Loft insulation more important than wind turbines for reducing carbon emissions, say engineers

The UK will not be able to achieve its target of reducing carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 unless it urgently addresses carbon emissions from the built environment, according to a report published today (Wednesday 20 January) by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Buildings currently account for 45 per cent of our carbon emissions but it is estimated that 80 per cent of the buildings we will be occupying in 2050 have already been built.

Many 20th century buildings are totally dependent on fossil fuel energy to make them habitable - in the 21st century buildings must be designed to function with much lower levels of energy dependency. The scale of this challenge is vast and will require both effective Government policy and a dramatic increase in skills and awareness in the construction sector.

Report author Doug King, founder of consulting engineers King Shaw Associates and Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor in Building Engineering Physics at the University of Bath, says: "The sheer pace of change in the regulation of building energy performance has already created problems for the construction industry and the proposed acceleration of this process, aiming to achieve zero-carbon new buildings by 2020, will only widen the gulf between ambitious Government policy and the industry's ability to deliver."

The report introduces a new discipline; Building Engineering Physics, which supports the existing professions of architecture, structural engineering and building services engineering.

Building Engineering Physics investigates the areas of natural science that relate to the energy performance of buildings and their indoor and outdoor environments. The understanding and application of Building Engineering Physics allows us to design and construct high performance buildings which are comfortable and functional, yet use natural resources efficiently and minimise the environmental impacts of their construction and operation.

Before renewable energy generation is even considered it is vital to ensure that buildings are as energy efficient as possible, otherwise the potential benefits are simply wasted in offsetting un-necessary consumption.

Creative solutions to make buildings more energy efficient include basic techniques, known for thousands of years, such as using daylight, natural ventilation and thermal mass, where masonry is used to store heat and moderate temperature variations.

However, with the application of scientific analysis through Building Engineering Physics, these aspects of a building's design can make a very substantial contribution to meeting the performance and comfort needs of the occupants without resorting to energy consuming building services installations.

One of the most pressing needs in the construction industry at present is for reliable information on the actual energy and carbon performance of newly built or refurbished buildings, to validate new designs and establish benchmarks.

Government, which has set ambitious policy on climate change, can lead by example, ensuring that full commissioning and post-occupancy evaluations against design targets are undertaken on all new publicly funded projects. Publication of this information would quickly build a database of successful low-carbon design solutions to inform other design teams.

Nevertheless, the construction industry faces a serious skills issue in meeting the low-carbon building challenge. Few in the construction industry know how to apply the principles of Building Engineering Physics in the design of buildings and low-carbon design is scarcely taught at university level. The industry and educators are often still struggling to get to grips with the 2006 revision of the Building Regulations, which first required cuts in Carbon emissions against previous practice.

Yet within three years of the 2009 undergraduate intake graduating in 2013, they, and the rest of the industry, will be required to deliver not just reduced-carbon but zero-carbon new domestic buildings.

"We need engineers to think of buildings and their environments as complete energy systems," says Doug King. "The work of the Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professors is clearly starting to make a difference in encouraging imaginative interdisciplinary design.

"One of the case studies featured in the report is a concept design project by students at the University of Cambridge for a house powered by hydrogen-producing algae."

Dr Scott Steedman FREng says: "Our homes and buildings are the front line for the UK to reduce its consumption of energy and to manage resources in a more sustainable manner - yet we are not going to solve this challenge with loft insulation and double glazing alone.

"We need measures that go beyond the traditional solutions - new materials, new installation processes, new controls that are based on a engineering approach to the thermal upgrading of existing buildings and the design of new buildings. This Royal Academy of Engineering report on building engineering physics points the way forward."

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