Opinion: Why are we not building for a warmer world?


Photo credit: BRE Innovation Park.

By Anders Lorenzen

Throughout the middle of June, much of Europe including the UK was hit by a heat wave. In Portugal and Spain it resulted in tragic forest fires, but in the UK, it merely resulted in, luckily, only a couple of deaths, and just uncomfortable environments for many people, especially the vulnerable, such as the elderly. In the UK the heat wave was short lived, with the mercury reaching 30 degrees C or above on five days – the medium requirement for heat waves. But even then society struggled to cope.

Forecasts for the rest of the summer (ending in September) for Britain (and large parts of Europe) is that of temperatures above normal. This means if not further heat waves at least more uncomfortable hot spells are extremely likely. This might be OK if you live by the seaside or in rural communities where you’re more likely to get the fresh air flowing. But as more and more people live in cities periods of very hot weather become a major problem.

Because of this trend, you would imagine that governments would do all in their power to build for a warming world, right?

Building regulations must be in line with climate science

You would have thought that when governments set building regulations, they will do so according to what science says about a world getting warmer. But if the past months’ lessons from the UK have been anything to go by it is clear that successive governments have failed to get building regulations right when it comes to safety regulations. The recent tragic Grenfell Tower fire has demonstrated that fact.

This is also very much the case when it comes to making sure that our new buildings are built to adapt to climate change, as well as making sure they’re as efficient as the technology allows. In the UK there have been some small baby steps, but only very few new buildings are constructed according to what science requires.

In the UK we have obviously a problem with old housing stock, such as Victorian and Edwardian housing and buildings. And no-one would expect them to meet tough climate adaptation and green building standards tomorrow. But when it comes to new construction, the story ought to be very different. Sadly it is not. It seems to me there is too much focus on the look and `cosmetic` modernisation of new constructions, rather than on a strong green building code.

Allow me to draw on some personal experiences.

Early last year I moved into a newly built and modern development. The development was set to follow strong green building standards, which should limit our bills and make us more comfortable. I must admit it has some nice and improved features, such as district heating, double glazing, thermostatic controlled temperature, energy-efficient fridge, freezer and washing machine. The ventilation system collects and distributes waste heat where needed. Global readers might think that is well below standards, but in a UK context, this is nevertheless a step forward.

Strong green building code over modern design

However, our modern and slick features include an array of glass window panels from top to bottom across large parts of our apartment. Of course, this creates a bright environment with lots of daylight – but often too much. And the consequence is that in the summer the apartment absorbs and keeps heat, while in the winter it struggles to retain it. This because the glass panels are only double-glazed which means heat can easily be absorbed but also can easily escape. With today’s technology, double glazed is hardly something to boast about, and it should be at least triple glazed and if possible quadruple glazed. There is a misconception that several layers of window glazing only insulate in order to keep the heat. But actually, it goes in the other direction too, as it prevents the apartment from absorbing the heat. Of course, it needs to be said that wall and loft insulation also have a huge impact when it comes to storing and releasing heat.

To give you an example of our indoor environment: on a cloudy day and with an outdoor temperature of between 15-18 degrees C, it is just about tolerable in our apartment. Above that and it gradually starts to become uncomfortably hot. We are even considering investing in an air conditioning unit, which is both expensive and energy intensive, and thus bad if you want to combat climate change.

There are many countries where there are valid arguments for residential air conditioning systems, but the UK is not one of them, at least not yet.

Using technology available today

Last month I had the pleasure of visiting the BRE Innovation Park, north of London, a project from the Building Research Establishment (BRE) Group which was established in 2005 to inform about sustainable development at a global level and stimulate innovation within the built environment.

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A visit there demonstrates what can be achieved within buildings for a relatively low cost. And it is easy. Many of the models showcased at BRE Innovation Park can be transported to you fully assembled or come in parts which are easy to assemble yourself. And the innovative and simple technology in use is breathtaking and offers the possibility of zero carbon homes. Just by deploying today’s technologies such as solar and battery storage, we can more or less eradicate the need to buy energy from the national electricity and gas networks. Of course, many different models offer different solutions. But the most important thing is that the technology is here.

Another misconception is that you somehow have to choose whether you want to insulate your home from the cold or the heat. Today’s technology does both.

It is about time that the UK government looks at the available technology and sets a strong green building code that reflects available technology, and is in line with climate science. And perhaps they should stop worrying about whether it would be a job killer, and instead think about how many new jobs and industries could be created. And as we prepare to Brexit, there could never be a better time to do it than the present.

And if you haven’t yet visited the BRE Innovation Park, I highly recommend that you attend one of their open days.

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