Sustainable technology 'greening' our toxic buildings

Zero Carbon House facade John Christophers' Zero Carbon House in Birmingham makes about £1,200 a quarter selling electricity back to the grid

It is a sobering thought that buildings - those spaces in which we work, rest, and seek shelter - could also be threatening our very survival.

Technology of Business

Residential and commercial buildings contribute about 25% of global CO2 emissions each year, says the International Panel on Climate Change.

Lighting, heating, and cooling form an unholy trio of activities contributing massively to global warming, with all the extreme weather events and natural resource scarcity this is precipitating.

Our buildings have become toxic for the planet.

Radical retrofit

The problem is that most of them are old, draughty and thermally inefficient. And about 60% of buildings around today will still be here in 2050, locking in that inefficiency for decades to come.

As knocking them all down and starting from scratch isn't an efficient option, retrofitting - adding energy-saving features and management technologies to existing buildings - is the only course.

For example, John Christophers, of Associated Architects, transformed his 170-year-old two-bedroom terraced house in Birmingham into a four-bedroom exemplar of zero carbon living.

"We wanted to use the power of architecture and design to reach people who wouldn't usually have any interest in the green agenda," he told the BBC.

Green generation

By creating an airtight skin around the house, incorporating solar photovoltaic panels, and massively improving the thermal efficiency using triple glazing and the latest insulation materials, Mr Christophers turned a "leaky old house" into one making "about £1,200 a quarter from selling our electricity back to the grid."

A mechanical ventilation heat recovery (MVHR) system transfers heat from the internal air flowing out to the cooler air coming in.

"About 93% of the internal heat is recovered this way," says Mr Christophers.

Hydraulically compressed clay blocks were used as they absorb and radiate heat better than traditional cement blocks, and rammed earth floors on top of 250mm insulation helped with heat retention.

Zero Carbon House Birmingham John Christophers turned a "leaky" two-bed house into a modern, thermally efficient four-bed zero carbon home

While Mr Christophers would not reveal the total cost of the project, he did say it would pay for itself within eight years.

Domestic strife

While such projects show what can be done, the inefficiency of the existing brick-built housing stock remains a major problem.

"Reducing the energy consumption of the average house is probably the biggest challenge," says Dr Craig Jones, of carbon footprinting specialist Circular Ecology.

"Solid walls need extra layers of insulation on the outside and inside and this has implications for the positioning of the windows, not to mention what owners, neighbours and planners will think," he says.

A big study - Retrofit for the Future - funded by the Technology Strategy Board and conducted by the Energy Saving Trust and big data analyst Mastodon C - measured the energy input and output of 120 homes fitted with a range of energy-saving technologies.

The £17m project concluded that households could reduce their energy consumption by up to 80% by making the properties air tight and insulating the walls, roofs, floors, windows and doors, as well as installing more efficient heating and lighting systems and adding MVHR systems.

But adding all these to a standard two-up-two-down brick terraced house can be fiddly and expensive, the report found, while properly integrating the different technologies can also pose problems.

Then there's the money issue.

Incentive schemes, such as the UK government's Green Deal, do encourage homeowners and landlords to insulate and draught-proof their buildings. But take-up has been slow.

"Getting people and the building industry to change their behaviour is very difficult - it needs policymakers and legislators to step in and take a lead," says Mr Jones.

Low carbon living

By contrast, building a zero carbon home from scratch is almost child's play, says Dr Mike Page, the brains behind the Cube Project, a compact low-carbon home.

"I set up this project as a way of demonstrating that, with the correct low carbon technologies and techniques, it was possible to live a net zero carbon life in the UK using existing materials and without necessitating a sacrificial drop in living standards," he told the BBC.

QB2 low carbon home Compact zero carbon living is possible using existing technologies, says Cube Project's Dr Mike Page
QB2 house interior The QB2 house packs a lot of functionality in to a small space

The latest version of the house, QB2, features a wood frame, triple glazing, 140mm thick PIR (polyisocyanurate) board insulation, heat recovery ventilation and an air source heat pump.

"These technologies are not exotic," he points out. "They've been around for a while."

Simple changes, like switching to a low-flow shower head that aerates the water so less of it is needed, can cut the amount of energy needed to heat the water by about a third, Mr Page maintains.

The only relatively hi-tech kit includes a thermally efficient induction hob for cooking, LED lighting and an LED TV.

"The point about this building is that it doesn't have to be small - everything scales up," he says.

Praise for prefab
Sky House East Sussex Amy Burgess's East Sussex zero carbon home was constructed in five days

US entrepreneur and eco-evangelist Amy Burgess saw her zero carbon Sky House go up in just five days.

