Sunday, 18 October 2009

Ashden Awards and RIBA: International dialogues on architecture and climate change

Last week the Ashden Awards participated in the RIBA event series 'International Dialogues on architecture and climate change', arranging for three of our past UK winners to make presentations to the audience, followed by a time for questions and discussion.

The aim of the evening was for the speakers to present how, if they were the Government Minister responsible for zero carbon new buildings, they would ensure that targets for delivering zero-carbon homes by 2016 and zero-carbon non-domestic buildings by 2019 were met.

Jonathon Porritt chaired proceedings, and brought in an international element in his opening speech, telling the audience of a recent trip to Shanghai, where he saw significant progress being made on zero carbon buildings. Architects and engineers there are often frustrated by the image that China has in the West, as they actually understand a lot about how to achieve the goal of low or zero carbon building. However, Porritt also reminded the audience that new build only represents a small fraction of energy use in buildings, and that refurbishment of existing housing stock is essential. To further this, he would like to see more use of Display Energy Certificates, placing them in prominent positions in all non-domestic buildings to highlight to visitors the energy efficiency, and 'shame' organisations into improving it.
Chris Davidson of Geothermal International (2009 Ashden Award winner) presented his case first, saying that reducing demand for electricity and de-carbonising the national grid was a priority, but that we also had to have in mind the goal of eliminating the use of fossil fuels for heating - he noted that this puts the use of gas-fired micro CHP in doubt. He said that zero-carbon technology would be required at a household level, but that it must be cost-effective and have a low embodied energy relative to the energy it generates.

Davidson claimed that heat pumps fulfil this role, and should be mandated in all new-build situations where their use is practical, and that we should not ignore the need for cooling in some buildings, especially as this can raise the efficiency of the heat pump by using the ground below the building as a store of heat, topped up in the summer and drawn on in the winter. If heat pump demand grows as predicted, the biggest challenge facing the installation industry is making sure it can grow fast enough.
Davidson was followed by Jonathan Hines of Architype (also a 2009 Ashden Award winner). Hines took a different approach, asking the audience to consider if they would create a "zero rubbish" economy by mandating that new homes had to have built in recycling plants, with grants to make the affordable. The answer was no, of course, as reduction in the amount of waste produced combined with community-scale recycling is more effective. Hines felt that this approach should also be taken with energy and carbon, and that demand had to be reduced through intelligent design of buildings before installing micro-generation equipment, and that community-scale renewables were more cost-effective than those used at a household level. He gave an example of a few large wind turbines producing as much power as over 100,000 micro turbines, and at a lower cost and with less maintenance required.

To achieve these goals, Hines proposed that government should mandate maximum kWh/m2/year usage for heating and for total energy for new buildings, and said this could be achieved through "passive design", making use of solar gain for heating and natural ventilation for cooling. Using wood in building was alsi said to be an advantage, as it locks up carbon for the lifetime of the building, in addition to avoiding the carbon emitted when producing concrete, bricks and metals. His aim overall is that the problems we face on energy consumption should not be tackled purely by the application of technology, but that buildings should be designed to avoid the problems in the first place.
The next speaker was Jeremy Leggett of Solarcentury (2007 Ashden Award winner), who started by saying that there were no 'magic bullets', and that a combination of energy efficiency and all the available generation technologies would need to be used to reduce carbon emissions. He went on to list the advantages of solar PV in this mix, namely its durability, steadily reducing cost and confidence in the industry, which is receiving significant investment, even in these troubled financial times. He also said that an increase in the use of solar PV would have positive knock-on effects, such as increasing the number of jobs for installers and manufacturers.

However, Leggett wants solar manufacturers and installers to work more closely with architects, and believes that government needs to make FITs (Feed In Tariffs) more generous in order to persuade people to spend their own money on the technology. He felt that there is also a deeper problem in government and the civil service though - a reluctance to support micro-generation as it represents a loss of the control given through centralised systems.
Following the presentations was a time for questions, some of which led to interesting debates between the panel members as well as the audience.
Several points came out of the question time:

  • Energy efficiency is the most important, ahead of energy generation.
  • Larger renewable energy systems allow better economy of scale, but may face more public opposition.
  • Locating solar generation in deserts and transmitting the power over long distances was discussed, but the energy generated was felt to be more appropriate for local use, as security of supply concerns would grow if countries a great distance away were depending on it.
  • Opinions were divided on the need to provide cooling for buildings, although some exceptions such as data centres were accepted as always needing cooling.
  • The need to refurbish older buildings was highlighted, and the fact that we will need to accept changes in their outward appearance to achieve this, as external insulation will be required.
  • Involving people ion energy management is good, but we must stick just to what works - it's no use using a micro wind turbine as a demonstrator in a school, as all the pupils will learn is that it isn't effective!
  • Architects need to monitor buildings for a few years after they have been handed over to the occupants, to see if the actual energy use matches the design.
Jonathon Porritt drew the lively discussion time to a close, saying that there was no case of 'either/or', but that we needed to use all the technologies available to reduce our carbon emissions in order to meet our goal.

1 comment:

GleedsTV said...

The videos from the Ashden Awards and RIBA: International dialogues on architecture and climate change event are online at
Gleeds TV is free, and clips can be downloaded or streamed online