Building your Sustainable Library

You wait a while for a good book and then two come along at once. 

I attended the UK launch of two different books relevant to you this week, the first was ‘Sustainable Cities – Assessing the Performance and Practice of Urban Envrionments’ edited by Pierre Laconte and Chris Glossop and published by I.B.Tauris ISBN 978-1-78453-232-1.

This is a portmanteau publication, containing a number of chapters written by other authors, some of which will have been published elsewhere in some form, but not all together as in this case, and not carefully considered for their relevant to this important topic. 

The question of sustainable cities, what defines them, what standards allies to them, how do we choose indicators to assess the, and when we build them how do we know we have succeeded, are all questions tackled by authors in this publication. Given that we have now passed the point at which 50% of the worlds population lives in cities, there is hardly a bigger question for sustainability specialists to work on. If we can crack this, we can avoid runaway climate change.

Authors include Dr. Kerry Mashford, the late Sir Peter Hall, Chris Glossop and Dr Ian Douglas.

I also attended a lecture given by architect Stefano Boeri on his recent project in Milan, Bosco Verticale. The event was hosted by the Engineering Club at the Congress Centre. (A few architects turned up)

Bosco Verticale translates to Vertical Forest, and his two buildings in Milan, evenly constructed for Hines, and then sold on to Qatari Diar, demonstrate what he means by this. Each apartment has a tree on the balcony, several metres tall, together wth a quantity of shrubs and smaller plants. The publication ‘un Bosco Verticale, a vertical Forest- instructions booklet for the prototype forest city’ published by Corraini,  ISBN 9-788875-705411 was available on the night and furnishes a lot of background information to the project including the following numbers. 

The project provides two hectares of forest and 8900 Sqm of balcony area.

This includes 711 trees, 5,000 shrubs, 15,000 perennials, absorbing 19,825kg of CO2 per annum.

There are approximately 1600 birds and insects (although how they could know this is not explained!) This includes a box of ladybirds imported from Germany to eat aphids and other pests. (I don’t know why they needed Germany ladybirds)

The design uses 94 species of plants, giving it a very high level of biodiversity.

The trees are planted in steel-lined planters to prevent the roots cracking the structure, and they are loosely tied back to the structure in case they could be blown off iin hurricane level winds. The steel-linings will also constrain the growth of the trees so that they cannot get too big for the space available or too heavy for the structure. They are a bit like enormous  bonsai trees. They are maintained partially from the balconies, but the outer sides are pruned by gardeners that abseil down the outside of the buildings twice a year. While this might sound outlandish, consider that many glass buildings are routinely maintained by abseilers. 

The result is extraordinary, a pair of buildings that look like no others, and a second project is underway in France. Stefano was quite straightforward in admitting that it took some time and a lot of effort to convince his clients that this could work. There are elements of what was built that he will change the second time, and he has plans to continue to develop  the idea on a larger scale.

He was asked many times by the audience about squirrels, which he was not in favour of, but which he expected to arrive anyway, and also about fruit trees, as none of the species used are fruiting trees. He cited concerns about the dangers of falling fruit as the reasons why they weren’t used. This sounds to me like a problem that could be solved, and would add a further beneficial dimension to what is already a beautiful and convincing idea. 

This is an inspiring idea and one that merits your attention.


Image https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bosco_Verticale_from_UniCredit_Tower,_Milan_(17591709258).jpg

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Drones for Deliveries (Part 2)

Following from my first article on drones and how they might be used for making deliveries and how they could be organised I wanted to follow up with a closer look at how they would work when they reached their destination. Google and Amazon are both testing drones for this purpose, so it is a case of when, not if they will be used for this purpose, and I wanted to look at the potential impact on buildings for designers. I am interested in this in the first instance because I see that from their widespread use could lead to the removal of a large percentage of delivery vans off the streets of cities, a reduction in delivery cost, energy saving and lower pollution. This will bring attendant benefits to the attractiveness of urban life, with lower noise from traffic and more convenience for sending and receiving deliveries.

The diagram below shows the path a drone will take to its destination by ‘hopping’ from location signals from each address. While in the ‘circle’ of the signal it picks up delivery codes matching its package, these delivery codes will be time stamped, so to find the destination it has to follow the time stamped codes to their point of origin.

Aerial

Path of Delivery Drone to Destination

Another benefit arising from my ideas about how their distribution system would work is that a recipient of a package could have it delivered to wherever they were, in the office, at home, or in the park. That is covered in more detail in the first article.
I wanted to look at what happens when the drone arrives to your home or building. If you aren’t there, what happens to the delivery? How is it stored, and protected until you arrive to collect it.
I am assuming that there will be a horizontal separation of drone traffic above an urban zone. See Fig 1. Drones would be allowed to circulate freely in this area, with helicopters restricted to fly above them. Landing zones for helicopters would be created by geofenced openings in this layer.

Layers

Fig 1. Stratification of Drone Traffic

To begin with the drone has to be guided down to its destination. Fig 2 shows a diagram of a geofenced area which a drone could follow when it leaves the circulation zone above buildings.

Geofence

Fig 2. Location Beacon cones used to ‘geofence’ drone arrival

Once the drone has followed this guidance down to its landing area and has safely landed, it can deliver the parcel. The parcel needs to be stored until it is collected, and this could be a delivery box that could sit in a garden, or on a balcony if one is available, or on your roof if it is flat and accessible. This is shown in Fig 3.

