Building the future
As well as being green, energy-efficient buildings are much cheaper in the long run. So why doesn’t the government insist that PFI projects are environmentally friendly? Matt Weaver reports
The new Jubilee library in Brighton is widely seen as an exceptional building. It has just been shortlisted for the Stirling prize for architecture. But it is winning plaudits not only for its looks, but also for its energy efficiency – two features that don’t usually go together.
However, what make the new library most remarkable is that it was constructed using the Public Finance Initiative (PFI) – a procurement method usually associated with cheap and nasty-looking new buildings with woeful environmental records, often placed on greenfield sites.
‘It is a shining example of what 99% of PFI-funded buildings are not doing,’ says George Ferguson, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
The library is designed to use as much natural energy as possible. It soaks up excess heat during the day and radiates it back during the night. Three wind towers on the roof draw out excess heat during hot spells. The building also reuses grey water – rainwater together with waste water from sinks and handbasins.
As well as being very environmentally friendly, these features also make the building much cheaper to run. It is for this reason that Mr Ferguson can’t understand why more PFI buildings are not green.
‘The PFI is all about 25-year costings, so there should be a high level of energy efficiency, but there is not,’ he said.
The Jubilee library, part of the regeneration scheme in central Brighton, was more generously financed than most PFI projects. The proceeds from other elements of the development were used to pay for the extra costs of building a state of the art library.
Mr Ferguson argues that it is worth spending a little more up front to get a building that is good looking as well as energy efficient and long lasting.
The environmental record of most PFI-funded schools and hospitals is so poor that the Commons Environmental Audit Committee is planning to launch an inquiry into the subject.
Its chairman, Peter Ainsworth, asked: ‘What sort of environmental considerations are built into PFI contracts for new schools or hospitals? Our impression is that it’s very patchy.’
He argues that, whatever the procurement method, publicly-funded buildings should be setting an example for the private sector to follow.
The government’s own sustainable buildings task group agrees. In May 2004, it said all public buildings should be constructed using a sustainability code to help cut greenhouse gases. It pointed out that the built environment currently accounts for half the carbon dioxide emissions in the UK.
The government welcomed the report, but progress on an environmental code for new buildings has been slow to materialise.
A draft code is expected to be published at the end of September, but campaigners fear that it will be weak – and weakened further, once the construction industry has had its say.
Bill Dunster, the architect of the ultra-green Bed Zed housing development in Sutton, Surrey, said that the new codes provide a ‘tremendous opportunity to significantly move the goal posts’.
But he added: ‘It probably won’t, and in any case it hasn’t emerged yet.’
Paul King, director of the World Wildlife Fund’s One Million Sustainable Homes campaign, is more hopeful.
Mr King, who is on a steering committee overseeing the proposed new code, revealed that the government is likely to propose varying standards for sustainable building.
He is hoping to persuade ministers to insist that the top rating should be reserved for buildings that emit no carbon dioxide.
This ambitious target would involve buildings that use features like mini-wind turbines and solar-powered water. But they would also need to be placed in locations close to amenities and public transport so that the buildings’ inhabitants can avoid using cars.
‘The consequences of getting this wrong are pretty massive. We are currently looking at the biggest house-building programme since the early 1960s. We are not going to get a second chance at it,’ Mr King said.
Mr Dunster is also calling on developers to adopt what he calls a zed standard – buildings that involve cutting the consumption of heat and power to a point where you can afford to meet it from renewal sources.
He said: ‘The government has got to stop thinking about centrally providing power and start thinking about every home as a mini power station. It should be persuading ordinary members of the public to put up solar panels and micro wind turbines on their roofs.’
He conceded that some central power is necessary to meet peak-time energy demand, but argued that this can be met from renewable sources like wind and wave power.
The rest can be supplied on individual homes. ‘On a typical three-bedroom house, you can meet 60% of domestic hot water using solar thermal technology. Half of a household’s electric demand can be provided through photovoltics, and micro wind-turbines can do the other half.’
He added: ‘People just don’t understand what’s going to happen if they fail to adopt these technologies. Do they want a nuclear power station up the road, or a few wind turbines on people’s roofs?’