The timber frame and insulated structural wall panels were prefabricated off-site by German eco-home specialist Baufritz and delivered ready-made to the site in Lewes, East Sussex.

Reducing construction time in this way helps lower the carbon emissions produced by a new build project.

"Building a zero carbon home is my response to today's challenges of climate change and the need for clean energy," she said.

Thanks to renewable energy generation from solar photovoltaic panels, Ms Burgess hopes the carbon emissions from running the home - as well as the carbon used in the making of its materials - will be offset over the 100-year lifespan of the building.

Office politics

Commercial buildings can also benefit greatly from retrofitting, says Bruno Gardner, managing director of Low Carbon Workplace, a joint venture between Carbon Trust, Threadneedle and Stanhope.

While some energy-saving technologies, such as LED lighting, are easy to implement and cost-effective, other systems, such as thermal imaging to measure building occupancy, are more complicated, says Mr Gardner.

But very useful nonetheless.

"How a company believes it uses a building is often not reflected in reality," he says. "Once you know the truth you can see that air conditioning doesn't need to come on so early or that the heating doesn't need to come on so much."

Bosco Verticale towers Boeri Studio's Bosco Verticale tower blocks in Milan offer a new vision of green, low energy urban living

Appliance control systems, cladding, natural cooling systems and other technologies can reduce carbon emissions by 33%, he says.

The next step will be integrating occupancy sensors into the control systems, Mr Gardner adds, so that ventilation adapts throughout the day to how many people are in the building.

So we clearly have the technologies available to green our toxic buildings.

The question is: Do we have the political will and the right commercial incentives to make it happen?

More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Business stories

RSS

Business Live

  1.  
    10:59: Keep interest rates at 0.5%?

    The Bank of England's interest rates should be kept at 0.5% throughout next year. Says who? Says a think-tank called the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). Its argument is that there is no danger of inflation picking up, even if the economy continues to revive, thanks to falling oil prices and the slow growth of salaries and wages.

     
  2.  
    10:44: ABN Amro stock market float

    Dutch bank ABN Amro is expected to float itself on the stock market in the New Year, with a valuation of £12bn according to a report in the Daily Mail. But the Dutch government is expected to only recoup a fraction of the £22bn it injected into the bank to bail it out during the financial crisis, the newspaper adds. ABN Amro was bought by Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) in 2007 in a £55bn deal but has been controlled by the Dutch government since it was part-nationalised the following year.

     
  3.  
    10:27: Glasgow Rangers
    Shareholders arrive at Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow, ahead of the 2014 Rangers AGM

    The Scottish Football Association (SFA) has confirmed that it prevented Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley's Mash Holdings from increasing its stake in Glasgow Rangers to 29.9%. Rangers had already announced that the SFA rejected the attempt on 23 December. The SFA board decided unanimously that the application should not be granted. It adds: "the board...... is required to have due regard to the need to promote and safeguard the interests and public profile of association football, its players, spectators and others involved with the game." Mash Holdings retains its 8.92% stake as a result.

     
  4.  
    10:12: Market update

    The FTSE 100 index is up 14.5 points to 6,624 following the Christmas break, setting the market on course for its eighth straight session of gains. Mining giants BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Anglo American are all up about 2%. Shares in newcomer Indivior fell 3% as some of the euphoria over the drug firm's recent creation, after a demerger from Reckitt Benckiser, started to fade.

     
  5.  
    09:52: Lord King BBC Radio 4

    "We have made the banking system safer that is true," says Lord King. "But I don't think we are yet at the point where we have made it completely safe." He adds that he doesn't think the next crisis will come from the banking sector. But at the same time he doesn't think the problem of the imbalances between different economies in the world. or within economies, has been solved. "The idea that we can go on indefinitely with very low interest rates doesn't make much sense," he says. That doesn't mean he's calling for interest rate rises jut yet though. In fact, Lord King thinks if interest rates were to rise immediately they would cause another downturn.

     
  6.  
    09:40: Lord King BBC Radio 4

    "Financial markets themselves did not think banks were really at risk and it came as an enormous surprise to everyone when people found that markets no longer trusted banks, Lord King adds.

     
  7.  
    09:25: Lord King BBC Radio 4

    Was light-touch regulation to blame for the banking crisis in the UK? Lord King says he doesn't think the reason the banks are still not lending to one another is because of tighter regulation that came in following the financial crisis. Instead, he suggests, it's more about psychology. There is more fear about the credit-worthiness of other banks than there was before the crisis, he argues. That's not something that is easy to change, he adds. The amount by which the banks were leveraged before the crisis was "absurdly high and should have been much, much lower," he admits. But, Lord King says, the Bank of England didn't have regulatory responsibility for that sort of thing.

