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What's the big idea? The real issues behind energy use and efficiencyBy: Professor Elena Gaura, Low Impact Buildings Grand Challenge Initiative, Coventry University

Professor Elena Gaura, Coventry University

The resilience of building stock - public, commercial and residential - will increasingly be critical to the economic health of each region.

Retail and office premises, which can demonstrate that they will remain energy efficient over the longer term will become far more attractive. Particularly as firms become increasingly unwilling to take the risks associated with heavy energy demand and costs that extend into the future. City centres developed with resilience in mind will flourish.

As probably the cheapest option for reducing carbon emissions, retrofitting property is now a Government priority. But the sheer scale of the job and the potential costs are terrifying (a large town of homes retrofitted per week for the next 20 years would just about do it). For large-scale landlords, the notion of universal and comprehensive retrofitting looks impossible.

At the heart of the problem is picking out the real issues behind energy use and efficiency. What's to blame: are homes really kept in a tropical condition - hot, humid and basically unhealthy - or are we just making old and draughty houses bearable in the UK climate? What measures will actually make the greatest difference to energy use and carbon emissions?

Sensor technologies, providing data and insights into behaviour and building performance will be critical to the future of retrofitting projects and the development and support for the right technologies. A three-year project run by Coventry University with a major landlord has developed low-cost sensors, which monitor temperature, humidity, CO2 levels and light, tracked against consumption of energy and water. This way landlords can find out whether excessive carbon emissions are caused by the behaviour of residents, problems with heating systems or in the fabric of the building itself.

More than 200,000 items of data are generated from each sensor, crunched into a form that can be analysed by non-experts. On the basis of the 20 properties monitored and analysed so far, Orbit has been able to start making decisions on investment. For example, ground-source heating is often regarded as being energy efficient but it needs to be permanently switched on. People more familiar with controlling the heat of a central heating system often switch the groundsource system off, which leads to a cold house with increased humidity and the potential for mould to form, resulting in unnecessary repair costs. In this instance, the data collated has enabled the University to research the prediction of mould formation, which is essential information for the landlord. Mould is much easier to combat if it is caught in its early stages as it can be fixed using simple cosmetic measures and longer term damage can be avoided by ensuring tenants are better informed about how to use the heating system.

Evaluation of a building's performance is just not a common part of construction and commissioning, the assumption being that a building will perform according to the design specification. Research has overwhelmingly shown however that how a building is used is the critical factor, with up to 200% variation in energy consumption from identical buildings. A culture of monitoring - more accurate sensing, cheaper technologies and better analysis of the data - will be crucial to creating a sustainable future for UK housing, retrofitting and newbuild.

A coherent and consistent regulatory and legislative landscape for sustainable building and retrofitting needs to be in place to secure the issue, to reassure everyone involved that schemes like the Green Deal are not a fad but the new reality of property development and management. UK industry in particular needs to be given the necessary confidence that demand for refurbishment products and renewable and low carbon technologies is ongoing, that all the investment in research and development is worthwhile, and that recruiting and training a new legion of experts and installers makes sense.

About the author

Professor Elena Gaura, Low Impact Buildings Grand Challenge Initiative, Coventry University is also a passionate and certified diver.

Features June 2012

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