Former editors of BSj look back over three decades of reporting, picking out the issues that have made the magazine required reading for the industry, clients and government

Stephen Ashley

Enter the strident evangelist

Stephen Ashley, editor September 1978 – October 1988

In the 1960s energy was expected to become so plentiful that it would be given away. With the 1970s came disillusion, a long string of systemic building failures and the realisation that the world could not continue to be so appallingly bad at managing its natural resources. BSj was launched in September 1978 and, during its early days, the price of oil went through the roof, triggering an economic crisis. The energy cost of operating a building became significant and building services engineers (a new term in those days) came of age.

In the run-up to the launch of BSj, CIBS told us that greater recognition of energy use was needed both at the briefing stage for a new building and as an integral part of the aesthetics and structural design process. It was no longer adequate to design the building and then pass the completed plans to an H&V contractor to heat and cool it. For a hundred years or more there had been sporadic examples of superb integration of building services and architecture; now this needed to be the norm.

BSj came to be a strident evangelist for this cause. We sought out buildings where integrating energy into the brief and design had proved successful. We sought out innovations. We targeted architects and inaugurated competitions. Slowly the message started to get across, both to institution members and to the world outside. Architects, clients and government began looking to BSj for information and comment. Even our cousins in ASHRAE began to prick up their ears. All this, of course, was with the institution’s support.

Then came the big battle: recognition by the Engineering Council, to add that crucial E to CIBS. The engineering institutions had no intention of letting upstart pipe-stranglers into the club. It took years of diplomacy, peer pressure and compromise but, by the time my tenure as editor was over, the dream of chartered status had become a reality. Building services engineers had become respected members of both the engineering and construction professions, embedded in design teams with an ever-widening remit.

Becoming chartered was critically important if for no other reason that by the late 1980s government was looking to the institution for assistance with its fledgling energy conservation legislation and the business of qualification and responsibility was being transformed.

The world of building services changed dramatically during my 10 years in charge. It was a very exciting time to be involved.

When the going gets tough

When the going gets tough

Roderic Bunn, editor November 1988 – April 2001

In 1985 an event occurred that changed the industry virtually overnight, forcing it to rewrite design guidance, change product lines, alter commissioning practices and create new professional responsibilities. It’s a cruel irony that in the annals of building services, it should be a hospital – Stafford General – that went down as the place where people died as a direct result of the services going wrong.

Once a naturally occurring, water-borne bug called Legionella pneumophila found its way into Stafford’s open-circuit cooling system, it led to the deaths of at least 22, and perhaps up to 39, members of the public.

The knee-jerk reaction against open-circuit cooling towers denied building services engineers the use of a simple and energy-efficient way to dump heat. But it also meant the industry had to organise itself to rewrite guidance and standards in double-quick time. To its great credit, it delivered. Legionella outbreaks are now rare, and those arising from design errors rarer still.

Stafford showed that when disaster strikes, the building services industry is able to get its house in order quickly. It helps, of course, that a legionella outbreak is a crown court offence, which concentrates the minds of designers and building operators alike.

But Stafford is small beer compared with today’s threat of climate change. We can’t wait for some kind of global environmental meltdown before we act. We have to be pro-active.

The problem is that sick buildings don’t necessarily exhibit obvious symptoms. Their energy inefficiencies lie just below the radar of designers and constructors. The industry is facing a creeping disaster, not a sudden one.

The scale of the problem was recognised early by BSj. In 1995 it launched the PROBE building revisit project, a groundbreaking initiative that popularised post-occupancy evaluation (POE). This enabled BSj to deliver accurate and detailed evidence about the in-use performance of buildings. The project revealed alarming shortcomings in allegedly low-energy buildings and sent shock waves around the industry, which are still reverberating today.

It wasn’t all bad news. As a result of a PROBE study, BSj’s April 1998 front cover was able to suggest that the Elizabeth Fry Building at the University of East Anglia could be “the best building ever”.

Ten years on, it seems we were right, as Elizabeth Fry continues to be a yardstick by which new buildings are measured. Its continuing laudable energy performance is a great testament to the skills of the architect, John Miller & Partners, the services engineer, Fulcrum Consulting, and a knowledgeable and committed client. Elizabeth Fry also drew attention to the low-energy benefits of TermoDeck, the Swedish concrete hollowcore floor and ceiling slab system.

But what a shame such buildings are still rare. Despite the success of the PROBE initiative, the industry has only recently taken on board the benefits of using feedback to inform design. Mandatory energy certification and zero-carbon targets have prompted this belated change of heart.

I’ve no doubt that project teams will soon be held responsible for the operational performance of their buildings, which means the imperfections that lead to excess carbon emissions will have to be dealt with in the same way as the industry dealt with the legionella outbreak at Stafford General Hospital: quickly, decisively and sustainably.

The industry has to save real carbon from now on, not virtual carbon. It can do this by focusing less on engineering features, and more on operational outcomes. This will require a huge culture change.

What society has got used to is no longer what it is entitled to. Can we “do a Stafford”, get real, and sort the carbon problem out before it’s too late?

Karen Fletcher

In at the EPBD end
Karen Fletcher, editor May 2001 – December 2004

When I arrived at BSj, I knew next to nothing about building services. “Don’t worry,” said the publisher, “you’ll soon get the hang of it.” I faced with trepidation the prospect of getting the CIBSE magazine to its readership (a demanding lot): how to find a topic that would grab their attention and keep them reading?

I was lucky enough to have two helpful colleagues: Andrew Brister, editor of BSj’s sister title, Electrical & Mechanical Contractor, and Andy Pearson, then features editor of Building magazine. They pointed me in the direction of a new piece of legislation, which they said would fill the pages of BSj for years to come: the European Energy Performance of Buildings Directive. How right they were.

Like a lot of Euro legislation, the EPBD hung around in the background, like a threatening storm, for quite a while. Many construction professionals didn’t believe it would ever emerge into national law, let alone have an effect on the design and construction of buildings. This attitude is understandable since the directive’s aims seemed more like impossible dreams: cut CO2 emissions caused by commercial buildings by 20%, reduce air leakage, introduce building logbooks and enforce regular checks for air-conditioning systems. Its greatest ambition was the introduction of energy performance certificates – energy labels for buildings.

To their credit, the majority of BSj readers supported the underlying principles of the directive: to reduce energy waste and to drive the design and use of energy efficient building services systems. Consulting engineers viewed the EPBD as legislation that could support their low-energy specifications against the cost-cutting of contractors along the supply chain. For an editor, the EPBD was a gift, because it led to discussions about other important issues such as construction teams working together more effectively to deliver sustainable buildings, post-occupancy evaluation, and building integrated renewable technologies.

Those who thought the EPBD would never happen got a rude awakening with introduction of the new Part L in 2006. It wasn’t perfect. Government struggled to get to grips with Part L too, as it failed to prepare enough accredited assessors and rushed the development of SBEM software. The policing of compliance by Building Control also needs to be addressed.

The EU is already considering the contents of EPBD II, and we are now consulting on the 2010 Part L update. Perhaps, then, the most significant aspect of the EPBD wasn’t its immediate impact but the fact that it was the start of a process that will last for many more years, and many more editions of BSj.