Balcony

Fig 3. Delivery Box for a single address, plan section and elevations

The delivery box has a lid which opens when a drone arrives with a delivery, and the package is dropped by the drone into the box, which then closes up awaiting the owners to collect the package, or for another delivery. The box would be equipped with a system that recognises the delivery code of the package that the drone uses to match owner and package. The same code is used to open the delivery box by the package owner.

Delivery

Fig 4. Delivery Box for multiple addresses.   I Drone arrives.   II Package is accepted.   III Package shunted to store.   IV Ready for new delivery

For people living in apartment buildings the problem is a bit more complex. If deliveries could be accepted on a balcony, the solution is similar to that for a garden or flat roof. A delivery box with a hatch and a door would work. If this can’t work and deliveries have to be made to the roof, the storage box has to be big enough to anticipate a lot of deliveries and needs an arrival box and a storage box, the sequence of how it could work is shown is Fig4.
This arrangement assumes that a concierge would come and collect the deliveries and take them to their relevant destinations. This is a weak point in the security of the system, and assumes that the concierge is trustworthy. In all cases the delivery is electronically tagged with a unique identifier, enabling the recipient to track its movement from when it leaves the shop to when it arrives at the delivery box.

Ask not what Drones can do for you, but what can you do for a Drone.

Musing over the idea that drones (and by this I mean the little ones, usually small quadcopters, not multi-million pound aerial weapons flown by remote) will have a major role to play in modern urban societies, I concluded that it would be both fun and instructive to work through just what their role might be. 

Both Google and Amazon are experimenting with drone delivery systems and I can see the appeal of this immediately. Instead of having to wait a whole day for gratification, the lengthy gap between ordering online and when our newly purchased parcel arrives, we can have our gratification almost immediately if we can organise a drone to deliver the purchase instead. We see that thing online that will make our lives either complete or a bit less incomplete, we buy the thing, and a drone delivers it to our door a mere hour later. 

Lets just take it as read that this will happen in any case, because if for no other reason, there are a lot of pizzas that need delivering every day, and this would take a lot of maniacs on scooters off our roads, and thats the thin end of the wedge. With the growth of online shopping I have heard a TFL* representative say that 30% of Londons traffic is delivery vehicles. Even if we took 50% of the vans off the road, we would reduce congestion a lot, reduce emissions a lot as most vans are diesel powered, and the streets would be quieter and safer. Apart from the hum of drones that is. Perhaps the pigeons would disappear too, perhaps there would be too much aerial traffic for them to feel comfortable, one can hope.

But there are a lot of problems to be solved and barriers to that future. 

Legality

They’re illegal, and cannot be flown near to people, which is a bit of a problem when you want them to get close to people to deliver goods to them. I think this will go away presently as the software systems running on the drones enables them to be more or less autonomous and able to avoid crashing into things or people. If cars can be considered safe as driverless objects, then drones shouldn’t present much of a challenge, being much smaller and lighter, and posing much less risk to human life. Lets assume that that challenge is surmountable.

Location

Drones don’t currently have much of a range from the signal that controls them, which means that if you are a kilometer away from their controller they aren’t much use. I think that this can be dealt with by allowing the drone to control itself and by having a distributed network of guidance, like cellular telephone masts, that provide locations to the drone as it comes close to the mast. We use these masts to locate ourselves with smartphones, so why not drones too? To get it to deliver to our houses we just need a way to broadcast a signal to it that it can recognise, perhaps like the one created by our WiFi routers?

Distance

Being battery powered the current quadcopter drone designs are limited in terms of the distance they can travel and the loads they can carry. Battery technology is getting better, so distance will grow over time. The location masts or beacons used above to tell them their location could also provide charging points, so a tired worn-out drone could stop off for a quick gulp of electrons on the way home after delivering your pizza, book, fresh coffee,..whatever. To take on heavier loads drones could cooperate. This video by ETH shows a group of drones constructing a rope bridge, and this one shows another team creating a structure using bricks. The relatively straightforward task of delivering a parcel looks rather easy in comparison.

Identity

One of the major problems with drones is privacy. People don’t like the idea of a machine equipped with a powerful camera flying over their heads on a daily basis. This seems a bit Luddish to me, after all, in our cities we are surrounded by cameras in the hands of everyone we pass as well as those on the streets and buildings. But lets address the problem anyway. Imagine a scenario where the drone is autonomous, and not under control by any external agent, as it winds its way from depot to you. It doesn’t even need to go to your house, if you are in the park having a coffee, it could deliver the pizza directly to you. What the drone needs is autonomy, and a way of getting an anonymous set of directions to you. It need never know who you are, or where you live, and even better, it need not know what it has delivered to you. This will help to avoid the problem of Amazon and Google knowing everything you ever bought so that they can try and sell you a duplicate of everything you own. (why don’t they try and sell you something you haven’t bought?)

Delivery

Lets take a scenario where you order a pizza and its awaiting delivery at the ‘restaurant’. A signal is sent out that a delivery needs to be made, and the nearest drone accepts the job in the same way that a Uber car would. The shortest distance to pick up the pizza would offer the cheapest transaction cost. The drone collects the pizza, and is given an electronic token at the same time. This was created by you when you ordered the pizza. Half the token goes to you, and half to the drone. You broadcast the token from your location and the token is passed from one point on the network to the next, every time the token is passed on it gets a bit added by every node on the network. The network propagates the token from one node to the next indiscriminately. This enables the drone to follow the trail back to you by seeking a broadcast token that is shorter than the one it has picked up from the network and which matches the other half of the token it already has. It will find its way to you without knowing who you are, or where you are. 
 

