Being trained as a Display Energy Certificate assessor isn't all fun and games, as our Building reporter was to discover
It's all very well writing about energy performance requirements, the industry moaning, the government dithering, the building services firms counting their money. But what do these assessor people actually do? And how do they learn it? Armed with little more than an English degree and some chutzpah, I head to Stroma's HQ in Wakefield, to find out. But last-minute nerves cause a bout of insomnia that sets me off on the wrong foot ...
Date: 7 July 2008 - Location: London
06.13 – After somewhat sleepless night, not nodding off till one, I come to with a jolt. I’ve missed my 5.30 alarm. I shower erratically.
06.55 – At King’s Cross, pay triple digit fare for a return to Wakefield. I am now awake.
08.30 – On train, finally read welcome letter from Stroma. I haven’t loaded the DEC software on to my computer. Luckily, however, I did have got my computer, but for other things. Almost by accident, I have completed the bare minimum of preparation, but done no homework. Nothing has changed here since age 13.
09.30 – Arrive Eagle Point business park, unit 4. Met by course leader, Stuart Thompson, dragging cheerfully on a Richmond. “Straight to the back, up the stairs,” he says.
09.31 – Ascend staircase into class room facing about 25 less-than-eager-looking DEC candidates engaged in not much hubbub. Strangely, there is a large empty warehouse space complete with minstrel’s gallery and automatic doors visible through a window right next to us.
Class ages range from about 10 in the 20 to 30 range, with a bulge at the 40-50. There are three women.
09.37 – Stuart sits down and looks around for a bit.
09.40 – Kevin from Essex, who has been up since 4am, asks if there’s a tea or a coffee. “Downstairs,” says Stuart. I join him and we commiserate about our near brush with dawn.
09.50 – Stuart kicks into action, hurtling headlong into a well-ordered PowerPoint addressing every facet of the DEC legislation as writ in the DCLG EPBD bible. This will last until lunch time. A mercurial smile plays around his lips.
10.15 – We are led through the A-Z of all that is known about the DEC process – the size of buildings that need one (more than 1,000 sq m) and which don’t, what constitutes a ‘large number of persons’ as in ‘public buildings frequently visited by.’ The government’s definition is ‘any number of persons above one,’ apparently.
Public buildings are those that receive any government funding at all (so leisure centres are in, contrary to some reports). A building is has a roof and walls and we learn the definition of those altered to be used separately (considered the same office whether on contiguous floors or not) and we find out that buildings that are ‘linked’ have to be done so by another ‘building’ with a roof – a covered walkway doesn’t count, so two buildings of 999 sq m linked by an open walkway won’t need DECs.
Throughout the process of the PowerPoint rendition, lawyerly queries are fielded from the floor. Most of the group seems to know the legislation. There is a note of world weariness in the air.
Stuart knows his onions and seems informed of DCLG’s latest manoeuvrings (delays, apparently) regarding certificates implementation:
“What about social housing?” That’s probably domestic, Stuart thinks.
“Buildings constructed under a PFI framework?” They’re certainly publicly-funded.
“How about a Post Office?” Stuart’s not sure. He will get back to the questioner.
‘Seek independent legal advice’ is a common refrain (Building magazine) in the legislation. “This is going to be hard to get,” Stuart predicts.
Take a break
11.00 – It’s coffee time. I corner a young lady sitting at the back. She’s Emma, a 23-year-old from Richmond, Yorkshire, who was doing fine as a building surveyor, having qualified in estates management, until she was laid off in the property turmoil. Her parents, developers, are helping her to pay for this study as well as the level 3 and 4 EPCs.
She’s desperately asking government-funded organisations for benchmark costs for carrying out DECs so she can undercut them, but has discovered none as yet.
Someone says that 400,000 buildings will need DECS October 1st. Unlike EPCs these are not transactionally triggered documents; they have to be available for viewing by that date, no mean feat with 14 inspectors at last count.
11.20 – The questions begin to outnumber the (power) points made by Stuart. He answers them all in the same faintly amused, laid back way. We are heading towards conversation. I begin to relax. Yet the mood remains somewhat sullen.
11.25 – We are told that it is good practice to visit properties so that informed Advice Reports can be produced. The lady in a purple cardigan sitting next to me erupts. She says she might have 4,000 to do so she can’t see how any self-respecting assessor would hold out against those offering a quick service based on receiving bills and plans and crunching the numbers. says it’s the assessor’s name on a legal document.