     
  8.  
    09:11: Lord King BBC Radio 4

    "I worked very hard to make sure there were moments of laughter," Lord King says of the financial crisis and his relationship with his colleagues during the crisis. But he adds, more seriously: "I don't think you can go back and say could any one country on its own has found a way through the crisis."

     
  9.  
    09:04: Network Rail
    Railway workers on the tracks outside King's Cross, London on 27th December 2014

    Louise Ellman, the Labour MP, who chairs the Commons Transport Select, is not happy with Network Rail's engineering over-runs that led to Kings Cross and Paddington stations being closed for longer than expected at the weekend. "If Network Rail decide to close part of the system down at a busy time of year, they have to be absolutely sure it's going to work as planned and it is going to re-open as planned," she tells the Today day programme. But she declines to criticise the Network Rail chief executive for being on holiday while the work was going on.

     
  10.  
    08:48: Ben Bernanke BBC Radio 4
    A red phone

    A bit more from Mr Bernanke. He tells the Today programme that during the crisis, the mornings would start with a conference call with six or eight people sat around a "red phone sitting on a coffee table". There was a "certain emergency feeling to everything that was happening every day," he adds. No mention of batphones though.

     
  11.  
    08:37: Ben Bernanke BBC Radio 4

    Mr Bernanke adds that there were one or two US Fed meetings that were "extremely exciting". He cites the October 2008 meeting which followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the meeting of the G7 nations where he and Lord King "tore up the communique' and really rolled up our sleeves and thought about what we were going to do." He adds: "That was a tremendously important meeting."

     
  12.  
    08:32: Ben Bernanke BBC Radio 4
    Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernank

    Lord King has interviewed Ben Bernanke for the Today programme and they discuss the financial crisis of 2008 in which they both played a pivotal role. In a rare human moment for a central banker, Mr Bernanke tells Lord King that most US Federal Reserve meetings, while they get lots of attention, are "deadly boring". He adds: "They are very scripted and the staff do most of the work and they write the the communique' in advance of the decision making."

     
  13.  
    08:26: City Link BBC Radio 4

    More from Mr Moulton on Today: "In the intervening 18 months it [City Link] would have paid a fortune to the government in PAYE, value added tax and the like. The government will be a net beneficiary of Better Capital's investment in this company he added," he stressed. Mr Moulton added that he had lost £2m of his own money due to the City Link collapse.

     
  14.  
    08:20: City Link BBC Radio 4

    Mr Moulton, speaking to Today, points out that City Link could in fact have been closed down 18 months ago when his firm Better Capital bought it for just £1. He denies that the taxpayer will suffer because the government will now have to pay the workers' redundancy payments. "The taxpayer has certainly made an enormous amount of money out of private equity companies and their trading and success," he says.

     
  15.  
    08:07: City Link BBC Radio 4

    Jon Moulton of Better Capital, the investment firm that owns City Link, defends his firm's ownership of the now closed City Link. "We chased every possible way to save this company," he tells Today. He says the company had simply failed, and that delaying the closure over Christmas had not been an option, as trading while insolvent was a criminal offence. Could the affair have been better handled? "Not particularly, no," he says.

     
  16.  
    07:56: Network Rail boss
    Network Rail boss Robin Gisby

    The Network Rail boss who presided over what is being dubbed the Christmas trains fiasco will not receive a "golden goodbye" bonus of £371,000. Robin Gisby will leave his post as managing director of network operations early next year, a spokeswoman for Network Rail said. Mr Gisby is leaving the company at the end of February. But the decision to withhold his bonus is not linked to the overrunning engineering work at Kings Cross and chaos that ensued at the weekend.

     
  17.  
    07:43: Russian economy

    The Reuters news agency reports that Russia's economic output (as measured by gross domestic product) shrank by 0.5% in the year to November. This is the first time the economy has shrunk since since October 2009 and reflects the effects of international economic sanctions and the falling oil price.

     
  18.  
    07:29: Eurozone crisis BBC Radio 4

    Marie Diron, the senior vice president at rating agency Moody's tells Today that the probability that Greece will leave the euro is pretty small compared to 2011. She says the euro itself has remained pretty resilient to crisis events citing the failure of a Portuguese bank last year as one example. "Saying the height of the crisis is behind us does not mean that everything will be smooth from now on," she says. Eurozone growth will be weak this year and deflation, or very low inflation, remains a big risk this year too.

