The myth of ‘low energy’ buildings

Why do award-winning ‘green’ buildings so often have much higher energy bills than ordinary buildings?

Easy. Tick the boxes, install the sexy technologies, and make the claims for predicted energy performance.  Whatever you do, don’t go back and monitor how much energy the building actually uses and whether occupants are happy with what they’ve been given.

In truth, the UK’s failure to produce low energy, low running cost buildings that are warm in winter, cool in summer with good indoor air quality is a national scandal.

Building Regulations have included energy elements since the mid 1980s. Yet the culture of the UK buildings industry is all wrong. Few people, even those in the sector, are aware of the gap between predicted and actual energy performance. We don’t have a language for talking about it – and anyway, building user expectations are low.

The Retrofit for the Future (RfF) and Building Performance Evaluation (BPE) Government-funded programmes run by the Technology Strategy Board illustrate how dire the situation is. Preliminary analysis of 89 whole house retrofits – generously funded to deliver very low energy, low carbon homes – shows only a small proportion has reached agreed the targets they were given.  Over half the properties still leak heat, some of them very badly; a few are leakier after the refurbishment than before.  Many are using almost as much energy  ordinary homes that have not been refurbished.

Analysis of the performance of a range of new buildings – homes, schools, offices and health centres – gives an even more depressing picture. Most buildings surveyed had one or more of specification, design, installation and commissioning flaws. Measurement of actual energy used was wholly inconsistent. Evaluation teams are shaking their heads at the scale of the problem.

It’s Time For Action

With energy prices rising inexorably, the time has come to take the energy performance of buildings seriously.  We need to monitor and measure energy use and carbon emissions to find out what works and what doesn’t and to share this with the property industry and its customers. In short, we should create a Buildings Knowledge Hub.

The Hub would gather, analyse and disseminate good quality buildings’ energy data and develop benchmarks for different building types in order to evaluate performance. It would also coordinate information and education activities and ensure energy efficiency is judged by an agreed standard. The era of box ticking must end.

There is some good news. The government’s Green Construction Board is making some real progress. It has commissioned work aimed at establishing monitoring and measurement protocols and to agree a common language for talking about energy and carbon performance. It has reviewed the need for an existing buildings hub, and is exploring how it can place data of consistent quality at the heart of a knowledge hub for both new and existing buildings.  The Department for Communities and Local Government is funding a project to close the performance gap in new homes.  Establishing its success will also depend on good quality monitoring and measurement.

The government recently launched the Green Deal for refurbishing residential and non-residential buildings. But given the gap between theory and reality on energy performance, this flagship policy is in danger of being discredited.

A Buildings Knowledge Hub should be set up without delay. The mistakes of the last decades must not be repeated. Green buildings must be for real – it’s the only way to tackle those soaring energy bills.