Sustainable Energy! Keep It Simple Stupid

  • Building Design Expert
  • 8 years ago

How lucky are We? We have technology. It enhances our lives immeasurably. Doesn’t it? Well of course it does. Do you remember when you got your first microwave oven? What a revelation that was. The technology was simple, yet it made such an impact on the way we cooked and lived our lives as a result. Then came induction hobs. Old tech. now, but the speed, the cleanliness and the built in safety features were all very useful additions to the domestic kitchen, even if it didn’t really catch on. Then it started to get more complicated: 3-way motorised valves on heating systems, dedicated digital room thermostats. Like all technology these features are wonderful when they work, and not so when they go wrong.

Technology is great when we can choose what to have, and how much of it we want or need. But are we in danger of technology running our lives? Unfortunately there is a large section of society that are shouting yes, but as always it very much depends on your point of view.

The design of our new housing stock is moving relentlessly towards the government directive for ‘zero carbon’ by 2016. That is, according to the definition released by Housing Minister Grant Shapps in May 2011 – “the regulatory threshold for zero carbon should be set to cover only those emissions which are within the scope of the Building Regulations, such as those from heating, ventilation, hot water, fixed lighting and building services”.

For society’s ‘techies’ zero carbon will present few issues, but the average householder may just find one or two problems at the knowledge level required to understand why it’s there and what it does.

It used to be that we would walk into our homes from the cold winter outside, flick the light switch and set about sorting out some warmth. OK, I am going back a while. We have had timers on our heating systems for some years, and a security switch for the table lamp strategically placed in the hall to deter the burglars. But the tech is / was crude and just not good enough, it seems, to meet the zero carbon challenge.

Smart Metering:
The smart meter allows the consumer to automatically deliver energy consumption data to the energy supplier, currently on an hourly basis. This allows the energy supplier to keep a reign on our energy supply, which will ultimately lead to the roll out of hourly pricing / tariffs. So, for example, it may turn out that the cheapest time to turn on the dish washer may be at 11.00am rather than 12.30pm. Currently we turn on the dishwasher when it’s full, and for the most part the time of day is irrelevant. That clearly requires some forward planning, and a minor, if not significant change to lifestyle. Ultimately, and I predict not too long into the future, our zero carbon dwellings will be such that the computerised energy monitoring system will control when we can use our major power consuming appliances. Such that we may turn on the dishwasher at 3.00pm, but the power will not be supplied until 3.45pm when the grid demand has fallen and the energy cost has dropped. Good news for our bank balances, but not so good if you needed your favourite pan cleaned and available for the next meal. – Lifestyle change.

Solar Thermal – Hot water provision:
This technology, in isolation, is great. It just works. Of course everything needs to be in place, particularly roof orientation. For the dwelling that relies entirely upon solar thermal tech; whilst there is no bill to be paid for hot water, the occupants must be so careful how they use their FREE resource. Don’t take a luxurious, relaxing late night bath, empty the storage tank and slap your hand to your forehead in the morning.

PV panels:
Developers are designing whole housing developments to get that south to south-west facing pitched roof at it’s optimal pitch to maximise solar collection. But then if the whole development had been turned a further 30º to the east, the new estate road would be so much more easily routed, and the gardens so much larger.That’s just a matter of compromise – Which?.

Computerised Lighting control:
The installation can provide ever increasing artificial light levels the further you are from the natural light source that is the window. The lights near to the window increase output as darkness descends. But the logic board controlling this function has a fault, so you are left with what looks like a TV studio set against the internal wall, and candle light just where you want to sit down and check the bank statement, and flicking the light switch is not helping.

Solar Gain:
In the optimised  zero carbon home solar gain has been very carefully pushed, pulled and generally manipulated to optimal effect. The net area of exposed glass has been calculated to the finest tolerance to maximise the solar gain that may be required to supplement space heating. Then Mr and Mrs Jones buy those lovely new curtains that go beautifully with the sofa. – Oh, and block out 30% of the glazing – Oooops.

Mechanical Hear Recovery and Ventilation (MHRV):
This blog is full of old maxims – The one applicable here is “Build tight and Ventilate right”. Might be old, but it’s still true.

By building tight we are keeping as much of that heated air inside the building where we want it. By ventilating right we are changing the old air for new and keeping around 90% of heat attributable to it.

It’s a system that works, but only if you keep the filters clean / renewed. It’s that last bit that lets the side down. Renewing filters can be expensive – £40 to £50. That’s if the home occupier remembers. As this is a once, or twice a year at most exercise, it’s all too easy to let slide, or forget about altogether.

A+ Rated Domestic Appliances:
OR even A+++ on dishwashers, washing machines, freezers. – All the accoutrements of modern living. But Mrs Jones washing machine that she had in her last house was only A rated. “It was a good one though and cost a lot of money”. The freezer is six years old and equates to a B rating, “but it’s got a lot of life left in it, and doesn’t need replacing”.

Moving house is expensive enough, without dictating that new occupiers ‘Must’ renew all their appliances. Common sense needs to prevail, and the zero carbon calculation will take a hit for a while until it’s time to replace.

So what’s the answer?
Technological innovation is an undoubted part of our future domestic lives. It has to be. We cannot begin to meet modern regulatory requirements without it. There will must be a degree of ‘Syncronicity’ applied by the home occupier to synchronise living within the parameters that come parcelled up with progressive technology. Designers, however, must not presume they can push it too far, too fast. They must KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid

PS. Wind Turbines – Unless your zero carbon home is in the Cairngorms, the wind just isn’t going to be strong enough. Then again even if it is, it just might be too strong: –

It just got too windy for this 'Wind Turbine'