Sustainability Too much Eco bling

Sustainability Too much Eco bling

When it comes to promoting sustainability simply adding much thicker insulation to buildings will save a lot more money that you can hope to get back from nearly all the ‘Eco Bling’ you can add to add in the name of sustainability. ‘Eco Bling’ is the generic name given to the gadgetry and ecological technology which people and architects are putting on buildings, allegedly to promote sustainability, the most misguided accessory being mini windmills which cost more in terms of money and burden they place on the environment than the energy they save.Housing is typically being built in Britain purporting to give high priority to sustainability but incorporating many characteristics amounting to no more than Eco Bling, installed for the purpose of making them appear green and therefore more marketable. People have become obsessed with solar panels and wind turbines. But sometimes these items, particularly the latter make no contribution to sustainability and often actually detract from it. The hard truth is that its usually better to build thicker walls with better insulation. But this doesn’t generate any profit for builders because the contribution to cost saving and sustainability is not so obvious. Sustainability and creating an environmentally friendly house is in the first instance, better achieved by using well worn building techniques. Spending a little more on building a solid house rather than relying on advanced sustainability technology is the starting point for making it green. The difficulty is that more investment is required up front and the contribution to sustainability is not so obvious visually. People, it seems  would rather buy a house with ineffective solar panels on the roof than buy one which contributes more reliability to sustainability by virtue of its thicker well insulated walls.  Costs are lower over a lifetime but the difficulty is that it’s not so obvious to the buyer.

wind turbines for the home

roof mounted turbines

Some environmentalist are dismayed that British homes and offices are being disfigured by what they dismissively refer to as ‘Eco Bling’, some of which actually detracts from sustainability objectives rather than contributing to it. Some roof turbines (if they contribute any net energy at all) make less contribution to sustainability than three or four low energy light bulbs, or even wearing a vest indoors can at a tiny fraction of the cost. To build a wind turbine on a building capable of generating sufficient electricity to merit its cost would nearly always cause so much vibration it would either knock the turbine off the building or cause structural damage.  Environmentalists also point out that it is sometimes more beneficial in terms of sustainability objectives and actual money spent to demolish a building completely and rebuild it from scratch in an environmentally friendly design than it is to ‘retrofit’ it with an array of sustainability oriented modifications. The sustainability benefits of a properly designed building can considerably outweigh the gains from modification. Attempting to retrofit high levels of air tightness and insulation to a traditional British building in the name of sustainability and the environment can cause problems with air quality, condensation, and even rotting of timbers. It can lead to bronchial health problems arising from mould. Improvements to insulation need to be accompanied with protection against condensation, and heat recovery needs to go alongside controlled ventilation. So, an apparently straightforward sustainability friendly idea can lead to all sorts of other problems when trying to maintain a safe internal environment.

Zero Carbon Britain

In its commitment to sustainability the government has committed Britain to an 80% reduction in its carbon emissions by 2050. All new homes are supposed to be zero carbon by 2016 and all remaining buildings should be zero carbon by 2020. That is an enormously ambitious sustainability target which on the face of it is impossible to achieve. We would need to achieve 2000 zero carbon refurbishments every working day between now and 2050 to achieve the 80%  figure. And environmentalists argue that attaching Eco Bling to buildings will not be sufficient to achieve those sustainability targets in any case. The carbon intensity of electricity generation varies from season to season. In Winter electricity supplied by the Grid uses a much higher proportion of carbon intensive generating capacity than it does in the Summer. Most of the additional electricity generated in the Winter has to come from Gas and Coal. But the Summer is the time when most Eco Bling generation occurs. So in addition to its already poor inherent carbon reduction performance the electricity the Eco Bling generates is itself limited in sustainability  value. It merely replaced what would have been relatively low carbon generating Grid electricity anyway.  For the same reason heat pumps in the Winter may be less beneficial from an overall sustainability point of view than they appear. The electricity they use to operate comes from a higher carbon generating grid source than they do in the Summer

How to ruin a nice building

How to ruin a nice building

All in all from a sustainability point of view we would be better insulating our homes for the Winter rather than putting solar panels and windmills on the roof. Putting it bluntly most serious sustainability experts regard Eco Bling enthusiasts, as ‘showing off’ environmental credentials to the neighbours. And the incentives for domestic generation of renewable electricity, has sometimes contributed to this fruitless activity which from a purely sustainability perspective fundamentally useless. Some allegedly sustainability oriented projects have resulted in super insulation and passive conservation ,measures being abandoned in favour of generating heat which is then wasted in a less well insulated building whilst the occupant is paid again to generate electricity which meets the sustainability criteria and used to offset the wasted consumption yet still leaving the outcome qualifying as ‘zero carbon’.

More insulation, less Bling

Environmentalists overwhelming recognise that dealing with the poor state of the insulation and fabric of buildings is essential before we even start considering bolt on technologies contributes more to sustainability than anything else. The UK’s poor environmental sustainability record in construction design has a history of constructing buildings that leak heat. This is an historic sustainability deficient characteristic arising from the fact that owing to our benign climate and the fact that our towns and cities go back many centuries, we have never given much thought to energy efficiency. The buildings were constructed long before the science of environmental sustainability became well understood. A damp climate also contributed to this neglect because ventilation has been a priority over the centuries. The result has been that poorly insulated sustainability imperfect buildings which have generally been too expensive to heat continuously, so we have adopted a habit of relying on intermittent heat in buildings which we turn on only when we need it most. But intermittent heat requires high intensity heat sources like gas, oil and coal boilers which generate the heat quickly, and that’s bad news for sustainability. These are inevitably high carbon fuels. Low carbon and renewable systems work by delivering low intensity heat continuously in a well insulated and airtight building

So the buzzword now is ‘eco minimalisation’. In the sustainability world (like elsewhere) less is more. Passive solar energy (basically appropriately positioned South facing walls with the right wall coverings), solar shading, low energy consumption equipment and better insulation, can contribute fat more to sustainability than a mini windmill on the roof. Believe it or not 10% of the country’s electricity and 1% of the country’s total energy demand goes on appliances left on standby yet ‘one watt standby’ technology is already available which would reduce this to virtually zero.