Advisory Reports are meant to advise on things like installation of sub-meters for separate organisations within the same building. But who’s going to guard the guards? Anecdotal evidence alleges that Trading Standards, who are meant to be in charge, want nothing much to do with it.
The danger of fly-by-night outfits operating unchecked is a common complaint for those who are sceptical about the Government’s EPBD arrangements. We have the pyramid of assessor schemes to fall back on, of course.“Any assessor who makes incorrect recommendations or assessments would certainly be kick of the scheme,” says Stuart.
11.35 – I ask if DECs will be available for the general public to view online? There’s no arrangement for that as yet, Stuart replies, but he agrees that would be in the spirit of the legislation.
11.45 – The ongoing problems with the DEC software become part of the teaching. Early versions crashed frequently, apparently, but they are getting more stable. There are no announcements of updates from government, you have to check the web site. Another thing you have to check for are updates of the files that contain the standard information about building sizes (buildings are measured against a notional standard) the SIP files. “Oh, God,” sighs the lady in the purple cardigan.
12.24 – A young man asks a question about secure units. We are veering between broad legal generalities on the one hand and minutely detailed queries on the other.
12.40 – "Any other questions?" Stuart asks. When’s lunch? someone asks. “Not yet, but soon,” he replies. First, a test.
The ‘DEC Mock Exam’ is meant to be a carbon copy of the type of thing that prospective inspectors will face in the qualifying procedure.
It asks about types of A/C, details from the software, questions about alternative energy sources … It seems a bit unfair that we are being quizzed on anything apart from the PowerPoint, but I’m not sure we’ve learnt that much. Purple cardigan lady corrects typos while answering questions.
"All done?" Stuart asks eventually. He goes through the answers. I begin to bond with said purple cardigan lady. She turns out to be an energy efficiency manager (large companies) from EDF, although she runs karaoke nights in her spare time. She pumps her fist at every right answer. As for me, it turns out I have learnt a thing or two in my six months of sustainability. I score a respectable 42%. She’s jubilant at her 70%. ‘I did well,’ she says. ‘I should bloody well hope so,” I reply.
13.00 – It’s lunch. Except there are no sandwiches.
13.10 – A diffuse grumpiness hangs over the room.
13.15 – Lunch arrives. The sandwich man went to the wrong unit. It’s a fine spread though of homemade sandwiches, quiches, pies, French fancies all cling-filmed up.
13:30 - Neil Kurz, a spokesman for the ill-fated domestic energy assessors comes and says hi.
I have spoke with him over the phone when I was preparing my article on the travails of the nation’s fledgling troupe of DEAs. Delays to the legislation, oversubscription on the courses and watering down of the Home Information Packs continues to create havoc in the industry. Respected surveyors, like Habitus, went to the wall. Things have only got worse for those remaining, of course, with the housing market grinding to a halt.
Apparently, the government is encouraging out of work DEAs to become DEC inspectors, but do they have the money left to cough up a grand more in training costs? Martin, a spruce 50-year-old does (like Emma) but he’s a developer. He says he thinks he’s never met such a dishonest industry as that spawned by the EPBD. All anyone wants is money, he says.
Neil doubts DECs will be in place by October and we should strike back. “The only thing to do is to go into public buildings and ask to see their DECs, then write to the media. That’s the only way people will know about it.”
No going back
14.10 – Returned in our seats, I’m not the only one. It turns out a lot of people have forgotten to install the free DEC software. Stuart circles the room with his pen drive.
14.20 –We begin looking through the programme. It seems simple enough in some ways. There’s a choice of building types (their stats come from the CIP file) and I choose a public ‘discotheque.’ “A council-run discotheque … brings back memories,” says Julie.
14.30 – We run through the programme. We create our unique ‘assessor number’ out of thin air, and a unique building identifier which must be logged by Landmark which has the government contract to safeguard all this information. Each building inspection has a different number.
I begin entering information about my council discotheque, including the type of air conditioning, the type of power used, whether it has any heavy energy-using facilities on site and whether it has a sub-meter. The output of these sub-metered facilities can be subtracted from the building’s overall consumption and will be covered by the Carbon Reduction Commitment (coming to your screens 2011) or the wider European emissions trading system (ETS).