Esch bubble represents a location beacon, such as a wi-fi router., the routers broadcast the destination to the drone, and the drone follows this to you, wherever you are. The box at the top left is the warehouse sending in the message, the box on the right is you waiting for the delivery. Drones already in the network pick up the message signal, follow it to the warehouse, pick up the package and deliver it to you.

 

Security

In the same way that BitCoin has developed a security system that is distributed, and every bitcoin node knows how many bitcoins there are, and who owns them, without being controlled by a central source, drones could carry out the physical transactions managed by a similar system to the electronic transaction. In a nice parallel where BitCoins enable Payer A to use currency B to pay C, the drone can carry the package from C back to A using the network B. Read this article on blockchains and BitCoins and you will see what I mean. This method would prevent anyone knowing which drone was carrying which package, and who it was intended for. The only way someone could steal your pizza would be to follow you home and steal it from the drone as it delivered it to you. Of course there will always be people who will snare a drone for whatever it happens to be carrying, but at least they won’t be able to steal on demand. 

Physical Implications

A drone needs somewhere to land a drop off its parcel. It needs a flat surface to land, and if the person for whom the delivery is intended isn’t there, it needs an electronically linked drop box where it can leave your parcel. It could lock the box with its half of the electronic delivery token, and you can unlock it with your matching half when you get home from work. But the box needs to be big enough to accept your pizza, post, packages and needs to be somewhere that the drone can get at but where other people cannot. For apartment buildings this would ideally be the roof, where a landing platform and a set of drop boxes could be located without too much difficulty in many flat-roofed apartment buildings. 

Perhaps one day drones will be able to post letters through your letterbox, if you still get any, any that you actually want to read that is.
*Transport for London

Is London going to go Zero Carbon?

Business Green reported an interchange last week between the Mayor and Green Assembly Member Darren Johnson  in response to his question about the Mayors position on Zero Carbon homes. Boris’s reported response was

“What we are looking at is making sure that we can continue, through the London Plan, to ensure that Zero Carbon Homes are delivered in London and we will be issuing further guidance in due course to provide industry with the certainty it needs about how to do that.” 

Boris reported that London aims to achieve a 60% reduction in CO2 by 2025 and has achieved 14% to date. This represents a per capita reduction of 20% as London’s population has grown by 600k during the reporting period.

It is heartening to hear these words from the Mayor, and I hope that the candidates for the Mayoralty are listening. If devolution is to mean anything it should promote the ability of cities in the UK to sidestep the damaging and short-sighted environmental policies of central government.

Having recently completed a large zero carbon scheme at Hanham Hall with low-rise construction and learned what it means for most of the UK’s housing development, I thought that it would be useful to share below some analysis that we have done to assess how tall buildings can achieve the zero carbon standard. Given that many of the buildings that are proposed for the capital in future are going to be tall it is interesting to assess how the regulations might affect those building types.

The analysis has been done for a twenty five and a forty storey tower with six units per floor to demonstrate how different systems meet the targets. We tested gas boilers, CHP with gas backup, all-electric heating and hot water and finally Air Source Heat Pumps. Three of the four rely on a communal hot water distribution system, the all electric system being the exception.

Energy Options to meet the London Plan and Zero Carbon

Energy Options for a 25 Storey Tower to meet the London Plan and Zero Carbon

 

40-storey

Energy Options fora 40 Storey Tower to meet the London Plan and Zero Carbon

What the research shows is that for taller towers there is no difficulty in meeting the current definition of zero carbon. In fact it shows that achieving it is technically easier than achieving the London Plan, as the London Plan has a lower emissions target than the Zero Carbon definition. This is assuming that there is no special treatment for electric heating or hot water, unlike the current version of SAP which is based on comparative performance rather than on a definite figure as set out in the Zero Carbon Hub’s definition.

Based on these figures I would say that towers should be forced to meet the lower emissions target of 10kg/CO2/sqm since in both gas-based options this target can be met. Perhaps an all-electric version could be left as it is at the higher 14kg/CO2/sqm.

It also shows that a very efficient 25-storey building can meet the targets irrespective of the energy system used, the top graphs shows that it can achieve the target in all four options, even an all-electric option. The 40-storey is not so easy. My assumption is that only the roof can be used to house renewable energy,  but for the 40-storey version it would be necessary in the electric options to put some pv panels on the facade to reach the target.

But of course the technical success is not the full picture. In addition to the Fabric Energy Efficiency target of 39kwh/sqm/yr that apartments have to hit, and towers have no difficulty doing so, there is the Carbon Compliance which is shown in the graphs above, and again there doesn’t appear to be much of a problem for towers, but finally there is the Allowable Solutions element which says that whatever CO2 emissions remain must be offset. This offset is achieved by multiplying the tonnes of CO2 emitted, by the figure of 30 years, and by an agreed sum for each tonne. Currently the GLA uses £60/tonne. This produces a figure of approximately £1,000 per apartment to offset the emissions elsewhere.

Sadly the all electric system is unwelcome in London as it it not seen as ‘futureproof’ according to the gas-led ideology preferred by the GLA. This is understandable as an all-electric system does not emit the lowest CO2 emissions possible, at current levels of grid CO2 intensity. What will be interesting to see is how long before the grid CO2 intensity drops to a low enough level to change that thinking. The Committee for Climate Change has suggested that we need to stop burning gas by 2035 to meet our carbon budgets. What is the point in investing in gas burning equipment and networks now if they have to be decommissioned in less than twenty years time?

