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Reputation on the line

In our regular opinion column, David Frise, head of sustainability for the B&ES, looks at a high-profile ‘performance gap’

For years the building engineering industry has been urged to emulate car manufacturers and the performance guarantees they offer.

“Why is there such a huge performance gap between how a building is designed and how it performs when cars do just what they say on the tin?” was the lament from clients. “Why don’t you reinvent your industry so building owners can enjoy the same long-term reliability in their buildings that they get from their car suppliers?”

The VW diesel test scandal has just shifted the moral high ground somewhere downhill. For years, we were urged to buy diesel cars to reduce global warming emissions;
it appears we got it badly wrong.

 Perhaps most shocking is that the authorities knew that tests were fudged and even turned a blind eye to sharp practice by allowing wing mirrors to be removed and door joints taped up to improve air flow and fuel efficiency.

Of course, none of this alters the fact that we still have a performance problem in our industry – even if a building is a far more complex ‘product’ than a car.

Earlier this year a report from DECC showed that commercial biomass projects were under-performing by as much as 20 per cent. The department admitted that this was leading to higher carbon emissions than predicted and undermining the Renewable Heat Incentive, as in order to qualify for RHI payments, a biomass boiler must operate at a minimum of 85 per cent efficiency for converting fuel to energy, whereas but the real efficiency rate of the installed boilers surveyed was an average 66.5 per cent and none achieved more than 76 per cent.

This might look like relatively small beer when compared to the diesel scandal, but lots of small mistakes aggregate up into a major performance problem, which is why the UK Green Building Council estimates that many new buildings use 200 per cent more energy than they should.

Closing the performance gap

The big difference is that our failure – our performance gap – is out there in the open for everyone to see. Our defence is, mainly, that too many members of our industry don’t understand how some of the ‘new’ technologies work in practice. In only a few cases is there evidence of deliberate falsification or manipulation of test results.

And while the car industry’s hard-won reputation is hanging by a thread and huge compensation claims are looming, there could yet be a major role for our industry to play in the ‘clean-up’ operation.

Rising levels of outdoor pollution are having a growing negative impact on the health and productivity of building occupants. B&ES is spearheading a campaign to raise awareness of the direct correlation between diesel particulates (among other outdoor pollution sources) and rising illness levels, particularly among vulnerable building users such as hospital patients and schoolchildren, and the potential building engineering solutions.

The drive to improve indoor air quality could well be the catalyst for our star to rise while car manufacturers go through a long and painful process of rebuilding their reputations. If we could turn more buildings into clean air havens, what a boost that would be to our reputation.

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