“Over the next 40 years, the world is expected to build 230bn square metres in new construction – adding the equivalent of Paris to the planet every single week,” wrote Dr Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, in a 2017 report.
Buildings emit more energy-related carbon globally than the entire transport sector (30% v 28%), and much of that carbon is burned on site; only the 6% of the UK population that heat their homes with electricity benefit fully from the UK’s increasing reliance on renewable energy sources.
That adds up to a huge opportunity for ecologically minded engineers, says Hannah Jones, director at Greengauge building energy consultants, provided people like her are involved from the very start: “When they haven’t even put pen to paper – that’s our preferred entry point. It means you can design things more holistically, rather than patching things up.”
“If you involve us early enough, we shouldn’t have to make the systems [that make the building greener] as complicated, because we can solve them in ways that are more passive,” she adds. “That’s better in terms of not consuming as many materials and in terms of ongoing energy consumption. And they’re simpler to maintain too.”
Greengauge, which was set up with her partner Toby Cambray, a Passivhaus designer, was responsible for the mechanical and electrical engineering on the much-lauded Goldsmith Street project in Norwich. “The mechanical services to those buildings are actually very boring, because we managed to keep them very simple,” says Jones. “That’s what it was all about, delivering a principally low-energy building that’s fundamentally low-energy.”
She adds that the client was responsible for some design parameters. “We were heavily influenced by what the council were familiar with and comfortable with in terms of maintenance regimes, so the houses do have gas-combi boilers, but they have oversize radiators to protect those boilers.”
For all the technical factors that can reduce a building’s impact on the environment, however, Krishna Sonigra, a sustainability consultant at engineering firm Hoare Lea, prefers to look beyond the “checkbox agenda of sustainability”.
She cites the Earth Centre in Doncaster, which she studied in the final year of her architectural technology degree, as an example of how things can go wrong when the focus is too narrow. “It was meant to be this amazing sustainable development, and it had solar panels, which, for the time, were pretty forward-thinking, and it had these gabion walls – really sustainable building materials,” she says. “But even after they built a train station so people could get there, it went out of business.”
Sonigra, who has worked on the Hut Group’s headquarters at Manchester airport and on the new University of the Arts campus at Elephant and Castle, believes the Earth Centre failed because human factors were ignored. “It was in a beautiful setting, but inside it felt so alien, not in any way connected. It was dark and dingy. I stopped feeling safe in there. You can have, on paper, the most sustainable development, but if people don’t want to be there that makes it fundamentally unsustainable.”
This experience shaped how she views her role. “I’m that person in meetings saying: ‘Yes, that’s great for energy consumption, but what’s it going to be like to actually be in that space?’” she says. Reducing glazing, for example, reduces solar gains and therefore reduces energy consumption – but what does it mean for the staff on that floor?
“You won’t have much access to daylight,” she says. “That won’t be good for your eyes or your general wellbeing.”
Sonigra believes that by following the principles of biophilia you can create a more welcoming workplace: “It’s the idea that as humans we have an innate affinity for natural elements – so that’s animals, plants, but also geometric shapes, natural textures such as wood – and that they help us feel calm, less stressed, boost our cognitive functions.”
Given that staff typically account for 90% of a business’s operating costs, any improvement on staff wellbeing has huge potential. “If you can improve productivity by even 5% by having more daylight, fresh air and access to amenities for your building, then that across millions, billions of investment in staff – it’s surely a bit of a no-brainer,” says Charlene Clear, head or products and services at buildings assessment company BREEAM.
A BREEAM excellent rating is awarded to only the top 10% of new non-domestic buildings. However, in denser areas, such as central London, those coveted ratings can be unattainable. “You already have to contend with elevated temperatures in these dense conurbations, due to the large thermal mass,” says Jones, adding that high levels of air and noise pollution restrict natural ventilation options.
On top of this, Clear points out that 60% – “or maybe more” – of buildings fail to operate at their promised efficiency. “When it comes to actually getting that building out of the ground, that’s where the majority of the quality slips away,” she says. “The ongoing sustainability of the building – even improving on it – is perhaps where the real gains are to be had in terms of reducing CO2 emissions.”
BREEAM’s In Use standard, updated in May, aims to “support the improvement of all buildings” – both commercial and residential.
For Jones, the overarching problem is simply defined. “If we don’t improve air quality, our ventilation and cooling strategies will have to drastically change. We’ll be cooling more buildings – and that will require increased energy consumption,” she says, pointing out that the lockdown has given us a chance to break that cycle and rethink our city-centric habits.
“I’m hoping we can all do a bit more working from home and conference calling in the future.”