Certainly an all-electric system is the cheapest to install, avoiding the central distribution system, and it could be argued that an all electric system is just as futureproof as a hot water led system as the Grid is inherently flexible. Interestingly our research also suggests that in the majority of cases an all-electric system is cheaper than a communal system for residents as the standing charges are lower, even if the energy bills are higher than gas. The standing charge is used to create a sinking fund to replace the communal system. If there is no communal system the sinking fund is either not needed or is much smaller, thus lowering residents total bill. The cheapest system of all to run is an individual gas boiler, but no-one would consider installing that into a tower, and it has a higher maintenance and replacement cost than an all-electric system.

A major hole in this analysis is that it is carried out using SAP, which is pretty poor at dealing with apartment buildings. The energy for pumping heat around the building is ignored, as is the energy for ventilating corridors, pumping hot water, lifts, communal lighting etc, etc. Since the communal spaces in these buildings are not heated, SBEM isn’t particularly useful either. As buildings get taller these additional energy uses and losses will become more a more significant part of their energy use, we need better tools to assess them, and more regulations to deal with their particular demands.

 

Five Ways to live sustainably.

How do we live sustainably? The holistic nature of the problem makes definition difficult, but that doesn’t prevent us from having a go at it. We must try and define the problem, as this is usually the first step towards finding a solution. 

Problem: We are not living within our environmental means, we are exceeding our emissions budget. To put it another way, we are in environmental debt. To continue to get into environmental debt just leaves another problem for our descendants to solve. If that weren’t bad enough, this environmental debt is already causing the climate to change in unpredictable ways, affecting our oceans and the biosphere dramatically. So not only will we leave a mess behind, but it will be a dangerous and unpredictable mess!

Solution: To stop eating into our environmental capital, our rainforests, oceans, atmosphere and biosphere. 

That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it. But of course it isn’t that simple, mainly because we are either unaware of the cause of environmental debts or because our supposed happiness is predicated on a way of life that is inherently damaging, and we are unwilling to give up this way of life. Old habits die hard.

The change of habits and the introduction of cleaner systems does come at a price, change costs something, whether in time, materials or opportunity costs. But the cost of innovation is usually short-lived and then pricing tends to return to a level below where we started from. This is what pays for innovation and it doesn’t happen unless that promise of low costs is there.

Clean Energy: We need to replace our dirty grid with clean energy, which will take more than a generation as the lifespan of these systems is very long. But this has already started and there is widespread recognition that this needs to happen, so that battle is largely won. Sadly we have a government that doesn’t quite see this, but fortunately governments are temporary. Support a clean energy project near you today!

Get rid of the gas-guzzler: We need to stop using combustion for heating and transport. The Internal Combustion Engine has had its day, lets bury it with full honours and move on! Fortunately cars and domestic boilers have a relatively short lifespan and give us regular opportunities to change our habits. We will need to make a decision to take a risk by changing to a hybrid or fully electric vehicle when the opportunity offers, or to install a heat pump. We can’t rely on a push from government.

Buy Wisely: We need to stop importing goods from economies that aren’t moving in the direction of emission reductions, both to guarantee local jobs and to reduce the emissions of transporting goods half-way around the planet when we could easily make them on our doorstep. It would be nice if a carbon tax was added  to imports that highlighted their environmental costs, but we can add that cost in our mind when we think about pressing that button online. 

Waste: We need to reduce waste to a minimum, wasted materials, wasted energy, wasted heat. This is the most difficult one, as it is so closely related to behaviour. Persuading people that a walk to the shop is better for them and for the planet doesn’t sound difficult, but some people love their cars. There is an interesting shift in the use of health gadgetry to inform people about their health related behaviour that will help to achieve this. Insulating our homes will be a once in many generations cost. Consider whether you want your children to inherit an expensive home to inhabit, or a low energy home. If you only consider your own costs you won’t be motivated enough to spend the money.

Move into Town: We need to stop seeing a bucolic life in the country as the barometer of success. The country has nice views and fresh air, but it also has long travel distances to the doctors, the shops, the post office, the theatre and for every trip you have to make, the delivery van has to make one too. Move into town! Open a tea shop!

VELUX Daylight Symposium 2015

The Location: The event was held at the Tobacco Dock, a reminder that some reused buildings provide stunning locations for events, and in this particular case the event was held in daylight. It may sound obvious, but most conferences are still held in locations where daylight is excluded, in case it interferes with the presentations. The usual result is a lot of sleepy attendees watching a lot of fairly tedious slides. When light levels are lowered, our bodies natural inclination is to go to sleep, a fact that the designers of most auditoria seem to have ignored. 
The lantern lights of this tremendous building were modified by simple banner-like screens to prevent glare and the two days were spent with the delegates bathed in full daylight but still able to view the screens. I cannot emphasise enough how much nicer an experience it is to spend a day in this way, rather than buried in the bowels of some convention centre.

  

The Content: The Daylight Symposium is a unique event, bringing together the worlds leading experts in daylight research and practice. It happens every two years and brings together the authors of CEN standards, the authors of daylight calculation software, the research community working on the effects of daylight on productivity and well-being, and the authors of guidance on the provision of daylight in design. There were also a few architects like me who tried to keep up with the science and not make fools of ourselves by asking really stupid questions, like, ‘what is the difference between lumens and luminance?’*

Some Conclusions

Over the two days I listend to a diverse range of speakers, from all over the world, many technical, some beautiful, all of them interesting. There were some particular highlights for me.

