Taking the heat

A government-funded programme to help companies construct more energy-efficient buildings has drawn criticism for not considering the effects that the changing climate will have on homes and offices in the future.

The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) is making £4m available this June to British companies that want to develop design strategies for constructing greener buildings. The scheme aims to reduce emissions from new construction.

David Coley, from Exeter University’s Centre for Energy and Environment, said that he applauds the government’s effort to reduce carbon emissions from buildings, which account for 45 per cent of the UK’s total carbon emissions, but he added that it must consider the damage already done to the environment and its effect on existing and future buildings.

‘The government is providing funds so companies can create design tools that will only address energy consumption in the building in use and the energy used to manufacture and transport the materials to construct it,’ he said. ‘The new design strategy won’t address what the temperatures will likely be in bedrooms when we have a heat wave under climate change. If a company were building a project for the housing association, for example, it would need to know whether it was suitable for the elderly.’

Coley said that there are already deadly examples of how homes and offices are unprepared for the changing climate.

‘In 2003, we had a huge heat wave in Paris with about 14,000 people who died – and that’s a pretty severe death toll from an overheating incident,’ he said. ‘That could be described in many ways as a failure of architecture in that the buildings didn’t moderate the external climate.’

Coley is currently working at Exeter University on a research programme that aims to predict the change in climate between 2010 and 2080. The information can be used to develop certain parameters that will help architects design buildings better adapted to rising temperatures and extreme weather.

Coley said that buildings can be better prepared for climate change with new ventilation strategies and construction materials. He mentioned that one possible solution is phase change material, which is a wax-like substance that could be encapsulated like small drops of ink and injected into plasterboard.

‘These materials would melt and take in heat and then release it during a night-time period to remove any spikiness in the temperature of the room throughout a 24-hour cycle,’ he said.

While the TSB programme does not specifically call for companies to create design strategies that will help buildings adapt to the changing climate, the board claims that any software or other tools developed for the design and construction of future buildings will likely take this into account.

A spokeswoman for the TSB said that the group will likely run a future programme that will focus specifically on the design of buildings in light of potential climate change.

However, Coley said that running a second programme will only create more work and the issues of reducing emissions and adapting to climate change should be looked at together.

‘It’s not so much a waste of money having to do it twice,’ he said. ‘It’s more of a question of that you might end up with two tools and twice as much effort.’

Coley said that he fully agrees with the TSB’s overall goal of considering energy efficiency early on in the design stage of a building.

More often, he added, engineers are asked to improve the energy efficiency of a building after the architect has designed it.

The better option would be to call in engineers at the beginning or provide architects with the same resources available to engineers.

Coley said that the problem with the latter option is that software used by engineers to analyse energy efficiency tends to be complicated and architects lack the skills to use it, although the TSB – through this funding round – aims to address this.

‘The tools from the 1970s – the earliest computer models – were actually useable by architects and then it got more and more complex,’ he said. ‘If we are going to give architects the ability to use the tools, we need simpler tools.’

Siobhan Wagner