     
  19.  
    07:15: City Link
    A Citylink worker and van

    Better Capital explains that it had tried to sell the business but failed, and pulled the plug on the loss-making firm because keeping it going would have meant throwing good money after bad. "In light of continued substantial losses, City Link could not continue as a going concern, which resulted in the appointment of Ernst & Young as administrators on 24 December 2014," it says.

     
  20.  
    City Link 07:08: Breaking News

    Better Capital has been explaining itself in a statement just issued to stock market investors. It says: "Unfortunately the appointment of an administrator was leaked to the media ahead of the intended announcement. The directors very much regret the impact on the employees of City Link receiving such bad news on Christmas Day." So it seems the Christmas day announcement was not intended.

     
  21.  
    06:57: City Link
    Jon Moulton

    Jon Moulton, the man whose private investment firm Better Capital owned - and is now shutting - City Link, is going to explain himself. He's fronting up on the Today programme on Radio 4 at 07:50 to explain why he decided to close the courier business. He's been quoted in the FT as saying he explored "every possible way" to keep the firm going, and that he lost several million pounds of his own money.

     
  22.  
    06:50: Lord King BBC Radio 4
    Mervyn King, former governor of the Bank of England

    Lord King is on the Today programme. He's talking about the financial crisis and how he and US Federal Reserve president Ben Bernanke responded to it. He says the biggest problem both men had was explaining to people that they were taking measures that were "quite exceptional to try to prevent something terrible happening." He also suggests quantitative easing - buying government bonds - was not an unusual policy measure but that it hadn't been used for a very long time. Bank of England governors had spent the post war period trying to prevent money growing too quickly in the economy, "now we were trying to stop it falling and trying to inject money into the economy," he says

     
  23.  
    06:40: The Interview

    Sony appear to be trumpeting the fact that The Interview (hated by North Koreans) has become the most downloaded new film yet produced by the company. The controversial comedy was downloaded two million times between the 24th and 27th December, taking nearly £10m. Is that a lot to shout about?

     
  24.  
    06:27: Greece Radio 5 live
    Members of the Greek cabinet with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras

    The Greek parliament is to make a third and final attempt to elect a new president. On Wake Up to Money, Constantine Michalos, chairman of the Athens Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said he expected the vote to fail, automatically triggering a swift general election. "It looks increasingly unlikely, if not impossible, that the government will succeed in getting a positive Parliamentary presidential vote," he said. "The choice that the Greek people will be called upon to make in a few weeks time is the possibility of an instant death, because we've heard the main opposition, and the economic policy they will follow, which is totally opposite to the one the eurozone has been dictating over the last four and a half years."

     
  25.  
    06:13: Eurostar ban?

    The Daily Mail has a report today that Eurostar has banned a passenger for life after "kicking him off a train" for complaining about the strength of his cup of tea. Daniel Confino, a financial expert who the newspaper says was instrumental in saving the foundering Eurotunnel project in the 1990s, now intends to have the ban ruled illegal at the High Court. He ordered two teas at £2.20 each - and asked for an extra bag so he could have a strong cuppa. But when he was charged £2.20 just for the third tea bag, he complained.

     
  26.  
    06:03: Lord King BBC Radio 4

    Lord Mervyn King, the former governor of the Bank of England has a new job - for just one day. He is the guest editor of the Today programme on Radio 4. And his big interviewee is Ben Bernanke, who was his counterpart as head of the US Federal Reserve during the great banking crisis a few years ago. Will they admit to any failings? Find out just after 08:00.

     
  27.  
    06:02: Good morning Ian Pollock Business reporter, BBC News

    Welcome back to the digital coal face. We hope you have enjoyed your Christmas holiday so far. If you would like to get in touch with us you can do so via email at bizlivepage@bbc.co.uk or on twitter @bbcbusiness.

     
  28.  
    06:01: Mathew West Business Reporter

    Morning folks. Former Bank of England governor Lord King is guest editing the Today programme. Greece holds a crucial presidential vote, which could have implications for its International Monetary Fund (IMF)/European Union (EU) bailout. And the search continues for the missing Air Asia flight QZ8501. So plenty to digest this morning. Stay with us.

     

Features

  • Three santa hatsChristmas again

    The town where it's celebrated three times a year


  • Anastasia Romanovna KrandievskayaShips in the night

    The Russian beauty who rebuffed a British writer as chaos loomed


  • The house where Hitler was bornHouse of Hitler

    Vacant birthplace of Nazi leader gives Austria a headache


  • Uber app and Taxi rankUber wars

    Battles over cheap taxis and other big ideas from 2014


From BBC Capital

Programmes

  • Stephen Sackur with Status Quo's Francis RossiHARDtalk Watch

    Watch extracts of some of Stephen Sackur's best interviews from 2014

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.