What Edison can teach us about sustainable buildings
Acknowledging when things ‘don’t work’, as Edison puts it, can help us to create more sustainable buildings.
Testing a product before it goes to market and assessing how it works in practice isn’t new. Today, products are tested to ensure they’re safe etc… and then tested in use to check they live up to their claims. This hasn’t been a common approach in the construction industry though.
Buildings are complex ‘products’ and they can have a big impact on costs, the environment and health and wellbeing. As there are usually lots of different decision makers involved in their ‘production’ and performance can be massively influenced by end users, it’s difficult to predict how buildings will perform in reality. This makes it all the more important to assess performance in use and feedback findings to design, construction and customer teams.
Building performance evaluation (BPE) is the study of how a building performs (in terms of energy, comfort etc…) and why it performs that way – was it due to the design? the way it was constructed or commissioned? Are the users able to manage it efficiently? The aim is to collect detailed performance data and stories from users, into a useable format. The whole project team needs to be involved and the process needs to be transparent... we shouldn’t be afraid to find things that haven’t quite worked. In fact, learning that we could have provided users with a bit more training or that certain systems could have been commissioned differently or that occupants aren’t comfortable in certain spaces means we can help get buildings working more effectively and make improvements for the next project.
For the last two years, BAM has been working with the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), as part of their Building Performance Evaluation program. We’re working on 2, of around 100 projects, that are being carried out in the hope that learning can be fed back to projects, the wider industry and policy makers.
Early findings have been quite staggering… on average TSB projects have identified a ‘performance gap’ of around 250%... that means buildings using twice as much energy as originally targeted (across domestic and non-domestic buildings). Reasons for this vary, these are largely due to the briefing and design stages not being as well informed as they could be. For this we need feedback and BPE, or a version of it, needs to be integrated into the whole process (from design through to extended aftercare). Working with the TSB has helped to set standards for the way we assess a buildings performance and the learning is being fed back to the business and wider industry and is already making a difference on new projects.
One thing we can all do is start to report how buildings are performing. Carbon Buzz is an open platform that aims to help close the gap between calculations and actual performance. You can submit data anonymously and use tools to track, review and compare energy records and contributing factors over time. As the data base of projects grows, the tools will become even more useful.
Like Thomas Eddison, we think finding things that don’t work can be a positive thing… as long as you do something to fix them the next time around. This is essential if we want to reduce the impact that buildings have, meet our challenging carbon targets and deliver great buildings that people love being in.
Jesse Putzel is a Senior Sustainability Manager at BAM.
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