Page last updated at 02:23 GMT, Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Buildings threaten UK emission targets, report says

Millennium Sainsbury's, Greenwich
The Sainsbury's at Greenwich is seen as an economical, green building

UK targets for cutting carbon emissions by 2050 will not be met without radical changes to the engineering of buildings, a report says.

One of the study's authors criticised the government's "woeful track record on setting ill-considered targets".

The Royal Academy of Engineering report lays out a groundwork for reducing the environmental impact of new buildings as well as refurbishment of old ones.

It added there was a serious skills gap in the sector that could grow worse.

Current regulations hold that new homes should be "zero-carbon" by 2016, and all other new build should reach that target by 2020.

However, the Engineering a Low Carbon Built Environment report asserts that the principles that could be applied to drastically reduce energy consumption are simply not being used.

It said that many building principles, such as those that retain heat in a building or make good use of natural light, were known to the Romans but are still not being implemented in modern buildings as much as they could be.

The field of "building engineering physics", which draws on old ideas and new, can address the issue. But the report warns that both the industry and academia are so far failing to produce engineers who can apply the concepts.

We see this report as a huge contribution to the debate, really raising the profile of a discipline of engineers that we need
Scott Steedman
Royal Academy of Engineering

"There are plenty of good examples of buildings around which have been designed with this approach, but there's very little uptake of these ideas," the report's co-author Professor Doug King said.

He held up the example of the Sainsbury's in London's Greenwich as an example of the savings that such building approaches can provide.

While it almost certainly cost significantly more to build than a less eco-friendly building, he estimated that the building saved more than £400,000 a year in energy costs.

"If Sainsbury's had built everyone of their new stores in the last 10 years to this model, then Lord John would be a much happier man in a recession like this," he said.

Contrastingly, Professor King railed against what he termed "eco-bling" - the tendency for many new building projects to fail to reduce their overall energy consumption and then tack on energy generation schemes such as wind turbines or solar panels in a high-visibility effort to make up for some of the wasted energy.

'Woeful' record

The report stresses that the government should support detailed study into how to increase training in building physics, and by how much, in order to ensure the new build projects and refurbishments bring environmental sustainability into line with planned targets.

Because 80% of the buildings that will be occupied in 2050 have already been built, the problem lies more in refurbishments of existing buildings than it does in "new build".

The report's authors estimate that in order to reach targets, the rate of building refurbishment to a high sustainability standard must increase by a factor of four or five above current levels.

"The recent government consultation suggests we're going to get to the position in the next 10 years that building regulations will proceed towards zero carbon emissions (from new build)," Professor King explained.

"I and others like me are very concerned that neither the government nor the industry nor the regulators understand how that needs to be achieved."

Roman baths at Bath
New sustainable buildings still draw on ideas known to the Romans

"I think this government has an absolutely woeful track record on setting ill-considered targets on sustainability and then having to retract them," Professor King said. He cited a National Audit Office report on building works in 2008 and 2009, which showed that 80% of projects undertaken by the government failed to meet its own standards of sustainability.

However, the authors said that targets should not be revised but rather that implementation of building physics, both in academia and on job sites, must be radically increased.

"We see this report as a huge contribution to the debate, really raising the profile of a part discipline of engineers that we need - who will bring in those new technologies [and] who will bring in new materials and new methods," said report co-author and Royal Academy of Engineering fellow Scott Steedman.

He suggested that the vanguard of that movement could lie with the largest landowners in the UK, such as government and universities.

"These are groups that can take early action and say 'we are requiring this approach from our facilities' to show there's a way forward here. That would help to drive the supply chain," he said.

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