Daylight Autonomy, The CEN Daylight Standard draft appears to signal that the time has come to move on from Daylight Factor as a means of measuring daylight in architecture. Daylight Factor is a simple metric that predicts the amount of daylight in a room expressed as a percentage of the daylight available from an overcast sky. There are several problems with this.

Daylight Factor is not comprehensible to most people, including many professionals. It doesn’t relate either to the location of the space being examined or to the likely weather conditions in that location. So a room of the same size will achieve the same results in Iceland as in Uganda, despite the available daylight being quite different in the two locations. It doesn’t take into account the availability of greater amounts of daylight and sunshine available under typical weather conditions, so a part of the country where there is routinely a lot of sunshine will appear to perform as well as an area that has much less sunshine. As overheating becomes more of a problem, this is counterproductive. 

The CEN recommendation, based on several presentations during the event, is that we move to a measurement based on the availability of light in the room for a proportion of the day. This is similar to Daylight Autonomy, the US standard used in the LEED sustainable buildings assessment method. The draft CEN standard will suggest that we use a measure of the light levels in lux in the room expressed as the time that a desired light level is exceeded in a proportion of the space. The example given as a minimum is 300 lux in 50% of the room for 50% of the time. 300 lux is enough light to read, write or carry out office work, so it is adequate for many activities likely to be carried out at home. 50% of the space allow for variations in the lighting, particularly spaces only lit from one side. 50% of the time allows for variations over the day, so a room that is well lit in the morning can still comply with the requirement, as well as a room that is well lit in the afternoon, or early evening.

The draft CEN standard suggests that there could be three levels of such a standard, a minimum, set at 300 lux, a good at 500 lux and a high at 750 lux.

Rendering with Daylight: A particular bugbear of mine is architectural rendering that shows interiors bathed with light, when in fact such light is either impossible or unlikely at best. This doesn’t do anyone any good. Architectural rendering has a purpose, but that purpose should not be to mislead the designer or the client. It was heartening to see a presentation of Keyshot, a photorealistic lighting tool that can interface quickly with the VELUX Daylight Visualiser. They are both written by Luxion and they are now capable of interacting with each other. The VELUX tool can check the daylight in the room and Keyshot can produce a verifiably accurate daylight render. It can also deal with materials,textures and artificial light, but the important point is that it renders daylight accurately so that designers can check what actual difference their design changes make to the spaces rather than being fooled by a rendering engine that allow the designer free rein with the amount of light available. (In case you think that software doesn’t mislead, and I am overstating the point, one well-known and widely used rendering tool allows the designer to make the sun bigger!)

Thought Provoking: Paul Bogard: The organisers, VELUX, like to intersperse the hard science with some thought provoking speakers, and this time there were two presentations, one at the end of each day. The first by Paul Bogard was not about daylight, but about darkness. His book, The End of Night concerns the fact that most children in developed countries have no idea what a starry sky looks like. I was lucky enough to grow up in a rural area where starry skies were often visible, and the full majesty of the universe could be felt by anyone coming outdoors after dark. Today there are few places in the Western world where this is possible without having to get into a car and drive long distances. Will we end up in a world where fewer children want to become astronomers because they are unaware of the possibilities, or fewer philosophers because they haven’t seen how small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. Paul points out that much of the problem is caused by security concerns and homeowners and property owners being sold lighting systems that waste a lot of light, and don’t even provide good security.

Thought Provoking: Olafur Eliasson: The presentation at the end of the second day was by Olafur Eliasson an Icelandic artist who, among other works, has filled the Tate turbine hall with a sun, and put large chunks of Arctic ice outside a hall where one of the COP talks was taking place. Bizzarely, one of the delegates contacted him a year later to ask him to bring the ice to the next COP. He had to tell the delegate that sadly, the ice had melted, but that there was more available in the Arctic.

He presented his kickstarter project with Little Sun which aims to bring artificial light to countries where children currently cannot read or study after dark unless they use kerosene lamps. His talk was deeply contemplative, almost mystical. His use of language was amazing, given that he works in Berlin and was born in Iceland, so must use at least three languages every day to express the most complex of thoughts. Two thoughts that stayed with me are:

The Shaping of the world is the creative act, and not the work itself.

Cultural institutions allow people to share without agreeing.
* ‘Lumen is the total luminous flux emitted by a light source, and luminance is the amount of light emitted from a surface in a particulat direction’ Obviously!

Zero Carbon – Zero Chance

The axing of the zero-carbon housing legislation yesterday put an end to a decade of efforts to define a standard for new homes that would support the UK’s drive to reduce emissions from new housing. It was contained in a document from the Treasury, apparently now setting more UK housing policy than DCLG, entitled ‘Fixing the foundations – Creating a more Prosperous Nation’

There is much to welcome in the document, and a lot that seems eminently sensible, I say this to deflect any criticism that I am singling out a single issue to the exclusion of the rest, all 88 pages of it. But it seems to me to be entirely wrong-headed to drop this proposal now, after planning for it for such a long time, and after so much work has been done to prepare for it. I have seen no justification for the decision yet, and I await that justification with interest. The document is about planning to improve the UK’s productivity, so the assumption must be that dropping these proposals will improve productivity in the UK housing industry.

Whether this is really the case or not depends how you measure productivity.