If there’s no sub-meter, assessors must advise putting one in. Lining up the billing periods is proving to be a headache. You have to enter 12 months worth of consumption and align it with the different types of other energy used. There’s a three month period mentioned for some purpose. I am getting beyond my capability to understand this on my five hours’ sleep. Any renewable generative technologies can be discounted if they are sub-metered. If they’re not, that goes in the Advisory Report, too. Note to self: buy shares in meter manufacturing sector.
I make a mistake. “Where’s the back button?” I ask Stuart. “There isn’t one. You have to start again.” Creating a piece of data gathering software without a back button seems a bit like making a bog brush without a handle. I start again.
I’ve entered all the data, or entered most of it and fudged the rest. I produce a PDF report with a watermark. My discotheque’s DEC rating is 4237, which is impossibly bad. Must be some sound system.
Coffee and flake
15.00 – In the kitchen, I speak to Julie, Neil, Martin and Kevin. They complain about the government and the ‘panels’ which many DEAs joined. Kevin says he’s heard of a guy who paid £12,000 to train as a DEA and then another £42,000 for a ‘franchise in which he was meant to be able to be sole area issuer of DEAs for a panel. No work resulted. He’s 55 and that was his entire pension fund. These kind of tales, urban legends or not, reflect the anger of many burnt by the DEA debacle. The fallout pervades this training like smoke after a fire.
Some don’t think much of the training, but they said they didn’t think much of BRE or CIBSE training days they’ve been on either.
15.30 – It is clear I have missed some talk from Stuart and we are now meant to be examining the building to issue a DEC, but I'm getting into some interesting conversation. A member of the party has appeared in the kitchen and is poking around the boiler. Shamefully, lack of sleep is getting the better of me. I am happier networking (aka talking) I linger some more.
16.00 – I go upstairs and get my own clipboard and try to piece together what I have missed. I stare ruefully at the empty form. I have to go over to the plans which Stuart has printed out (we are meant to make a copy by hand), then look at the boiler and examine the building for signs of meterage or other control. We are also to take note of the materials of the building and the windows and doors. The terms on the plan don’t mean enough to me to be able to fill that bit in.
We are given a list of energy usage statistics. It’s getting a bit much. Without Stuart’s intro as to what to do when I was gassing, I find the form hard to fill in. I wander around the large, unlovely empty warehouse unit next door. I’m joined by Jack, a New Zealand-born energy manager with a local council in Essex.
“This bit isn’t on the plan,” he says. “Neither’s the main building,” says someone else. I’m more confused.
“What about this room?” Jack asks as we walk through two empty rooms to a third empty one. “It’s an unheated volume inside a heated volume.” He scribbles.
I fill in some bits of the form and wander back to the boiler.
“Condensing,” someone says, pointing at a plastic tube emerging from the white box. “Dead giveaway.” No metering, though, apparently.
16.24 – I return to my software and begin entering data, but decided to peer at Julie’s since she has a better understanding about it. The building comes in at 437 – a G. “Not enough insulation,” she says. I cobble something together. I have done a DEC. I'd love to feel triumphant, like at the end of a sports film, but I'm cracking up.
16.40 – I’m ready to go. Martin is peering intently at his screen, prodding buttons. “I’m not going anywhere until I’ve done this,” he says. Jack, Julie and I make plans to share a cab to the train station. It arrives and I say my goodbyes and thank Stuart.
16.45 – In the cab and train and in conversation with Julie (Jack’s ticket makes him go via Ely) I reflect on my training. It wasn’t very, well, technical nor very thorough. I worked out that three more questions from the ‘mock’ were answered by my software run through. That takes me to 53%. Only 17% more needed to pass that. I’ve ‘done’ one DEC for my portfolio out of three needed. Two more 'shed' DECs later and I’d be qualified to carry one out for, say, Guy’s Hospital, the Houses of Parliament or the National Theatre. It’s an alarming prospect, not least for me.
As Ian, a local engineer, had said earlier: “It’s OK carrying out the assessment,” he says, “but what kind of use will the recommendations be from someone who hasn’t been in the industry for more than five minutes?”
Is there a suspicion that, burnt by the DEA experience, the government has created a process that is so easy to qualify for that it is of little practical use?