Whose behaviour needs to change?

Posted March 25th, 2010 by Christopher Tweed

There’s a lot of talk about the importance of ‘behaviour change’ in reducing carbon dioxide emissions in buildings. Whose behaviour needs to change?

It always seems to be theirs rather than ours, yours or mine.


Dishing the dirt

Posted March 23rd, 2010 by Christopher Tweed

Several posts here have emphasised the importance of focusing on the difficulties of delivering sustainable design in practice. It is easy to get carried away with the enthusiasm in pushing technological boundaries (particularly the promises of the renewables industry) forgetting that these solutions have to work in the messy world of actual buildings with corners that are rarely square and openings some distance from metalworking tolerances. For sure, we need to hang on to the enthusiasm as well as courageous and radical thinking, but ultimately it has to work to make a difference.

A new blog, Building Energy Exposed (hat tip to Mel Starrs for tweeting the link), reminds us how difficult that can be, documenting the problems a building services engineer can face in trying to advance the low energy/carbon agenda. These horror stories shouldn’t deflect us from pursuing realistic goals for reducing energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. Instead they are pointers to the issues we need to consider in developing strategies.

In Purity and Danger, the anthropologist, Mary Douglas, wrote about the phenomenon of ‘dirt’ which she defined as ‘matter out of place’. I recently examined a PhD thesis which applied the concept of dirt to the operations of the construction industry, even for the simplest jobs, such as a loft conversion. I am grateful to the student for showing me the potential of this idea in everyday, mundane building practices. I hope he develops this idea further, because it is important for us to acknowledge there is dirt in every system and how we deal with it often decides the success of our projects. If anyone tries to tell you they have eradicated dirt from their product, system, or technology, they are either trying to fool you or themselves.

What skills do we need for sustainable design?

Posted March 20th, 2010 by Christopher Tweed

Mel Starrs has an interesting post about the need for a broad set of skills to tackle issues of sustainability. I agree.

There is a conversation to be had about exactly what kinds of skills we need and the role of the professions in moving to a sustainable future. If we didn’t already have the professions that exist now would we create them as the best response? If you ask an architect to solve a problem, is the answer always a building? If you ask a services engineer, will the answer always be a new piece of kit?

User Centred Design for Energy Efficient Buildings

Posted March 15th, 2010 by Christopher Tweed

It’ll be quiet around here this week as I am attending a week-long meeting about user-centred design for energy efficiency. Exciting stuff and I am keen to learn more. Unfortunately I am sworn to secrecy about what gets discussed so there will be no blogging about it here.

Exergy and thermal experience

Posted March 9th, 2010 by Christopher Tweed

I have avoided using or engaging with the term “exergy” mainly because I’ve never quite understood it. Until now. I came across this post by John Michael Greer and it has helped me make connections between a few key ideas I have been thinking about recently.

Many discussions about renewable energy sources seek to demonstrate they are capable of replacing existing fossil fuel energy sources because they yield the same amount of energy over similar periods of time. In the extreme case it is argued that the amount of solar energy falling on the earth is numerically much greater than we currently need. This may well be so, but the crucial point is not the quantity of energy but the availability of that energy to “do work.” It is this variability in the quality of energy sources that undermines what is sometimes referred to as “the swap” in which current energy sources are simply replaced by renewables to support “business as usual.”

In the context of heated buildings, the ability of a source of energy to “do work” can be interpreted as delivering warmth to occupants. But as the post on exergy suggests, the concentration of heat is important and concentrated sources of warmth indoors are only available from fossil fuels. The erroneous assumption often made about warmth is that it doesn’t matter how it is delivered as long as it is capable of creating a comfortable environment. However, we know thermal comfort depends on the recent experience. If I return home on a cold day, what I want is not a uniform level of heating, which is increasingly the norm in new, highly insulated dwellings with small heating systems, but a high temperature heat source that will help me recover from the outside conditions quickly. There is an aesthetic pleasure to this which should not be underestimated.

My hunch is that if we examine thermally related behaviour in buildings we will find much of it is driven by the pursuit of thermal experience that often lies outside the conventional understanding of thermal comfort. It is important to take this on board when we consider the delivery of heat and warmth in dwellings because if we don’t, it is highly likely that the occupants will take steps to restore enjoyable thermal experience, regardless of the consequences for energy consumption or carbon dioxide emissions.