The Embodiment of time and Energy

  • Building Design Expert
  • 4 years ago


Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it merely changes form. When a boiler burns some gas, the energy stored in the gas is converted into heat. The heat may be channeled to alter the temperature of a body of water, which distributes that heat via a series of pipes to various areas of the building. All the time the heat is being diluted via processes of conduction, radiation and convection. It may cause other water to evaporate, such that the heat energy resides in the microscopic water droplets. The energy is massively diluted, yes, but never destroyed.

The construction industry has acquired a most recent, but massive, hangup centred on the word “sustainability”. The Brundtland Report of 1987 helped to identify one of many definitions of sustainable development – as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It has subsequently become espoused, expanded and unnervingly corrupted to meet the ever increasing tariff that ‘sustainability’ has evoked over the recent years, and now fuels this unstoppable train that the construction world and their wives and dogs are clamouring to catch a ride on.

As proponents of design within our built environment Architects and Architectural Technologists must, consequentially, demonstrate wherever they can that their designs for new and altered buildings promote a view of the world that supports ‘Brundtland Sustainability’. But, however passionate we are in this pursuit, it is not practical to implement such ideals in full in everything we do. It is therefore essential that we recognise these boundaries when we come across them.

In a recent BuildingDesignExpert podcast Mark Standen, a Passivhaus expert from the BRE, promoted the idea of at least utilising the principles of Passivhaus in our building designs, if indeed it was not possible to build a passivhaus per se. I have always deemed that good advice, and exists as a principle that can be applied in many facets of our industry.

So then what is sustainable building design? In adopting the ‘Brundtland outlook’, it is one that does not significantly affect the ability of our children’s, children’s children to use the resources that We have found and developed, to meet their own needs; whatever those needs may be. And that will be an uphill struggle. We must act to serve the present planet incumbents whilst acting as its guardians for future generations who, in truth, we cannot begin to conceive the manner in which they will want to live. The constants that we have evidence of requirement are simple human needs that provide adequate food and water, coupled with the maintenance of mental and physical well being. The physical provision of the former may become subject to the evolution of technology, but achieving the latter becomes a subjective minefield.

The 3 ‘Es’

Exposing Embodied Energy will be an inevitable development for building designers and specifiers, who are currently largely oblivious to the focus required to limit the input of latent energy into their projects, above cost, programme and legislation. All of which are important factors, but the more difficult will always get pushed to the back of that queue.

In reality EE is a simple concept; why procure timber from the other side of the world, when a similar material can be obtained from the forrest in the next county. The huge cost in energy required to move materials across the world must be factored into any calculation of the ultimate embodiment of energy into the associated building project. Our biggest problem is often the actual monetary cost of such materials may be less to move them in bulk around the world, than to procure them locally, where production costs maybe much higher. Does the answer lie in factual analysis, accounting or conscience? The factual analysis may often lead to a hybrid of conscientious accounting. Okay, contrived I know, but we can either ignore the issue entirely, or accept the reality of compromise which recourse is often found in the principles associated with ‘off-setting’.

Off-setting first reared its public head when it became fashionable to plant ten trees as a result of purchasing a plane ticket. A simple concept that didn’t really see the light of day. In construction terms, technology allows a somewhat more measured approach, where renewable technology can provide a known result that can be ‘Off-set’ against an excess of embodied energy. Such calculations are reliant upon the will of the building designer, and currently to a large extent, some educated guesswork built into that will.

To increase the will, we must remove the guesswork. Sustainable design is here to stay, but it needs to become more tangible. Manufacturers spurious claims that their products are sustainable, has got to under-go some universally recognised verification. As buildings, and indeed the energy consuming appliances that we install within them, are subject to an energy rating system; manufacturers should be made, encouraged, cajoled or shamed into identifying the embodied energy built into their products on entering the country of use, or leaving the UK factory gate. This will at least account for the constituent materials, manufacturing processes and transport energy embodiment contained within the specification document. Build that into NBS and apply it to BREEAM and give the built environment a reality check.