcomes.  It feels to me that now is the time for a new forum to be developed, where smaller more innovative companies can afford to display their products.  Any thoughts on what we should call it?

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