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UCL Energy Institute Blog


Blogs by staff & students of the UCL Energy Institute


Archive for the 'Buildings' Category

A low carbon industrial strategy?

By ucqbpsm, on 19 July 2016

ideas (c) istockphoto tumpikuja

DECC has been absorbed by BEIS. I’m cautiously optimistic about this because climate policy, particularly energy efficiency, didn’t really work out on its own. The value of DECC was securing the consensus for the 2008 Climate Change Act. It’s record in actually delivering effective policies, as the Committee on Climate Change bluntly pointed out last month[1], is less than stellar. (more…)

The changing face of architecture: Value difference

By Sofie L J Pelsmakers, on 8 March 2016


The built environment is still not equated with a diverse work force unlike the stakeholders with whom we work with and for. The annual survey of women in architecture released last month, makes for uneasy reading: deep-rooted inequalities and perceptions of gender differences that seem to affect women architects particularly badly. So on international women’s day I’d briefly like to share my journey as a woman in architecture practice, research and academia. In June 2015, I was shortlisted among 11 others by the RIBA as one of its ‘Role Models’, hopefully inspiring others that they too can forge a successful career in architecture. Since I shared my story as part of the Role Model Project, I noticed a positive change within myself and how I view myself. It is hard to explain, but I am more at ease with myself and more accepting of myself. I no longer fear of speaking out about my background (read about it here) or being a woman in a still mostly male dominated profession (more about that here). On reflection, this makes sense: sharing our stories so publicly received positive responses and made me realise that I was wrong to be afraid to speak out. I no longer feel as vulnerable sharing my personal journey: I have a voice and I want to use my voice on issues that matter to me in the hope that it inspires others and to draw out the value of differences. I also realised I should no longer be embarrassed about my background, but celebrate how far I have come despite the challenges along the way and to see and use this as a strength. (more…)

Ratcheting up the ambition level: Implementing deep decarbonisation pathways

By ucfaspy, on 4 December 2015

There is a sense that COP21 provides for greater optimism than previous climate change conferences. And for good reason. Emission reduction pledges have been made by most, and the largest emitters are for the first time meaningfully engaged. Providing an important backdrop to this are the positive signs of an energy systems transition underway, as renewables investment continues to grow as technology costs fall, and the rate of fossil fuel use growth slows. (more…)

The value and importance of POE and BPE – a case study

By Sofie L J Pelsmakers, on 23 April 2015


Carrie Behar presenting the POE/BPE results

For Green Sky Thinking 2015, ECD architects presented the initial findings of a detailed Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE) and Building Performance Evaluation (BPE) of their own offices. The POE was led by Carrie Behar, a doctoral researcher at the Bartlett, UCL Energy Institute, where she also runs the POE module for MSc students. (more…)

More than a third of people would let their energy supplier turn off their heating

By Michael J Fell, on 23 March 2015

nest A sinister engineer in orange overalls and dark glasses looms from behind your fridge, hands raised, as if to strike… This is the scenario painted in the Daily Mail in a 2013 article on ‘direct load control’, or the possibility that third parties (‘outside forces’) such as energy suppliers could turn appliances in people’s home off and on to help keep the UK’s electricity system in balance.


An experimental book swap

By Sofie L J Pelsmakers, on 23 January 2015


The second book edition of The Environmental Design Pocketbook is out and it includes updated research, guidance and new legislation (such as the new Building Regulations and the new RIBA Plan of Work) alongside an extended retrofit chapter and new sections on the performance gap, and the influence of building maintenance and care and commissioning of buildings on their energy performance and how to achieve good building maintenance, the need for which I have also written about elsewhere.

In total, an additional 80 pages are included in the 2nd edition, making the book now almost 500 pages. As a result the decision was made to print on thinner FSc sourced paper and not thicker recycled paper as for edition 1 to minimise the impact of the additional pages. It also has a flexible back now which means that navigating the book and leaving it open is so much easier! Despite the increased production costs, we managed to keep the cost of the 2nd edition as the same as the first edition (£25) due to generous sponsorship from ECD architects. (more…)

Would you let your energy supplier turn off your heating?

By Michael J Fell, on 8 December 2014

Mike Fell gives the background to a recent co-authored paper which explores what people think about efforts to influence when they use electricity.

