The question: how can we make buildings better?
Specific area of focus: ‘We are looking for original ideas for improving the performance of buildings in use’.
In the introduction to the topic, it was pointed out that around 38% of UK carbon emissions are generated from buildings in use. According to the latest figures of UK’s Building Performance Evaluation Programme it was also said that the emissions from the buildings assessed were roughly three times higher than in design calculations.
The cycle of the building lifetime consists of the design, construction, operation and demolition. Unfortunately for us, everybody is focusing on the construction, operation and demolition phases. Quite obviously because construction, operation and demolition phases are directly linked to the carbon emissions and that’s alright because these emissions can be reduced by using better machinery, low carbon materials, using smart technologies to reduce operational emissions and finally buildings can be designed for deconstruction for recycling and so on. Now current methodologies and technologies used were proven to work and I believe that industry’s expectations for the 2025 and 2050 were not created from the thin air. As I understand it was expected that the developed solutions will be exploited by more and more people and accepted throughout the industry rather than guessing that some technology will just pop out of nowhere and help us achieve these aims by the time we get there. Now if these expectations seemed realistic and achievable for experienced and clever engineers at that time, the question is where did we go wrong?
From the introduction, given that the emissions are even higher in non-domestic buildings we can reject the possibility that the main cause of this problem is the unregulated use of energy which is mainly related to occupants. Regarding the regulated energy use, the two major components for both domestic and non-domestic buildings are space heating/cooling, and lighting. Here we can start talking about controlling the behaviour and the habits of ordinary people, who could not care less about the greener world as they will not live long enough to witness the change. Now unless you are willing to limit the available resources for these people or raise them as soldiers from their childhood you should not have the attitude to regulate or control their energy use at all, instead we should stimulate their desire to learn and to get something in return for doing something. While there are many ways to do so, I don’t want to get deep into this topic as it does not have the capacity to make the change we are looking for. I would also like to skip the energy gathering topic as I do not feel like I can offer something new to the table, and so far as I am aware solar panels on the buildings even though being the most prominent technology of gathering renewable energy is still not sufficiently developed to be profitable in such a short term.
Let’s consider the construction and demolition phases, as mentioned before we were expected to achieve these milestones of 2025 and 2050 without some great engineering technology being developed that would significantly reduce the carbon emissions of the construction of our buildings. Even though construction technology is constantly improving and the buildings are getting easier and more energy efficient to construct it shouldn’t be our sole focus. Again as I cannot offer anything new to this topic I will just move forward. Regarding the demolition stage, we know that buildings more and more often are designed for deconstruction and reuse, which is all good, but we are looking forward to 2025 and 2050 milestones both of which will be unaffected by this design feature. I would also like to briefly mention that all the recent ‘great’ technologies allowing us to make carbon neutral or even carbon negative concrete and some other materials are just not relevant as every one of them is not available in incredible huge quantities all around the world to meet the industry’s demands that ingrained manufacturing methods can provide.
We have considered construction, operation and demolition of the building and so far we have seen that nothing yet can be changed significantly enough to bring us back on our course just because it is too difficult to change the whole construction industry or the ordinary people who are not devoted for this purpose. Now there is the point I was trying to bring us up to. If I just said, what I am now going to say, in the beginning without any reason why I came to that conclusion, you would have thought I am just being silly. The poor engineers are the problem. It is a well known fact that senior engineers don’t want to change. To put it simply, why would they change how they do something if their method has worked well for them for years and ensured their comfortable life. That’s where I would draw a line between good engineers and poor engineers. Engineers are supposed to always be willing to improve and thrive for excellence. The problem I see with poor engineers is that they fail to understand the essence of sustainability and for them it is just something to know about and something to mention in their project to get a better chance to attract clients. Now I believe that’s why you get this massive underestimation of the carbon emissions, because the person calculating them had no idea what he was doing. Taking the benchmark values and putting them in your project without having the slightest clue where they come from is not real engineering. So now we come to the problem of education. As a third year student in a highly respected university I can personally witness that we are being taught to be poor engineers. We are taught to be conservative in everything we do, taught to find excuses to maximise design forces in our structures. Now I am not talking about the variability of the materials or different load combinations and that some coefficients have to be included to account for that. I am talking about the level of thinking we develop while learning, the level of uncertainty in our decisions. From my personal experience in university group work with my fellow course mates, who will be real engineers working in industry next year, take the highest coefficients they find and put in the design just in case they have not thought of something so that would account for their mistakes. The problem is we are not taught to find the optimal solution, not taught to find the correct ways to minimise these values. Now of course I know in real life you have to be able to do your job quickly and reliably in order to be competitive but this is getting out of hand, and I am particularly focusing on the small to medium consulting engineering companies who desperately need to stay competitive. I believe the same principle is used by actual engineers who describe the sustainability of their design by finding the excuse to write the smallest carbon emission values they possible can to satisfy the clients without real desire to reflect the actual situation. This is why we get such massive underestimates of the carbon emissions for buildings.
Is there a realistic solution for this problem? Yes.
Can we achieve our 2025 and 2050 milestones we desire? Certainly.
As mentioned before our problems come from small to medium consulting engineering companies which are desperate to keep old and attract new clients. They do not have the budget to educate their employees and do not have the time to find the optimal solution or honesty to reflect their actual quality of work. Society has to stop praising the ‘sustainable building’ title because it is just too easy to fool the clients that your design is actually that good. You perhaps are familiar with the common view that engineers are underappreciated and that is true, most engineers do not deserve to be appreciated in any way it is just too damn easy to become one, literally anyone with common sense and some motivation can be an engineer who comes up with highly conservative designs. Yes it helped us to achieve what we have now, spread the basic knowledge of engineering all around the world and house the growing population. But now we have to stop striving for quantity and strive for quality. It is easy to say, hard to do right? No. You can’t change the way ‘experienced’ engineers think and force them to learn something new, but we can get rid of them. We have to screen the industry from poor engineers and encourage ones with the vision and capacity to change the world. I am proposing to change the law so smaller incapable companies wouldn’t survive and strengthen large companies who have working operating systems and actually have resources to educate their engineers. For example it can be done by simply entitling these large companies to be the only ones who can call their designs sustainable if they are, and disregard any work of small and desperate ones. Or tighten regulations so much that smaller companies could not comply. In a few years small and dishonest businesses will die off and by 2025 you will have only high quality projects and be on your way to achieve your 2050 carbon reduction targets.
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