The role of the M&E engineer has been changing since Roman times. But in our energy-conscious era, that change is going to happen quicker than ever.

Society at all levels is fast becoming aware of the impact our excessive energy consumption is having on the world and our lives, both from a climate change and a cost-of-living point of view. The salient facts are that:

  • average commercial energy costs have risen 35-40% in the past three years75-80% of Europe’s gas and oil will be imported by 2015
  • 80% of traded oil and 50% of traded gas will come from Russia, the Persian Gulf and west Africa by 2015 – those politically stable regions!
  • oil prices have hit $70 a barrel and are predicted to rise to $100 by the end of 2005
  • 50% of energy usage in Europe is by its buildings.

This last figure in particular reminds us that M&E engineers have had to raise their awareness more quickly than most. In so doing, their identity has changed considerably.

Building services has its roots in those famous Roman underfloor heating designs, and has generally moved forward with the advancement of technology, the tools at their disposal and a better understanding of the issues.

In 1976, the integration of M&E engineers in the building industry was assisted by the formation the Chartered Institution of Building Services. Before that, in the 1960s and 1970s, design team common sense seemed to be thrown to the wind and many buildings were built that were uncomfortable for most of the year. They were steaming hot in summer, with major glare and solar discomfort issues whenever the sun came out, and cold and draughty in winter, leaving us with a “gas guzzling” legacy. Not surprisingly many of these have either been demolished or refurbished after being taken back to the concrete frame. Hardly sustainable!

Over the past three decades the M&E engineer has moved on from just designing the “pipes and wires” that service a building, to advising the design team on building orientation, levels of thermal insulation, building airtightness, glazing performance, daylighting, geothermal heat sources, aquifer water supplies, rainwater reclamation, combined heat and power and tri-generation, the effects of earth-mounding buildings, wind power generation, photovoltaics, biomass as an energy source … the list goes on. Once this has been achieved, the conventional building services role of designing the “pipes and wires” can be undertaken where necessary.

As the needs of the development are established, they should be integrated with other energy users and local energy sources to develop a tailored servicing strategy. This integration produces an energy community that can provide a more balanced development than a conventional approach.

Building services has its roots in those famous Roman underfloor heating designs, and has generally moved forward with the advancement of technology

Building services professionals are clearly changing to become building physicists and energy specialists to accommodate these needs. There is a skills shortage of suitably trained and interested engineers but some firms have already developed this capability. Without forward-thinking investors and developers, however, the profession will continue to struggle to implement these essential reforms in energy usage and generation.

Some may ask, what’s the rush? Well, the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive comes into force on 4 January 2006, with some phasing of specific articles. The revised Building Regulations in England and Wales and Technical Standards in Scotland are enacting the directive in various ways, some of which are still being developed. Current thinking is that Northern Ireland is likely to see what happens and follow a similar line.

This legislation will require a significant change in attitude towards the energy performance of buildings and this will need to be respected by the industry. Since the deregulation of many of the utility services, the marketplace has become much more unforgiving, with conventionally sized infrastructure connections often having a major impact on the cost of a project and potential viability of a development. Intelligent analysis and application of technology, however, reduce the demand on external infrastructure and has significantly benefited development opportunities. Moreover, the rise in energy costs we've witnessed over the past three years will have a marked effect on the appeal of energy-saving measures.

The new energy-conscious era that this will usher in demands a new breed of engineer, but finding an identity for them is difficult (although many names come to mind!). But whatever we’re called, we will have an increasingly important role in the design and development of our buildings and infrastructure of the future. Some will meet the challenge and some will fall by the wayside.

The new engineer has an ever-increasing set of tools to accurately simulate building options, and we’ve used them on many projects to their benefit. But without being involved early enough, being given the time at the appropriate stage or adequate funds and foresight, we’re on a sticky wicket. Our involvement is essential at the inception of a project as our input can have a major effect on its viability and its performance. The lifecycle ratio of construction cost, cost of maintaining and operating, and value of occupants – about 1:10:200 – is sure to change with increasing energy costs. And when it does, the role of the new engineer will be even more critical than it is now.