23 April 2012

Eco Porn!

Today we hosted the first of our Breakfast on Black sustainability briefings.  The purpose of the event was to expose the misleading claims that dominate the debate and to identify routes that we as an industry can adopt to address the real issues that we face.  As it said in the invite:

“Slapping a trendy buzz word on the end of your latest project name, or dripping a thinly veiled layer of “green jewellery” over it in an attempt to make it appear more attractive, is not the answer to sustainable development.  It’s a quick fix.  A one night stand.  It only highlights the cheap and dirty side of susta-inability”!

An exclusive group of carefully selected guests enjoyed a good breakfast before hearing Professor Doug King give a passionate and incisive critique of the state of sustainable design with the UK construction industry.

Professor Doug King

Doug pulled no punches as he set out the scale of the challenge that we face; illustrating how the widely predicted increase of 4 degrees centigrade in global temperatures, will render vast areas of the planet from southern Argentina to the south of France uninhabitable.

He compared the improvements in energy efficiency that have been achieved in the car industry, where the most inefficient car is five time less efficient than the best in class; and then made a similar comparison with buildings, identifying a factor of seven difference.  When this is considered alongside the fact that buildings account for almost half of the UK’s CO2 emissions, while transportation in total only accounts for just over a quarter, the need for the construction industry to make a step change in the products that we deliver to society becomes dramatically apparent.

He then went on to explore the commitments that our government have made to cut UK emissions, first by 34% of 1990 levels by 2020 and then by 80% by 2050.  To achieve these goals he argued that we either need to completely rethink the way we design buildings to achieve a step change improvement in performance, or accept recession levels of economic activity and associated energy use, for the next 38 years.

Doug concluded his dynamic and challenging presentation by busting some of the myths, lies and frankly bullshit that have been used by our industry to apply eco-bling to projects that otherwise represent a business as usual approach, while making exaggerated claims to the contrary.  He took great delight in exposing the lies used to justify wind turbines in inappropriate urban ares, PV installations that are overshadowed by surrounding buildings and air conditioning units that have been rebranded as air source heat pumps.

Doug concluded with a good kicking for architects, who specify solar shading on north facing elevations where it is not only pointless, but actually increase energy consumption by reducing daylighting, before concluding his talk with an image of The Palestra Building, with its over glazed fa├žade and token windmills; a perfect example of eco-bling?  He ended his presentation by making the point that over the last 15 years the most economic buildings, both in terms of construction and operational cost have ultimately proved to be the most sustainable.

There followed a wide ranging and intelligent series of questions from the audience:

Does slavishly following environmental performance benchmarking procedures like BREEAM, LEED and SKA increase the chances of an over-emphasis on active system above more effective and economically sustainable passive envelope measures?

Does intrinsic value emanate from the economic and social aspects of a project, rather than more subjective, emotional environmental arguments?

The session concluded with an acknowledgement of the urgent need for expert, repeat clients, to up their game and make commissioning selections based on performance characteristic rather than simply buying a sexy but ultimately vacuous iconic image.

All in all a thoroughly provocative event that provided much food for thought; along with a full English; what better way to start a Friday morning?