Will removing this requirement mean that more houses get built than would otherwise be the case?

Probably not, as housing starts have more to do with sales values than build costs. The introduction of previous regulatory changes have not had any visible effect on housebuilding numbers as DCLG usually has a fairly relaxed transition period allowing housebuilders to prepare for the new standards over a long period. Housebuilders are also very skilled at passing on the costs of improved performance to their supply chain.

Will more plots receive permission with the legislation removed?

Probably not, as planning authorities will want to see evidence that new homes are sustainably developed and this would have been one way of demonstrating this.

What we will see is that the costs of occupying new homes will stay higher than it would otherwise be, as will the CO2 emissions from them. This could affect up to a million new homes if housing numbers improve towards the 200k per annum mark and this situation lasts for five years 2016-2021. (see graphic)

The Costs of Low Carbon Living

The Costs of Low Carbon Living

The additional running costs will be in the region of £200 per annum per household, meaning a spend of £200M on energy by consumers that could be avoided and the additional CO2 will  be around 2 tonnes per dwelling, reaching a total of 2 Million tonnes of additional CO2 emissions that could otherwise be avoided.

To meet our CO2 budgets this extra 2Mt of CO2 will need to be abated elsewhere, which will come with a cost, and our energy system will need to be developed to include the additional energy supply needed.

It makes little sense to me that a nation that prides itself on its universities and innovation, and associates both of these with improving productivity,  would make this decision. Housing manufacturing in particular is a very innovative and productive industry, and can meet these higher standards already, but needs a willing market to thrive. The companies that will benefit from this are the ones looking backwards, the brick manufacturers, the housebuilders, the landowners. The ones that will suffer are the ones looking forward, the innovative manufacturers, the developers of high quality homes, the purchasers and occupiers of the homes themselves. This change in direction simply retains the status quo and extends the period within which housing can continue to be built using traditional and low productivity methods, and removes any regulatory driver for the industry to improve and innovate.

By 2020 the UK is expected to have introduced legislation to deliver Nearly Zero Energy Buildings (NZEB’s) together with all other EU partners. The proposed 2016 regulations would have been a strong stepping stone to this higher standard and made for an easy transition. The Chancellor appears to be betting on that standard either going away, or being optional for the UK to adopt come 2020.

 

The Triumph of the City – Edward Glaeser – A Review

Edward Glaeser has penned this work on the benefits of the city from the perspective of the economist.  A useful and unusual perspective, the first major work on cities  from an economics perspective since Jane Jacobs penned ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ and ‘Cities and the Wealth of Nations’. 

The book is wide in scope and exhaustively annotated, and suitable for use as a textbook as well as being an interesting read. Every town planner and every city councillor should be forced to read it and not allowed to make a single plan or decision without  reading it.

Glaeser is not such a good writer as Jacobs, but he does create some pithy one-liners that could go on a city planners or mayors annual calendar.

The essential ingredient for the success of the modern city is the accessibility of talent. The basic premise of the book revolves around this statement.


Cities and Talent

Glaeser writes extensively on the subject of cities abilities to attract talent, including presenting many case studies of city growth and city failure around the globe over the last two centuries.

When presented with a series of trade-offs including the cost of housing, the ability to earn high wages and the potential to be close to good schools, families will make a decision to go to the city or suburb that gives them the best likelihood of success. Cities that cannot provide all three are likely to be limiting their ability to attract the greatest amount of talent.

He points out the particular problem of enabling and maintaining good schools in inner cities and although this is heavily US-centric there are relevant comparisons to be made in the UK, particularly in London where there are fewer good schools in inner city areas and many families move to the suburbs in search of good schools.

Glaeser points to many examples of cities that have used good education systems, particularly universities, such as London, Paris, Boston to keep their best and brightest people and to attract outsiders: ‘to thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively’ and ‘Because the essential characteristic of humanity is to learn from each other, cities make us more human’

He points out, rather romantically for an economist, that the advent of the connected society through cyberspace has in no way lessened the neccessity of face-to-face connections with talent. ‘connecting in cyberspace will never be the same as sharing a meal, a smile or a kiss’

The Sustainable City

He makes the point that were China and India to live the way the US does, and follow a path of abandoning the inner city for the ‘exurbs’, would raise the planets CO2 emissions by 139%. He suggests that there is some evidence that the Chinese ‘get’ density in their deign of places. Whether there is evidence that the Chinese ‘get’ quality of life in the same way, I am less sure. But his central point is well made, we can only offer convincing advice to developing countries if we are seen to be busy repairing the damage we have done ourselves already. The US has some way to go on this point.  ‘The only way the West can earn any moral authority on global warming is to first get its own house in order.’

Being an economist, and having dealt with the improvements that many cities have made to their transport systems through congestion charging, he points out that ‘Unless we charge people for the carbon they emit, they won’t emit less’.

He suggests that the exurbs are a temporary phenomenon and limited to some places, rather than having a general future. But he doesn’t have the evidence to back this up. ‘I suspect, that in the long run, the twentieth century fling with suburban living will look, just like the brief age of the industrial city, more like an aberration than a trend.’

Misguided Conservation

He makes a strong point about misguided conservation in places like California. (it could easily be London) where he points out that Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) only assess the impact of develoment being built, and not the impact of it being built elsewhere instead; which is unfortunate because elsewhere in the US is a place like Houston where there is less development control than in California and where more houses are being built, and which are therefore cheaper and more attractive to workers and familes. But the result is a higher overall carbon footprint because Houston is uninhabitable without air-conditioning. And everyone drives everywhere. Conservation in California keeps California the way the rich Californians like it, but means that alternative places which are less suitable for sustainable living are used instead. In the UK, substitute Surrey for California and the result is largely the same.

