Pointless Part L

A question following a lecture I gave at the Building Centre the other morning asked why it is that Part L of the Building Regulations is still failing to deliver substantial improvements in building performance. The answer is so obvious that I thought I’d better share it more widely.

“Commercial competition drives quality standards down”.

In the case of building regulation, a previous government thought that it would be a good idea to open Building Control up to competition from the private sector in the form of Approved Inspectors. Once you remove the protected status of Building Control then the whole field of regulation actually becomes one of competition for work.

Now consider, if a Building Control Officer or an Approved Inspector needs to be concerned about where future work will come from, their priority is to ensure that their clients are happy with their service. Happy clients will return or recommend the service to others. This is a basic requisite of business, but it is entirely contrary to the need for a regulator to enforce unpopular regulations. The basic incentive of continuing employment means that the regulator is unlikely to insist on strict compliance but will work to find loopholes for the client to exploit.

Enforcing regulations will inevitably create conflict. That is why the jobs of the enforcers need to be protected against unhappy clients and developers who have fallen foul of the regulations.

Don’t Mourn Windsave

Windsave, manufacturer of domestic wind turbine distributed through B&Q. went bust recently. Their Chief Exec blamed delays in implementing Government Policy, but I wonder…..

In their original marketing Windsave suggested their turbines would generate 1000kWh and provide “up to 30% of the electricity your household needs, based on average wind speeds and suitable locations”. For a £1,500 price tag this looked to a lot of people like a good deal, and many, including some reputable businesses were persuaded to part with cash.

Unfortunately the reality fell far short of the promises. A survey last year by the Energy Savings Trust found no instance of a micro wind turbine in an urban or suburban location which generated more than 200kWh per year. In some cases the control electronics consumed more mains electricity in the course of a year than was generated from the wind.

The failing was not Windsave’s alone; any rooftop turbine in an urban situation is in the boundary layer where airflow is turbulent and most of the energy has been dissipated through friction. It is simply not possible to generate any sensible amount of wind energy under these conditions.

Nevertheless Windsave seriously overstated the performance of their product. The public backlash started early, with numerous blogs by eco-enthusiasts describing woeful generation from their machines. Windsave were forced into serial retractions of their claims for performance and finally removed all performance information from their website.

If we mislead the public by overstating issues, when they discover the truth they will never afford us credibility again. It is crucial that we avoid doing this when it comes to debating renewables in the context of national energy policy.

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

A design review this afternoon brought home just how critical the low carbon knowledge gap really is. Two architects presented schemes for projects with high sustainability ambitions. Both were labouring under misapprehensions about daylight and natural ventilation because both had been advised by their engineers that everything would be fine. Unfortunately neither architect had sufficient knowledge to challenge their engineers’ assertions.

It transpired that the ventilation would be fine because the engineers, in both cases, were planning to add fans, so the systems would work when natural ventilation failed. A quick examination of the buildings in question revealed these fans would have to be relied on for ventilation about 95% of the time – hardly natural ventilation.

The daylight issues were also similar; deep plan buildings with fully glazed facades in compensation to let enough light in! Once again, an engineer had calculated the average daylight factor and assured the architect that everything would be OK. I estimated that the light would vary by about 60:1. With such high contrast the interiors will appear deeply gloomy against the over-lit perimeters and result in excessive use of electric light.

Neither building was engineered to achieve the architectural ambition. Both displayed classic mistakes which we teach architectural students to avoid. However, a practicing architect has to deal with many conflicting issues and must be able to rely on their engineer. Yet, engineers are taught to design with fans and electric lights, not to manipulate the building form to promote natural airflow and light.

How many buildings fail by falling between architects and engineers who lack a common language? We must not only join up architectural and engineering education, but we must do it urgently.