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8 May 2017

Misleading Efficiency Claims Declared ‘Scandal’ as UK is Beset with Excessive Energy Bills

Back in 2015, German automaker Volkswagen hit headlines when it emerged that the company had been using ‘defeat software’ to rig emissions tests, thereby flooding the market with vehicles pumping out levels of toxins up to 35 times higher than the legal limit, Now, a similar scandal has emerged in the UK, as researchers from the University of Bath have found that thousands of homes, schools and other buildings are using double the amount of energy they should be on paper, as planners are massively overestimating their efficiency. This is not only costing a fortune in energy bills, but is also having a highly detrimental effect on the environment as excessive levels of CO2 are pumped into the atmosphere.

With the UK’s buildings accounting for nearly half of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, primarily as a result of heating, cooking and lighting, the experts responsible for the study are now urging the government to take action. If they fail to do so, they will likely miss their stated targets of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 34% by2020, and 80% by 2050.

Img: Martin Abegglen
The disparity between predicted energy use and the true energy demand of buildings is a widely-known issue, and is referred to as the ‘performance gap’. While architects and engineers typically attribute this gap to faulty construction or unexpected demand due to factors such as homeowners leaving lights on, David Coley, Professor of Low Carbon Design at the University of Bath, asserts that the problem is actually a result of building modelling, which as it stands is “not fit for purpose”.

“It’s a serious scandal,” says Prof. Coley, “It affects all new buildings as well as the refurbishment of older ones.

“When one school in Plymouth was rebuilt, the energy bills for a month ended up costing the same as for an entire year in the old 1950s building.

“The problem is nobody checks that the building is performing as promised. There is very little regulation. They can't be sued. It’s like a surgeon not being bothered about whether their patient lived or died.

“The impact of the inaccuracies of building modelling professionals has severe financial and environmental implications for both the government’s global warming targets as well as building owners who are purchasing homes and other buildings that are sold to be energy efficient but in reality are not.”

The research itself involved a team from the University of Bath’s Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering and Department of Psychology interviewing 108 building modelling professionals about 21 common design aspects related to energy consumption. These questions were based on a real building, a building which had ahead of time been analysed in order to ascertain accurate energy, occupancy and temperature data, which allowed the research team to directly compare the professional’s answers to a real-world situation.

The results will no doubt spark concern for some, as those questioned varied widely in their given answers, and the accuracy of their statements. Many could not agree on which practices actually worked, and to what extent; one quarter of those interviewed reportedly answered no better than a random member of the public pulled off the street.

Given that these professionals are directly responsible for predicting the energy efficiency of any-and-all proposed buildings, as well as make recommendations as to how this could be improved, the apparent lack of knowledge concerning such matters displayed by many of them is a real issue, especially so as unlike other industries, building modellers are not legally required to ensure that the real world performance of a building matches its official certificate.

In order to correct this problem, those in the know are calling on the government to increase relevant training opportunities and certifications, as well as take action to hold building modellers accountable for such inaccuracies.

Co-investigator and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology, Dr Ian Walker, commented on the necessary action, “Given our findings about how the level of relevant education and experience don’t separate the good modellers from the bad, we are calling on the government for educational and policy change to work with industry and universities to increase efforts in improving building physics education.

“Currently, an in-depth qualification for building modelling does not exist, meaning there is little formal training process for those entering the profession. If this aspect can be addressed, part of the ‘performance gap’ could rapidly be reduced.”

John Alker, Director of Policy & Campaigns at the UK Green Building Council, also commented on the results. Focusing on the lack of accountability for such issues among professionals, he said, “There is no doubt that the majority of buildings do not perform as they were designed to do. This is widely known in the construction sector, and it is something that the industry needs to get to grips with.

“The so-called ‘performance gap’ occurs for a variety of complex reasons, and needs action by all those involved in the property life cycle – such as architects, engineers, contractors and facilities managers – not just building modelling professionals.

“Government could support this by mandating Display Energy Certificates for all buildings, which show how a building actually performs in operation.”

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.