He maintains that people who fight dense development in order to protect local low density life or green spaces  are simply moving the problem elsewhere, an elsewhere that is further from services and transport infrastructure that will mean more develoment on green field sites and more car travel.

‘The interests of people who oppose change are certainly comprehensible, but their interests usually don’t match the public interest.’

Policy should aim to encourage development in those parts of the country where it makes most sense, near to infrastructure and jobs, and not on creating areas of land like Green Belts that have little or no real environmental benefit but which results in more sprawl further away from economic centres and longer commutes for workers who cannot afford urban prices. ‘Urban living is sustainable sustainability,rural ecotowns are not.’ 

It seems to me that the difference between the UK and the US is that the results of long commutes is less obviously harmful in carbon terms as our cars are more efficient and public transport networks are good, but if you look at Charles Montgomery’s book on Happy Cities, you will see that the costs of long commutes include broken marriages and unhappy children because of the absence of one or both parents for most of the day. Environmental reasons are not the only reasons to be concerned by the need for long commutes.

On Urban Poverty

He takes a seemingly rather cold hearted look at urban poverty and points out that ‘Cities will always have poor people, and this is a sign of success, not failure, as cities should attract poor people who want to improve their lot’. Certianly the history of London and New York bears this out as places where waves of immigrants have come, found places to live near to the ports, worked in these cities, gradually become part of society and then moved from the enclaves where they started out together for mutual suport and eventually merged with society as a whole. There is a building in the East End of London that has been a mosque, a synagogue, and a church at different times as different cultures arrived and left.

‘Cities especially benefit from an influx of talent, because immigrants help urban areas play their crucial role of connecting countries.’

He deals well with the economic benifits of collecting talent in the same location, both for cultural movements and technical innovation. The problem is when cities create areas of poor people who will always be poor, as has happened in many areas of the UK where social housing has been built in large clusters. Sometimes this has resulted in creating communities where unemployment and benefit dependency has become a way of life and difficult to disrupt. He pours scorn on efforts in many US cities where attempts at regeneration have focussed on building infrastructure and housing in failing places where neither were needed, and suggests that a better use of money would have been to give it to the disadvanteged and allowed them to move to wherever they would prefer to live. A chilling piece of evidence that he provides is that poorer children displaced from New Orleans have demonstrated improvements in school results in the communities they have moved to. Sometimes, he suggests, new buildings are not what is needed.

On Management

‘The more centralised a nations government, the larger its capital city, because people are attracted to power as ants are to picnics’

‘Much of the world suffers under awful governments, and that provides an edge for those cities that are administered well’ He doesn’t examine the different types of civic government that have worked well, but its interesting that the examples he cites tend to be places where a strong individual took control, often for a sustained period. The same can be said of the failures.

‘..among cities, failure seem similar, while success seem unique’

Glaeser identifies a common problem of political and cultural attitudes to city life, which has often found its way into city management in the past, and still does today. Political animals who must attract votes from the wider community don’t always understand the particular needs of the cities under their control, or even how to ensure that they are managed properly. The conflict between what is good for the country, and what is good for the city is dealt with through a number of case studies. His comments about the negative impacts of taxation could have been written about the UK.

‘Cities can compete on a level playing field, but over the past sixty years America’s policies have slanted the field steeply against them. In the areas of housing, social services, education, transportation, the environment and even income taxes, American policies have worked against urban areas. Cities have managed to survive despite these advantages because they have so much to offer.’

When it comes to managing a city budget, he is unequivocal:

‘As much as I appreciate urban culture, aesthetic interventions can never substitute for the urban basics.‘ These are Safety, Education & Transport.

His case study on Singapore is very interesting as it demonstrates how a city-state can function without a rural hinterland. ‘Singapore’s success illustrates the irrelevance of acreage’. Again, he makes the point, as Jane Jacobs did, that cities are really the economic engines of a modern society, and as they need resources it doesn’t appear to affect their success or failure where those resoures come from. Provided the city can attract and keep talent, and maintain a good economic strength, it can afford to buy the resources that it needs. He fails to point out that the resources also come with a carbon footprint and outsourcing production of resources, such as food, from long distances, has the same effect on CO2 emissions as curtailing developent within its boundaries.

END

If you are interested in urban design, sustainability, town and city planning, then this book should be on a shelf close to your desk, alongside the works of Jane Jacobs and Henry Montgomery.

MMC: Evolution or Revolution?