What does it mean to be “in control” in relation to energy? And why does it matter? It’s perhaps easier to begin with the second question.

The subject of electricity blackouts has been big in the news recently. While the risk of blackouts is low, the continuing closure of older coal-powered generators means that there is less and less spare capacity on the grid to meet peaks in electricity demand.

Sameer Vasta_cropOne way to increase capacity is build more generators. Another is reduce demand, or attempt to alter the timing of demand to avoid getting such high peaks. The latter (known as demand-side response or DSR) can be achieved in a number of ways, such as by charging a higher price per unit of electricity at peak times (like in Economy 7). Alternatively, a signal can be sent directly to technology (such as fridges or electric heating systems) in people’s homes telling it to use more or less electricity at certain times.

Demand-side response can only be effective if enough people decide to take part, so that enough demand for electricity (or “load”) can be moved around in time. However, research into what people think about it (and some press coverage) suggest that this wide participation is by no means assured. One of the key concerns expressed is around “loss of control”, where some third party attempts to influence (or even directly control) people’s electricity use.

It is important to understand this concern if DSR programmes are to be designed in such a way that people want to take part. So what does it actually mean to be “in control” in relation to energy, and how do people think this might change under different ways of doing DSR?

We held group discussions with people we expected to have different experiences of control in relation to energy. Some had gas central heating (with comparatively high individual control of heating) while some had district heating (their heating was externally controlled – they didn’t have room thermostats). Some were already on a time of use electricity tariff. The anonymous quotes in the rest of this post come from these groups.

Rather than there being a simple idea of “control over energy”, a number of different dimensions of control emerged:

  • Control over the services that energy provides us with (and which lead to comfort, e.g. heat, light, etc.).
  • Control over timing, or the feeling of being able to do things when you want.
  • Control over how much you spend on energy.
  • A general sense of control and independence in one’s life (autonomy).

When people thought about different ways of doing DSR, these dimensions of control were all affected in different ways. Often with time of use pricing people felt they would have more control over spending (‘you have got some more control cause you can look at the, “oh right OK let’s put the washing machine on now”’), but less flexibility in when they did things and potentially over comfort.

This was especially true of “dynamic” time of use pricing, where electricity prices can be different every day – unlike tariffs such as Economy 7 which remain the same week after week. Such dynamic tariffs allow the possibility of making the most of variable wind generation, but were thought (by people in the groups) to be problematic due to their unpredictable nature and the extent to which people would be reliant on automation to make the most of them (‘We’re not robots!’).

In the case of direct control of technology, some people were worried about overall loss of autonomy – a sort of “Big Brother” scenario (‘That means they’re controlling your life basically’). Others weren’t so concerned about this so long as it happened in the background and allowed them to get on with their lives as they chose (‘If it’s … something that happens in the background and doesn’t actually affect your usage … for me personally I don’t think I have an issue with them controlling it’).

These results suggest some challenges for DSR. How to retain the attractive sense of control over spending that time of use pricing offers, while minimizing worries about flexibility? Perhaps personalizing tariffs to households’ individual circumstances could hold the key. In the case of direct control of technology there are certainly people who are implacably against this form of external influence, while others may happily accept it under the right conditions (e.g. with the possibility to override it). But these conditions must strike a balance between acceptability and the aim of getting demand reductions with appropriate speed, duration and reliability.

The findings also suggest the usefulness of looking at control in a systematic way. Indeed, this approach has informed our subsequent research which used a representative survey of Great Britain to find out more about people’s preferences for different DSR electricity tariffs. We hope to post more on the findings of this work soon.

Read the full paper here: Exploring perceived control in domestic electricity demand-side response, Michael J. Fell, David Shipworth, Gesche M. Huebner & Clifford A. Elwell, published in Technology Analysis & Strategic Management volume 26, issue 10, 2014.

Tags: demand-side response, time of use tariffs, direct load control, perceived control, electricity, domestic

Photo: “Happy Show” (cropped) by Sameer Vasta under a Creative Commons licence.

Retrofit in practice: what next?

