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Personal Views

Personal View: The Built Environment – A Way Forward

It is a particularly challenging time to teach and research the built environment. Within five years, half the world's population will be urban dwellers spending 90% of their time in buildings. This move into the built environment plus how we plan, design, construction and operate our buildings will have a major affect on the health comfort, safety and productivity of the worlds population. In addition, since conditioning the environment in buildings accounts for almost half of the fossil fuelled energy we use in developed countries, our built stock is key to our security of energy supply and the rate at which global climate change will occur.

New energy regulations (for example the European Buildings Directive) plus rising fuel prices will make it more challenging to maintain an ideal environment within buildings for health, productivity and comfort while minimising the use of fossil fuels to achieve a sustainable global environment. For example, the indoor air quality we maintain in our buildings has a direct health effect. The healthiest environment will be one which disperses internally generated pollutants with “fresh” outside air. However, conditioning this air to a comfortable indoor temperature uses considerable energy and in well insulted buildings can dominate a buildings energy use. What is the correct level and method of ventilation that balances energy efficiency and health? At one level these sorts of problems are purely technical for which we have solutions. For example, we can build a zero energy building to operate under the harshest of climates. One could argue that this is what Space Lab is, floating around the earth in temperatures close to absolute zero but powered by photovoltaics, but this is only focusing on part of the problem. The real challenge is how we build millions of zero energy buildings on earth, with the construction skills of millions of builders, which everybody can afford, and which occupants are prepared to spend their life living in.

In much of Europe the challenge is how we adapt our existing building stock, much of which has considerable cultural value, to a changing climate and more stringent modern comfort requirements. For example, historic buildings constitute 6 per cent of the total building stock of England. Most of these buildings were designed to interact with the external environment and maintain only the most rudimentary levels of environmental control. Demolishing such buildings is not an option for cultural reasons nor does it make sense to utilise more energy to manufacture and construct new buildings. Instead we need to develop techniques of refurbishment which can maintain modern levels of comfort with minimal energy use or damage to the historic characteristics of these building.

Regardless of what we do to the global atmosphere in the future, the climate will carry on changing as a result of the carbon emissions we have generated over the last thirty years. We will need to adapt our buildings to this new climate. For example, the building regulations in the UK have over the last thirty years progressively increased the levels of insulation in new homes. This insulation means that we can use less energy and also maintain warmer temperatures, essential in the UK where we have some 20,000 excess winter deaths per annum which are attributable to vulnerable occupants living at low temperatures in un-insulated properties. However, some of these better insulated properties are not only several degrees warmer in the winter but also several degrees warmer in the summer. In theory there is no reason why an energy efficient dwelling should not be warmer in winter and cooler in summer, but because overheating has not historically been a problem in UK dwellings they have not been designed to prevent summer overheating. As a result of the heat wave that occurred in the summer of 2003, and which is predicted to become a common occurrence in the next fifty years, there were 2,000 additional deaths in the UK. As climate change occurs in the coming decade energy use associated with domestic air conditioning, in countries such as the UK, is predict to increase. Ironically, this may happen most in the first generation of energy efficient dwellings!

All these challenges cross the boundaries of traditional disciplines and professional routes. The next generation of professionals will require an ability to work much more closely with different disciplines and professionals if these challenges are to be met.

Many of the built environment challenges span the socio technical boundary, for example in the UK over the last thirty years we have improved the theoretical energy efficiency of our housing stock by 30%. However, over the same time period domestic energy use has risen by 30% due to an expansion of the housing stock but also increases in internal temperatures. If we are to achieve absolute targets for the reduction of carbon emissions we need to better understand how our buildings and service change occupant behaviour.

Post graduate teaching and research across disciplinary and professional routes can be very rewarding, exciting and fun but also very challenging. The rest of this article discusses some of these challenges.

Developing appropriate teaching methods that span different professional backgrounds is not easy for either students or teachers. Also professional accreditation of such courses by the more conservative bodies has certainly been a problem in the past. Engineers need to understand that their work takes place not only in a world driven by the laws of science but also one where various policy instruments are used to control what can or can not be done. Engineers need to participate in the decision making process when these policies are formulated so that scientific and engineering evidence is appropriately used when formulating policy. This requires developing a new range of skills for the engineer of tomorrow who needs to be able to communicate their point of view as forcefully as politicians, industry and other stake holders.

The importance of both academics and students working with other built environment stakeholders (e.g. manufacturers, designers, planners, policy makers, consultants) can not be over emphasised. Although considered as heresy by some academics, the field of built environment is an applied area that must have an application that will make the built environment better. To fully understand these problems requires working with the construction industry. This can be achieved in a range of different ways from simply inviting practitioners to run seminars on real case studies, providing access to buildings for researchers and students, through to university staff working in industry or industry funding research.

Some of the research challenges that the built environment faces require new research methods, and methodologies need adaptation for cross-disciplinary working. Also, faster research methods are required if climate change is to be tackled in time. For example, I have been involved in a very successful (in academic terms – it generated over 12 International Journal papers) research project that involved a detailed study in 3,000 dwellings in England. These dwellings were monitored both before and after the intervention of a new heating systems, insulation and draught proofing. The methodology took 1 year to pilot test, a further year to obtain funding then 2 years data collection, 2 years data analysis and a further 2 years for the academic papers to be accepted for publication and published. One of the most important findings form the study was that there appeared to be no measurable improvement in energy efficiency nor did the modelled performance of the buildings match reality. A further study is now required to understand why this is the case. This very academic method of undertaking research i.e. not interfering with your experiment till the end, leads to very expensive (it has to be said that the original motivation for the study was not to look at the energy impact but the health impact of the insulation) and very long research projects. In the case of tackling climate change where energy use in buildings is responsible for almost 50% of emission in the UK, this is really not a feasible strategy. Action is required now if we are to prevent significant climate change this century. Alternative research methods must be explored, for example action research, which involves working with industry to overcome problems rather than passively studying the construction industry.

For the last seventeen years I have been involved in teaching a masters programme in Environmental Design and Engineering to mixed classes of Architects and Engineers and undertaking a range of multi-disciplinary built environment research with social scientists, acorologists, physicists, chemists, surveyors and epidemiologists, consultants, government civil servants and industry. It has been an exciting time where I have learnt a lot, made new discoveries and most importantly had tremendous fun. I would strongly encourage others to have a go.

Tadj Oreszczyn,

Professor of Energy and Environment and Head of the Bartlett School,

University College London,

United Kingdom

August 2006