The year’s 2020, and, having left Building for reasons far too shocking to go into here, former assistant editor Thomas Lane talks us through a day in his life as an engineer in a world that’s slowly coming to terms with climate change …
Not another one. “Worsening drought forces millions of east Africans to flee their homes in search of water,” says the headline. It’s really depressing news, after all our efforts to do something about climate change. There’s been a real sense of optimism over the past 10 years as the human race has pulled together to cut carbon emissions. Back in 2010 the Copenhagen summit looked doomed, but that freak flash flood that washed away half the convention centre (concentrating a few minds in the process) must have been an act of divine intervention …
Despite the headlines, it’s freezing today. It’s quite nice in a funny sort of way, as days like this are so rare now, but I can’t help thinking about what it’s doing to the gas bill. Gas and oil production peaked two years ago so prices have shot up, and it’s not helped by the 25% carbon tax either. Mind you, that whole house energy upgrade has redressed the balance, on paper anyway. The bills have been slashed by 75% and the house is a lot warmer, although we don’t see the savings yet as the money is going towards paying for the upgrade. I guess once it’s paid off we will be quids in.
I have to say the job was well organised – which is saying something, considering it was organised by the council. It did the whole street in one go. When it finally gets the CHP plant down the road up and running we will be able to get rid of the boiler, which will give us more storage space.
Speaking of space, I was worried the internal insulation would make all the rooms smaller, but those new vacuum insulation panels are amazing – only as thick as your thumb, but with the same insulation value as 150mm of the conventional stuff. Must make sure we remember not to bang any nails or screws into the walls – it’s glue from now on.
And it’s the bus to work, I’m afraid. Driving isn’t really an option unless you are super rich. It’s not just that the petrol’s expensive – in fact, that’s nothing compared with the road pricing costs in the rush hour. And there’s that eco driving course they make you do when you buy a fossil fuel-powered car – isn’t it obvious that screaming away from the lights is going to gobble up fuel? We’ve got an electric pool car at work for getting to out-of-the-way meetings. It makes the company look good and the £5,000 grant means it didn’t cost any more than a petrol one. But it does mean I need to check out the online map of where charging points are located if I’m going any distance, so I know where to top up the batteries – the charging infrastructure is OK in cities, but not so great out in the sticks.
The worst thing about driving is sticking to the speed limit. It’s so easy to drift above 50mph on empty straight roads. You can get away with it for a bit, but the average speed cameras will catch you out in the end. It’s funny how attitudes change; a few years ago speeding fines were supposedly all about road safety but now it’s all about minimising energy use. The fines are just the same though.
The worst thing about driving is sticking to the 50mph speed limit – It’s so easy to drift above. the average speed cameras will get you in the end
Electric cars might be efficient but recharging isn’t as cheap as it was. Only three of the original nuclear power stations are still working and only two new ones have come on stream. There are far more wind turbines around than 10 years ago, but not the 8,000 that are needed. There’s been so much opposition slowing things down. Even carbon capture and storage (CCS) is proving very difficult and expensive to get right and there is no way you can build a coal-fired power station without CCS – the protesters hate coal even more than nuclear. I guess we are stuck with expensive electricity for now; at least the high price keeps consumption down, so there have only been a few power cuts.
Our office isn’t a bad place to work. It’s only two years old and is zero carbon. The firm wanted to be ahead of the legislation because it’s good experience for clients’ projects now that all buildings on the drawing board have to be zero carbon. Of course, it’s naturally ventilated with lots of natural light. We’ve all got OLED computer screens, which use hardly any power and produce very little heat. Nobody has PCs on their desks any more – because everything is web-based, all you need is a screen with browser software in it and an internet connection. All our computing power is actually in a warehouse in the Docklands, which makes getting to zero carbon much easier. I suppose you could say this is a cheat, although they’ve got much better at reducing energy use in data centres now.
The great thing about web-based working is that it makes collaboration so much easier. It’s taken a long time to go from 2D to 3D design, but everyone uses building information modelling software because the manufacturers won’t tolerate 2D or anything on paper. With web-based working the team can work together on one 3D model, which is more efficient as it means no redrawing of the design by different consultants, and cuts out the risk of mistakes.
You’d think all this virtual stuff would mean we could work from home and not suffer the daily commute, but you can’t beat bouncing ideas off colleagues in the office, and, even if technology has moved on, people haven’t – the bosses still want to see bums on seats.
Now that most buildings are made off site, the manufacturers are the people in control of the detailed design. It does mean many of the people doing the bread and butter design are now working for the manufacturers and only the best act as concept consultants. People don’t talk about sustainability now we’ve got operational energy licked, but that looks likely to change.
I read a news story in Building last week about how the 2022 version of Part L spells the death of concrete. Now buildings are zero carbon, the big focus is on cutting embodied energy of materials and apparently the new Part L is full of that. Building reckons it will be the end of construction as we know it. That means everybody is going to be talking about “sustainability” at dos. It’s going to be just like 2010 all over again …