Notre Dame or a Durban township? Sustainability advocates are divided on the best way to push the energy efficiency message
By Megan Darby
“The words ‘energy efficiency’ are very boring to most people – they fall asleep by the third syllable.”
That, for Farhana Yamin, is one of the main reasons green building initiatives have yet to take off in a big way.
She wants to see iconic buildings get a low carbon makeover, to capture the public imagination: “In emissions terms they may not be so significant, but in communications terms they are very big.”
The head of Track Zero, a think-tank advocating a long term global net zero emissions target, is at a round table with construction executives.
As part of Climate Week Paris, they are trying to pull together a “buildings day” at UN climate negotiations in December.
This would showcase the potential to slash emissions from new and existing buildings – but where to start?
There is some support for the idea of eye-catching refurbishment projects. It has been done, most notably with the Empire State Building in New York.
RTCC asks which structures people in the room would most like to get their hands on.
Notre Dame, a cathedral 800 years in the making and top Paris attraction, is one suggestion.
London’s “Gherkin”, a 41-storey office block, is another. Built just over a decade ago, it was supposed to use half the energy of a traditional skyscraper, but the reality was different. Tenants eschewed the natural ventilation on offer, preferring energy-hungry air conditioning.
Or how about the Taj Mahal? Most of the world’s new buildings in the coming decades will crop up in Asia. There more than anywhere low carbon pioneers need to get the message across.
“It depends what story you want to communicate,” says Alistair Guthrie, of engineering consultancy Arup.
“The Taj Mahal is a great story but it doesn’t use much energy at all, so from an energy efficiency point of view it is not the best example.”
Guthrie favours a more down-to-earth approach: “Forget buildings that look like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. People don’t relate to those buildings.”
The largest sub-sector is housing, points out Pascal Eveillard, head of sustainable construction at Saint-Gobain. “Putting the residential sector high on the agenda should be a priority.”
James Drinkwater from the World Green Building Council agrees, citing the revamp of a township in Durban. “A radical improvement of the Empire State Building is nice, it gets public attention, but the message for me has to be better buildings change quality of life,” he says.
In California, revenue from selling emissions permits to big polluters has been funnelled into green improvements for homes and small businesses. A quarter of the budget is reserved for low income communities, says Mary Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board.
“The number of small businesses involved in this is amazing,” she says. “This is a way to get to grassroots.”
There is general agreement that to succeed, a drive for zero carbon buildings must be about more than emissions.
“It’s about energy security, it’s about less reliance on imports, it’s about more money in people’s pockets,” says Arup’s Guthrie.
Public communications aside, the building sector itself is “not very innovative,” Eveillard says.
Those in the room may be keen to do more, but the wider industry is slow to adopt green materials and technology.
Sandrine Dixson-Decleve, director of the Prince of Wales Corporate Leaders Group and co-host of the discussion with Track0, urges advocates to face up to the challenge.
“If everyone says energy efficiency is the low hanging fruit, why the hell haven’t we got where we wanted to?” she asks. “We have to rally ourselves behind a narrative.”