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Addiction, adaptation, transition and Ecobuild ‘tweetups’

By Sofie L J Pelsmakers, on 7 March 2013

This is Sofie Pelsmakers’ reflection on EcoBuild, the state of the industry and other random but related thoughts as part of Climate week

EcoBuild, one of the biggest events in the world for sustainable design, construction and the built environment, rather appropriately coincided with Climate Week this year. After all, the (fossil fueled) energy required to heat, cool, light, ventilate and construct our buildings accounts for around 50% of the UK’s CO2 emissions; one of the main greenhouse gases leading to climate change. While our (buildings’) fossil fuel addiction is leading to climate change, a changing climate in turn impacts our built environment. Indeed it is crucial that our built environment is able to adapt to a changing climate to ensure continued performance, thermal comfort and affordable bills for occupants. A new publication ‘Design for Climate Change’ (Gething + Puckett) launched at EcoBuild. It is the culmination of TSB funded research of future ‘climate adapted’ built project across the UK. The book makes a compelling argument for building adaptation alongside climate change mitigation. My brief review can be read here. I also briefly touched on climate change adaptation during my breakfast talk ‘What we can learn from igloos (+ dispelling environmental design myths)’ as part of Climate Week. I was invited to speak by Urbano Network; it was truly inspirational to meet and debate climate change relevance to the construction industry with so many key-professionals.

EcoBuild runs over three days and I attended the second day, which kicked off with an invitation as part of a discussion panel at the RIBA/NBS village, alongside Martin Townsend (BREEAM/BRE Global) and (Chair) John Gelder (NBS Head of Sustainability). We discussed the state of the industry with regards to sustainability, reflecting on NBS’ first ever industry sustainability survey. It struck us that the industry is undergoing a transition and we discussed issues such as pro’s and cons of legislation and government leadership (mostly agreeing that industry should lead and inspire; guided but not stifled by government rules and regulations); alongside challenges of the environmental impacts that cannot be measured in CO2 and how to deal with the legacy of the UK’s energy-inefficient building stock.

The NBS Sustainability Panel, EcoBuild 2013

The NBS Sustainability Panel, EcoBuild 2013

We discussed that new buildings are well-legislated for, but that this is not the case for the upgrade of the ~26 million existing buildings. Yet it is here that opportunities lie, both for energy reduction and demand for professional expertise and research. John Gelder asked us (with 1 minute to go!) whether we thought the Green Deal would aid the upgrade of the existing building stock. Our verdict was that the Green Deal, as it is currently, is a missed opportunity; and I emphasized the lack of incentives and subsidies for fabric energy efficiency improvements in the same way government has been incentivizing renewable energy production through Feed In Tarrif’s for example. ( I briefly reviewed the Green Deal in another blog when it launched in January 2013)

I could not help but reiterate that high fabric energy efficiency is a priority and not an optional indulgence. I felt this was particularly important to emphasize, as the NBS survey highlights that, despite environmental sustainability being clearly on the architectural and construction industry’s agenda, operational energy is not the highest priority and was ranked 5th after health risks, water, air pollution & waste. Yet, combining fabric energy efficiency with careful material specifications to avoid unhealthy finishes, provides occupants with greater thermal comfort now and in a changing climate, buffering occupants from rising energy prices, fuel poverty and associated health risks. In fact, if the industry fully understood the interconnection between health and operational carbon, one would expect low-energy buildings to be mainstream, though this is not (yet) the case. The full survey and our written comment pieces, published alongside the survey results, can be read here in full.

EcoBuild has grown not only to be a trade fair, but hosts hundreds of seminars and talks and events. The choice of so many seminars is bewildering at times and it would be great if EcoBuild were to record each seminar so we can catch up on those we couldn’t attend. (On this note, ceilings or acoustic baffles in the seminar rooms would be gratefully received by both speakers and delegates!)

I also helped out at the Passivhaus Trust stand for a couple of hours; which lead to some interesting conversations, including a German renewable energy fund manager who was genuinely surprised that Passivhaus is not yet mainstream in the UK as it is ‘so common’ in Germany. He said that he is building a Passivhaus yet he is “not an eco-warrior, but to build to a high standard just makes common sense in terms of energy bills”; and quoted possible higher energy prices in Germany as a reason why Passivhaus may be mainstream there. In the evening, Sabine Leribaux talked about delivering Passivhaus in Belgium and that the Brussels Region will require all publicly-funded buildings to be Passivhaus from 2015, as a stepping stone to the EU’s Zero energy standards by 2020. I also spoke with several people who were considering the appropriateness of Passivhaus in retrofit of buildings, though it may not always make financial sense unless the building needs to be entirely gutted anyway, which may not be possible with occupants in-situ. Equally, the verdict is still out there whether projects undertaken to such high standards perform as expected; whether they meet occupant expectations and managed to avoid unintended consequences. The long-awaited analysis and public sharing of data of the TSB’s Retrofit for the Future projects, launched at EcoBuild and will prove instrumental in helping to answer such questions.

There is ofcourse always an element of ‘greenwash’; after all, ‘green’ is the new gold and money is to be made. But overall, and particularly due to the seminar element and side-events, EcoBuild does manage to balance business interests with genuine sustainability debate. What I particularly value is that it brings together a large number of professionals: there is a real buzz and it is great for networking. To my delight, I managed to hook-up with professionals I debate with on twitter but had never met in ‘real life’ (called ‘tweetups’ I am told). It is indeed immensely rewarding and inspirational when twitter links become meaningful real-life connections with similar-spirited professionals in the sustainability community. Twitter helps connect across disciplines and geographical boundaries – and fittingly, many of us used social media to locate one another in such a vast expo.

At EcoBuild 2012 my book, The Environmental Design Pocketbook, was launched. So EcoBuild 2013 offered some reflection on the past 12 months; culminating in being ‘highly commended’ for the ‘Rising Star Award’ by the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) and PRP Architects on March 6th at the UKGBC Ecobuild tent. The award builds on Mel Starrs legacy, who passed away less than a year ago. It is an honour to have been shortlisted and commended in her memory and to be named alongside 5 other inspirational key-players in the industry. It was Mel – who I sadly never met in real-life – who inspired me in the use of social media to contribute towards positive change and to inspire others to do the same.

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