By Sofie L J Pelsmakers, on 28 November 2014

Retrofit in practice: what next?1

This year the 11th International Architectural Humanities Research Association conference was hosted at Newcastle University and focused on ‘Industries of Architecture’, aiming to bring together architectural theorists, historians and designers to discuss the industrial, technical and socio-economic contexts in which the production of building takes place in the present day.

I was invited to chair a 3 hour Retrofit in practice: what next?workshop on November 14th and I invited Dr David Kroll to co-chair our inter-disciplinary workshop. We opened our workshop up to submission of abstracts and ‘position statements’ and based on these submissions we invited a diverse group of 12 architectural practitioners, researchers, conservationists, lecturers and theorists to lead the workshop content and debate. You can read more about our contributors here (and in due course presentations will be uploaded). We also managed to obtain generous sponsorship from Saint-Gobain and from ECD architects.

Our workshop was set against the background of the UK’s ~ 26.7 million existing dwellings (DECC, 2012) and ~ 1.8 million non-domestic buildings (UKGBC, 2011). The energy use of housing alone, which is mostly used to keep people warm in their homes (Palmer, 2011), contributes to about 1/3rd of the UK’s carbon emissions (DECC, 2011). Hence there is a real urgency to reduce this energy use in buildings; while this will also increase thermal comfort of occupants and helps people out of fuel poverty.

This brings with it a whole host of challenges, but also opportunities and this is what we really tried to capture in our workshop. Our workshop presenters touched on key issues that are related to the retrofit challenge, such as: the need for aesthetic upgrades as part of building maintenance when buildings meet or exceed their intended lifespan; lack of on-site skills to undertake robust building upgrades; the need for project management, assessment methods, new models and tools and different procurement routes. There was also a focus on performance testing, community benefits of upgrades and dangers of ill-conceived or executed retrofits, leading to unintended technical and aesthetic consequences.

It also became clear from discussion that terms such as ‘retrofitting’, ‘conservation’ and ‘heritage’ have overlaps but are not clearly defined at the moment.

For example what do we mean by conservation and heritage? What is the value in listed buildings we are trying to protect, is it the entire building or a specific aspect? And, if it is only part of a building that is ‘valued’, perhaps listed building consent – considered a barrier to upgrading buildings – may not be necessary at all?

Co-chair Dr David Kroll at the ‘Retrofit in Practice – what next?’ workshop

Co-chair Dr David Kroll

What do we mean by retrofitting? Does retrofit mean just adding, or changing, or can it also mean taking away? Or any of these together? Does retrofitting include renewable technologies as add-ons such as solar panels on a roof? Or is retrofitting’s key concern the fabric upgrade?

Should we not touch a heritage building at all? Or is wrapping the building in a new protective, ‘conserving layer’ part of conservation, as it increases the durability of the building and retains, protects, ‘conserves’ its structure and purpose?

On the other hand, some argued, given the sheer scale and urgency of the task ahead for many buildings which are not listed, we might just need to “get the job done”. If millions of housing are not of any significant quality or aesthetic, can we use the need for sustainable retrofit as an opportunity to enhance the architectural quality of our buildings, while increasing occupant thermal comfort and reducing carbon emissions associated with space-heating energy?

It became clear that there is a huge opportunity, but that we also have a long way to go in the architecture community, evidenced by a quote from the Farrell review: “refurbishment and retrofitting had not been considered to be architectural issues, and these concerns still struggle to be accepted as legitimate by the architectural community” (Farrell, 2014).

 The workshop’s full summing up text can be found here.

 DECC 2011. DUKES – Domestic Energy Consumption in the UK 2011. In: DECC (ed.) Publication URN 11D/808 ed. London.

DECC 2012. Statistical release: Experimental Statistics; Estimates of home insulation levels in Great Britain: January 2012. In: CHANGE, D. O. E. C. (ed.). London: Department of Energy & Climate Change.

FARRELL, T. 2014. The Farrell Review of Architecture + the Built Environment In: DEPARTMENT FOR CULTURE, M. A. S. (ed.). London.

PALMER, J., COOPER, I. 2011. Great Britain’s Housing Energy fact file – 2011. DECC.

UKGBC 2011. Uk-GBC Task Group Report on Carbon Emissions in Existing Non-Domestic Buildings. In: UKGBC (ed.).