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Pragmatism the key to green progress

Engineering a sustainable building is easy, says Max Fordham. But poor planning is preventing progress

There's good news and bad news about our ability to heat and cool buildings without burning unhealthy amounts of fossil fuels. The good news – the way Max Fordham describes it, at least – is that the solutions for making buildings more sustainable are mostly common sense: insulation and triple glazing, for example, or big enough, openable windows to provide ventilation in warm weather.

By insulating thoroughly, it's "quite easy to build a house that practically needs no heating", says Fordham, who founded Max Fordham LLP – a buildings-engineering consultancy with a special interest in sustainability – 40 years ago. The London-based company has won numerous awards, including, in 2004, a Queen's Award for Enterprise; last year, Building magazine named Fordham among the 10 people to have most influenced the UK's green-building movement.

The "miscellaneous metabolism" of a house or office – heat from the people in it and electrical devices such as computers, refrigerators and lights – is usually sufficient to keep the place warm, especially in countries with a temperate climate. The heating bills at Caspar, an affordable-housing scheme in Leeds on which Max Fordham collaborated, were "just about zero", he says.

In addition, if the electricity for a building's modern conveniences is generated from renewable sources, the carbon output could, in theory, be virtually eliminated. The UN Environment Programme estimates the building sector accounts for 30-40% of global energy use, so building design has an important role to play in cutting carbon emissions.

Solutions new and old

Some of the solutions are newish. Wind farms to provide green electricity, for example ("on a hill somewhere, not some little appendage on a house where the wind is made turbulent by the house itself"). Mechanical ventilation with heat reclaim: outgoing stale air warms up incoming fresh air, so a building can be ventilated in winter without cooling down. Cladding the walls of old buildings with thick insulating material (applying insulation inside is usually difficult).

But some of the solutions are old: installing enough glass in the right places, at the right angles to light rooms naturally. Despite "our fatuous obsession with glass", that practice isn't always, or even often, followed: Canary Wharf, the UK's tallest building, is encased in glass, but the distance from the skyscraper's exterior to its middle is too great to allow natural light to penetrate to its innermost recesses.

That problem can easily be avoided. The design of London's Somerset House, constructed as a government-office building in the late 18th century – long before electrical lighting became available – allows the interior to be naturally lit, even its extensive basement areas. But the need for natural lighting no longer generally applies. Says Fordham: "Now, we can shortcut the subtlety of building design just by throwing energy into it. The windows are a bit big? We'll add air-conditioning. The walls aren't insulated very well? We'll add heating."

But even on an overcast day, the sun can light buildings effectively. The power of the natural lighting of the roof-lit Indoor Cricket School at Lord's Cricket Ground in north London compares with that of the brightest artificially lit offices.

Similarly, the north-facing roof pitches of the National Trust's (NT) Swindon headquarters – the Heelis building – allow sufficient daylight to enter the building without causing it to overheat (the south-facing pitches, with their greater exposure to direct sunlight, are covered in solar panels). A lighting-control system adjusts the level of artificial light in response to external conditions and movement sensors turn lights off in unoccupied areas. The NT says Heelis will generate just 15 kg of carbon dioxide per square metre per year, compared with 169 kg for a typical air-conditioned office.

If saving on heating is an important conservation measure, so too is saving on cooling. This can also be achieved through the finesse of the building's design, making it unnecessary to blast chilled air around its corridors and rooms. "I've been saying for decades that you only need to air-condition a building in Britain if it's badly enough designed," says Fordham.

Having windows that, when opened, provide enough ventilation or installing shades or shutters over the windows to protect the interior from the sun's glare are obvious solutions. At Heelis, for example, roller blinds internally and brick fins externally prevent excess glare. The fabric of a building can, if thick enough, absorb heat during the day, preventing it from getting into the ventilation air. That heat is then released at night, providing warmth as the external temperature drops.

It is even feasible, says Fordham, to build a cool, non-air-conditioned building in Egypt, where external temperatures reach 45°C. "All you have to do is look at the burial chamber of a pyramid, which has remained at about 20°C for 3,000 years, simply because of the mass of the pyramid."

If many of the solutions are straightforward, the bad news is that their implementation is being undermined by a mish-mash of interests and incoherent planning. Local authorities are too readily prepared to block wind-power projects, he says. Any attempt to cover up the admired brickwork of London's Georgian houses with insulating material would encounter determined and influential opposition. Power stations are too far from population centres to enable waste heat to be used for district heating.

And there is no convincing logic behind the Western view that the acceptable temperature for the interior of an office building is 22°C. "At 22°C, you probably need to wear a suit, whereas people pay a lot of money to go and sit on a beach at 30°C in a bathing suit."

Probably the greatest barrier to progress is cost. "On the one hand there are people saying we can't afford to have green energy if it costs more. On the other hand, there are people saying it's going to be a complete cataclysm unless you do something about it. Those two poles are just miles apart." But, he adds, it is inevitable that energy will become more expensive.

Radical thinking

There must also be a sense of priority and of compromise. The aesthetic value of London's brickwork is, he argues, less important than energy conservation. Perhaps it's time to ditch the suit as the standard office attire and let the optimal office temperature rise by a few degrees. The local planning objections that have slowed down the development of the UK's wind sector cannot prevail, he says. And "radical" thinking should be allowed into building design (albeit with limitations: "it wouldn't be very nice to go to work in a pyramid.")

Fordham's own interest in sustainable buildings was triggered by the 1974 oil crisis, which focused policymakers on energy conservation. Around that time, he recalls, the brief for the Sir Joseph Banks Centre for Economic Botany – in Kew Gardens – required that proposed designs predicted the energy use of the building (the design that was chosen is now one of the country's largest earth-covered complexes – the soil provides insulation, conserving energy by eliminating the need for air-conditioning). So his decision to specialise in sustainable buildings was not, he says "a messianic thing. It was quite pragmatic really." The oil shock of the first half of 2008 is a reminder of that need for pragmatism.

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