 I spoke last week at the Residential Construction Network hosted by the RICS in Westminster.
The three speakers were myself, Paul Inch from Innovare and Jean-Marc Bouvier from Nudura Insulated Concrete Formwork.
I introduced the topic by pointing out the continuing and rising gap between housing production in the UK and housing need. See image below. At current levels of construction and demand we will see two million people short of a home by 2030.
 The Housing Gap
My view is that offsite construction is needed to fill the gap because the gap is mainly made up of people who cannot afford to buy their own homes at current prices, and are unlikely to ever do so. Affordable housing including shared ownership models needs to be provided for them by Registered Housing Providers(RHP’s) and by the Private Rental Sector(PRS).
There is little or no motivation for the private sector to build more housing than their current capacity to deliver. The hostorical figures show that speculative housing rarely delivers over 150,000 homes per year. They are making good profits with current numbers, so why would they change a formula that is working?
The current housing industry based on speculative housing for sale tends to use traditional construction methods as the average rate of sales on sites is slow and building faster doesn’t actually make much difference to them. What does make a difference is changing labour rates, particularly in a boom which makes their land and construction pricing difficult to predict. The regular boom and bust cycle in UK housing means that they are unlikely to either dramatically change their levels of housing supply or change the way that they build.
A possible solution to the problem is to marry up the large balance sheets of local authorities and RHP’s and use additional borrowing to construct homes offsite. This would require decisions on the part of these large clients to support a new industrial sector, housing manufacturing. A medium sized factory could supply 2,000 homes per year, but investors will only commit to constructing such facilities with a confirmed pipeline of demand. There can be competitive tendering, but between similar factories, and not between factories and site operations. This is not to promote more expensive housing, but to give factories the support they need to get going. Clients need to decide that this is the route to deliver affordable housing and government needs to support them in any way it can.
Ten new factories every year for five years will deliver 50,000 new dwellings that we are currently not building, from finance we are not using. That will go a long way to closing the gap in the housing supply. Once the market in offsite manufacturing is more mature, it can expand to take up the remaining gap and supply products to the sale market. The factories can be distributed across the country to places where there is greatest housing need and staffed by locally trained people. These plants can be set up and be running within a year, particularly if they use timber frame manufacturing. The jobs will be stable long term ones, possibly as many as 100 per factory. Thats 5,000 jobs within five years without counting the site works and the finishing trades on site. Its not wise to construct entire dwellings in factories, some work needs to be done on site to prepare foundations, and to finish the facade and roof on site.
Paul Inch, Business Development Director, Innovare
Innovare are one such factory, constructing homes and schools from their factory in Coventry using Structural Insulated Panels. They have a strong history of building high performing homes and buildings that provide very well-insulated building fabric. This is achieved by constructing using large format panels containing the building structure and insulation. Speed of construction is much faster than traditional methods and the quality of the final building is higher, particularly delivering low levels of air leakage and reducing the heating demand from the finished building.
In Paul’s opinion, RHP’s should use the market to deliver their buildings and not try and go it alone. There is a lot of manufacturing skills in the market and it is best left to the market to provide it rather than try and bring it in-house as some RHP’s have done.
Jean Marc Bouvier Director of International Sales and Business Development
Jean Marc Bouvier from Nudura Corporation, a supplier of Insulated Concrete Formwork products described their system. It provides large insulation panels that fit together much like Lego and are then filled in with poured concrete to form the walls of the design. It is a very rapid form of construction and delivers very high performance buildings. By using large lightweight elements the construciton process is safer and quicker, and because of the pured concrete there are no air gaps in the construction. Another benefit is that it is very resilient to wind effects and is being used to construct storm shelters in the southern regions of the US. Like SiPs it enables a highly productive delivery, with far fewer man-hours required to deliver the finished building compared to traditional building methods.

The Electric City

WSP Engineering group have carried out some interesting research into the potential of the Electric City. The basic principle is that we should move away from combustion within cities for heating homes, buildings, generating power, cooling or transport, and rely on electrons instead.

The potential benefits are staggering. The future city powered by electricity has a much better environment for its inhabitants with lower emissions and fewer particulates in the air, the air is cleaner because much of our air quality problems stem from combustion in boilers and engines. The city is quieter because electric motors are quieter than combustion engines. The city produces less CO2 emissions because heat pumps are more efficient than boilers and electric cars are more efficient than combustion engines.

WSP calculate that if we aimed to create an all-electric London by 2030 we could have
– reduced NOx levels by 37%
– vehicle noise levels will be reduced by 25-50%
– electricity usage in the capital would double from 40k GWh to 80k GWh per year
– CO2 emissions would drop from 88 MtCO2 to around 8 MTCO2 per year, a drop of around 90%.

SAP, the tool used to assess the compliance of UK housing for Building Regulations, uses a CO2 factor for UK Grid electricity based on a three year average prediction of the Grid emissions. What WSP’s work makes clear is that this is the wrong period to use for predictions. The long term predicted emissions for the UK Grid is for it to be lower than gas, and to reach this point before 2020. Using a ‘dirty’ Grid emissions factor now, means that we are installing gas CHP and gas boilers in the anticipation that they will drive down CO2 emissions. But during the lifetime of these systems the Electricity Grid emission will drop below gas and continue to drop until it is much lower. So installing systems now that have a twenty or thirty year life of predicted emissions is actually likely to raise emissions rather than reduce them.

A major issue for housing in all of this is that currently it is much cheaper to heat a home using gas than electricity, because electricity is three times more expensive. The problem we need to solve is how to reduce heating demand to a point where new homes can be heated by electricity for the same amount of money as other homes on the market can be heated by gas. There are well documented problems where newish homes were heated by heat pumps resulting in higher than average bills because the homes simply weren’t efficient enough. Perhaps we need to look again at dual tariff electricity supplies to new homes using off peak electricity to drive heat pumps?

With cars the picture is different because petrol is so much more expensive than gas, electric driving is a much cheaper option, so it is entirely likely that electric transport will lead the electric revolution faster than the construction industry. Cars have a shorter life than building services, so the replacement rate for cars will mean that technological changes will be introduced more quickly in any case.

Whatever the outcome this is an excellent piece of work, and highlights the benefits of taking a long term view of energy policy and market intervention.