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Energy saving advice or hot air?

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: December 17, 2013

Improved insulation is a cheap, simple and effective means of saving energy

Improved insulation is a cheap, simple and effective means of saving energy

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As energy costs soar and the cold begins to bite, John Rich partner and co-founder of Bath-based Stubbs Rich architects, explains how taking a few sensible steps can reduce your home and office's energy bills to create a more sustainable future for us all

Like many homeowners, I've just been told by my energy supplier that the price of electricity will increase by nine per cent and gas by a staggering 12 per cent.

Putting to one side for a moment the strong feeling that the big six energy companies must be making far too much profit, this is such a big increase, it must make everyone sit up and think about how to cut energy consumption. It certainly has for me.

As an architect, for decades I have been trying to encourage clients to pay a little extra for a low-energy building – because it is good for the environment. While energy prices have been so low, and energy has been such a small part of the running cost of a building, the return on investment on energy-saving measures has been too low to be worthwhile.

Those who have opted for a low-energy building have tended to be clients who have strong environmental, rather than financial drivers. Perhaps the tipping point is being reached.

In some ways it already has. Conspicuous energy consumption like we see in the Middle East, where petrol costs as little as 25p a litre, now seems morally wrong in a way it would not have done a decade ago. In much of the world, there is a growing acceptance that the use of fossil fuels comes with such a high environmental cost that demand should be curbed.

Some major brands are already carefully considering their impact on the environment. Marks & Spencer launched its Plan A campaign because, as the retailer says, "there is no Plan B when it comes to the environment". M&S is working with customers, employees and suppliers to reduce waste, use sustainable raw materials, trade ethically, combat climate change and help customers lead healthier lifestyles.

Let's be clear, M&S must think they are on-message, or at least on-trend, with the British public's sentiments regarding the environment, as well as believing that taking this stance is the right thing to do.

So, what action can we take to do our bit for the environment? A plethora of specialist companies offer a range of environmental goodies that they claim will cut energy bills. The Government has also weighed into the arena with feed-in tariffs that are tilting the market.

As you might imagine, research has found that many of these technologies do not deliver the promised savings. Studies have revealed that "green bling" is often too expensive for any cost saving to be achieved, and, more importantly, the users – you and I – find these features to be too complicated to achieve the claimed efficiency.

We can see the evidence for overstated claims whenever we drive: can anyone achieve the advertised mpg in their fuel-efficient car? Coasting down the A46 is about the only time I can manage it.

Buildings too can fail to live up to their eco-billing, as the education sector is demonstrating. Many of the schools constructed under the previous government's Building Schools for the Future programme are proving to be less energy efficient than their Victorian-built predecessors. How can that be? Perhaps, rather like my car, they are just too clever to be understood and used properly.

New low-energy buildings often achieve their performance by enhanced insulation, which is good. They also reduce draughts, or air-leakage, which is not so good. We need some fresh air. To avoid building users opening windows, and letting out heat, a computer is therefore used to control the ventilation, air conditioning and heating. An engineer is employed to operate the computer. To save some energy, we have added to the capital cost and running cost of the building. Not much of a saving.

McKinsey, an influential management consultancy, has looked into the question of which energy saving measures make most sense. The consultancy evaluated emission-reduction opportunities and their associated costs and investment requirements. The simple conclusion of the research was that it is more sensible to reduce consumption than to produce more energy through micro-generation such as small wind turbines.

With this clarity of thought, what does McKinsey go on to recommend? Improved insulation and LED lighting, among others. Both are cheap, simple and effective.

When it comes to designing low-energy buildings, we are at the dawn of time. For millennia it has just not been necessary. Today it is.

In 25 years, we will almost certainly look back on the early 21st century with bemusement at our faltering attempts to cut the energy consumption of buildings.

In the meantime, keep adding the insulation; switch to LED lamps; and turn stuff off. All of which are cheap, will have a good return on investment, cut our energy bills and be good for environment and, with hindsight, quite sensible. Thanks to McKinsey for pointing them out.

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