Re: 2nd day of Irish Times series: 2 more articles…
The first of these should be of particular interest to archiheads 🙂
How a lot of hot air creates a legacy of cold houses
The growth in new housing is all very well, but builders are not yet bound by EU directives on energy efficiency, writes Frank McDonald, Environment Editor
Over the past decade, successive Government Ministers have trumpeted the output of new housing in Ireland as prodigious, exceeding 80,000 units in 2005 alone.
Every year has racked up a new record and, within a relatively short time, new homes are set to outnumber old in the overall housing stock.
The many tower cranes on the skyline in Dublin and other urban centres are the most visible symbols of the construction boom that is currently driving the Irish economy. New apartment buildings, office blocks, shopping centres and other developments are built at breakneck speed and fill up quickly.
What’s not so evident is that buildings of all categories account for at least 40 per cent of our energy consumption, amounting to €3.5 billion a year. But with the prices of gas, heating oil and electricity all on a steeply upward curve – and set to rise by at least 20 per cent this autumn – everyone is feeling the pinch.
We are already spending more than most of our EU counterparts on energy, despite relatively mild Irish winters.
Sustainable Energy Ireland (SEI) estimates the average household’s annual energy bill for electricity and space heating at around €1,700, with associated carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of 8.5 tonnes a year.
The main reason is that Irish homes are not very energy-efficient. Older houses have always been harder to heat, but even new houses and apartments are major consumers of energy – largely because the Government dithered for so long over changing the building regulations to impose higher insulation standards.
A 1998 Department of the Environment memo acknowledged that the regulations needed to be revised, but warned: “We don’t want to signal this to the outside world just yet because the next leap in building standard insulation will probably involve making it difficult for ‘hollow block’ construction, used widely in Dublin, to survive.”
The new regulations were not introduced until 2002, with an exemption for all planning applications lodged before the end of that year, which meant that nearly 300,000 new homes were built under the old standards; the Government put the narrow interest of one section of the concrete industry ahead of the public interest.
As a direct result, we are left with a “legacy of cold houses for coming generations”, as one Austrian expert put it. Dr Christian Rakos director of the Austrian Wood Pellets Association, who spent a year working with SEI, said all the new homes built here in recent years could have been much better insulated at very little cost.
But the EU is catching up with us. Under its 2002 Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, all buildings put on the market for sale or rent must have a Building Energy Rating (BER) – in effect, an “energy label” – which will show their energy consumption for space and water heating, ventilation and lighting, and associated CO2 emissions.
This was to come into effect for new houses from January 1st, 2007, but it won’t. Under “transitional arrangements” made by Minister for the Environment Dick Roche, construction works for which planning permission was sought on or before June 30th last are exempt, provided they are substantially completed by the end of June 2008.
According to Kevin O’Rourke, head of the built environment section at SEI, the BER will probably be expressed in kilowatt hours per square metre per year.
The rating will also be on “some sort of scale”, though whether this will be as clear as the “A, B, C, D” rating for domestic appliances has yet to be decided, because houses and other buildings are obviously more complex.
There are also two approved methods for measuring energy performance, which could produce two significantly different ratings for the same house. This is seen by Gerry McCaughey, chief executive of timber-frame housebuilders Kingspan Century, as another gratuitous concession to the concrete industry.
The industry is alarmed by the huge growth in timber-frame construction, which grew from less than 1 per cent of new homes in 1990 to 27 per cent last year. TV commercials claim that concrete homes are “better built homes” – even though credible evidence suggests that the energy performance of their rivals is higher.
SEI’s “House of Tomorrow” programme, aided by a subvention of €8,000 per unit, is designed to accelerate change in how we build new housing. Using better insulation, controlled ventilation, double-glazing and more efficient heating systems, O’Rourke says savings of at least 40 per cent on household energy bills have been easily achieved.
But the general standard is still relatively low because nothing has yet been done to strengthen Part L of the Building Regulations (dealing with energy efficiency) since the current version was adopted in 2002. It is not due to be revised until 2008; an option to do this in the context of implementing the EU directive was simply not taken up.
A bigger problem area in terms of energy waste and CO2 emissions is the services sector, particularly air-conditioned office buildings. These consume twice as much energy as naturally ventilated alternatives, such as the pioneering Fingal County Hall. That’s why SEI has funded more than 70 building projects, mainly in the public sector, to show how a good environment can be created without air-conditioning.
Last year, a report by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors concluded that “green buildings” designed to use resources more efficiently are good for business because they can command higher rents, enjoy lower tenant turnover, improve business efficiency and productivity as well as costing less to operate and maintain.
The message is getting through. Last November, the Inchydoney Lodge and Spa in west Cork switched over from gas to an innovative solar and wood pellet heating system. This is expected to cut its energy bill by half and pay for itself within five years; it also means that the resort will no longer be “held to ransom” by rising fossil fuel prices.
Kelly’s Resort Hotel in Rosslare, Co Wexford, has also made the switch, retaining two of its three oil burners merely as back-up to a new heating system using wood pellets. Installed with the aid of an SEI grant, this will cut its €100,000-plus heating bill by up to 60 per cent as well as substantially reducing the hotel’s CO2 emissions.
The highly carbon-intensive cement industry is the second largest industrial source of these emissions, belching out a tonne of CO2 for every tonne of cement it produces. This has been reduced by up to 300,000 tonnes per annum – or 7 per cent – through the manufacture by Ecocem of “green cement” from blast-furnace slag.
But when the Office of Public Works (OPW) recently sought to specify alternative cement for building projects, the Cement Manufacturers Association – with tacit support from the Department of the Environment’s construction division – accused the OPW of rushing to judgment and putting a traditional industry in jeopardy.
At a meeting with Minister of State Tom Parlon, the association – which includes CRH plc, the Se