Are we too afraid of the unknown to design sustainable buildings?

Posted by Paul Compton on 05/09/12 08:36

Sustainable buildingsDo we fully understand sustainability and what is involved? Do we really know the consequences of our actions today on tomorrow?

An architect is like a doctor, in that they need to know a good amount of detailed information about a lot of different topics. But the sheer volume and breadth of knowledge required means that they can’t possibly know everything. Too often the lack of detailed knowledge opens the door to a focus on money, maintenance or client requests, even before we get to the dreaded value engineering.

Architects need to rely on specialists to help, design and advise – to give them the depth of knowledge they need in their area of expertise.

The Contractor also has a huge influence on how sustainable the building finally is. Under pressure to secure work, deliver on time and under budget they may feel they have no choice but adapt aspects of the design for the sake of value engineering.

It's these unknowns and pressures that cause the delays in fully sustainable design.

Fear of the unknown

Like most specialists who are selling our wares, we back up our claims with past installations, test data and scientific fact. To maintain our competitive advantage, we are constantly researching ways to further improve our products’ performance. But still, when we present our innovations to our customers, we face resistance and too many times we are forced back on old methods, which are proven to be far less effective. Very often these methods provide a cheaper installation cost, but in the long run cost the customer more.

During a recent discussion with an architect I was presented with the argument against photovoltaics (PV). I explained how in my case study, we found that building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) shading could reduce heat gain onto the façade by more than 80%, reduce the client's air conditioning load by over 20% and likely provide 15 to 20% of the building's annual energy requirements. These are big numbers. However the architect countered that energy was not that expensive and these numbers did not represent a great cost.

Movable sun shading is still seen as a luxury, not as a necessity. Why is that? Is it because fixed fins are so widely available that prices can be extremely low? Or is it fear of the unknown?

I think it's the latter – which leads to the former. Movable solar shading may cost a few percent more, but can shade more than 20% better than its fixed equivalent, and also allow light to enter when shading is not required. And yet, we don’t see it on as many buildings as we’d like.

What can we do?

I hope that, with the growing pressure to achieve a sustainable built environment, our industry soon learns to be less risk-averse and embrace innovation.

For our part, at Colt, we will continue to look for ways to improve energy efficiency in our clients’ designs and do our best to make a convincing case for the innovative solutions available to them.

Do you agree with our view of the industry as risk-averse? Do you share our concerns about our industry’s fear of innovation? Do you have any ideas about what we can do to make a change?

Paul Compton Paul Compton is Technical Director for Colt, experienced in smoke control, HVAC, solar shading and louvre systems.

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Topics: Energy saving, sustainability