World Sustainable Building 2014 (Barcelona)

The Summary:

This was an enormous conference with a concentration of expertise on sustainable buildings unlike any other conference I have attended. The messages from the conference were many, including the following which particularly struck me:

– we have too many different approaches to sustainable buildings across the EU, we need to coordinate approaches to make training and cooperation easier, this does not mean simplify! But there are some elements of different approaches that can be standardised to give a stronger platform for the other areas that need development. For example operational energy calculations could be standardised, but embodied energy tools are too early in their development to do this yet.

– our approaches to sustaianbility are often impenetrable to people outside the confines of specialisms. A result of this is that around 1% of the new buildings in Europe are given a sustainability rating at all. We need to make our language and approaches more comprehensible to the end user and to the market.

– LCA in particular is complex and time consuming, and the results are not always useable. We look forward to the wide use of EPD’s.


The Detail

This was my first visit to this conference, there were 1400 delegates  from around the world, many from Spain, a lot from the EU, but also from Hong Kong, China, India, Korea, the US and many more. I was mainly there to attend a meeting of the ActiveHouse Alliance. This is a pan-European alliance of companies and organisations working towards a better definition of sustainable buildings using Comfort, Energy and Environmental scores as a rating system. I am on the Board Advisory Committee which means that I am helping to guide the direction of the standard, having beein involved in the design of the first two homes constructed to meet the standard in the UK.

The conference spanned three days, I attended for the first two.

On the first day we held the ActiveHoues BAC meeting and on the morning of the second day we held an ActiveHouse Symposium, bringing together some of the research that came from the first completed projects across the EU. The sessions included observers and commentators as well as presentations from the projects themselves. I summarise here some of the comments and ideas that struck me particularly, these only represent a tiny fraction of the ideas presented, and the sessions I attended on the two days only represented one sixteenth of the sessions available!

ActiveHouse Symposium

From the ActiveHouse Symposium one particular comment that has stayed with me from this session is from Nils Larsson from IISBE, Canada, who said that ‘individual family homes cannot be described as ‘sustainable’, because a single dwelling cannot cover the breadth of the idea of sustainability. A single family home can be described as ‘energy efficient’ or ‘low energy’ but not ‘sustainable’’. I broadly agree with this, but I think that a single family dwelling can support ‘sustainability’ or ‘promote’ it but it cannot achieve it on its own.

Prof. Dr. Berndt Wegener from Humboldt University of Berlin, spoke about well-being from the perspective of a social scientist. He declared that the factors that lead to well-being can be measured,, but that they cannot be prescribed in advance. We cannot say that by doing ‘x’ we will definitely have ‘y’ benefits in terms of well-being. Pete Halshall, from the Good Homes Alliance, noted that feedback from residents shows that social tenants sometimes feel less ‘well-being’ than private tenants in the same building. There are other factors to well-being than those catered for by the built environment.

Stefan Haglind of Skanska wondered whether we should talk less about our impact on Nature, and more about Natures beneficial impact on us. If we understood better the effect on our sense of well-being and on our productivity of having better daylight, a nice view, comfortable temperatures and control over our environment, we would design better buildings and find it less difficult to have arguments about whether to adopt ‘green design’ or not. Studies, including the recent World Green Building Council report, show that there are considerable financial benefits to productivity from all of these features of well-designed green buildings that far outweigh the cost savings of lower energy use. I agree that we should emphasise the positive impacts of Nature, but I wouldn’t want to remove focus away from the catastrophic damage to our biodiversity.

Stefan pointed out that, for workplace productivity, the benefits from green buildings tend to be worth 100 times the value of energy savings. I wonder if there is a similar metric for the homes we live in? I can see a straightforward connection through home-working, our productivity at home is worth even more to an employer since the workplace is usually given for nothing. We can extend this benefit to the health service if we say that the home either promotes better health by being well-designed, or being sufficiently adaptable to enable residents to recover, or to be cared for, at home rather than requiring an expensive hospital bed.

Renata Hammer and Peter Holzer from Vienna provided some useful feedback from a small project where they had used the ActiveHouse tools for a small project with a private client. Their comments included:

-using primary energy as an indicator suggests that PV can compensate for other failings, and while this may be true for energy, it is not true for other environmental impacts. In this particular situation PV was inappropriate due to the heritage nature of the surroundings, and there was a lot of overshadowing, so in some situations this compensation is not even available.

-carrying out LifeCycle Assessments is a nightmarish process, and expensive in terms of the time taken to do so. (This was a recurring theme in the conference, with some speakers hoping that a production of many EPD’s over the next couple of years leading to a much easier set of data for designers and less technical people to use in their decision-making)


New Envelopes for Zero Energy Buildings

In a later session on ‘New Envelopers for Zero Energy Buildings’ there was a series of investigations into the LCA’s of different wall types. Erin Moore made some interesting points about the embodied energy of our buildings:

-that our current understanding of the relative amounts of embodied energy in our buildings is limited. Some studies put the amount of embodied energy as high as 50%, or as low as 10% of the total CO2 emissions of the building over its lifetime. She noted that the definition of ‘lifetime’ makes a big difference to the calculation, and that this figures varies widely around the world’.

-that the mitigation of emissions from embodied energy is more difficult than it appears. For example, can we claim that the embodied CO2 emissions from a home in the UK can be mitigated by putting PV on the roof? If the original emissions were from a country with a higher CO2 factor in the Grid, or if the original emissions were partially in China, how can we mitigate the damage in the UK? If some of the impacts are not CO2 related, but relate to a biodiversity loss, how can we deal with this where materials move from country to country?





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