Carrot and stick? Sustainability – how will we ever change?

If you have dropped by here before you will probably have spotted some stuff about sustainability. Last year I did some research with my friends at the School of Architecture at Nottingham University; the topic was ‘are green buildings more valuable’. The answer was ‘no’. But there was more to it than that!

I’m not sure about ‘global warming’ – the case isn’t helped by the likes of the East Anglia University scandal over match-rigging. If they had been Badminton players we could have just sent them home and forgotten the whole affair. But we can’t – because this is important. And we don’t have transparency. So cynics (like me) will just question the ‘facts’ as we are given them.

But I do wonder what is happening around us. We have just had the wettest summer for 100 years. It has been a wash-out. And when we do get rain, it seems to come monsoon like! Last week I had to pull my car over onto what I assumed was the hard shoulder as I couldn’t see the bonnet!

Perhaps we do need to look after the planet and reduce what we use.

Which got me wondering about when people might change their behaviour. I think it will be when fuel poverty really hits home. We are constantly being warned about how fuel prices are rising. So I wondered about this. Through my office I have obtained the data for wholesale retail prices for gas and electricity going back over 5 years – the data is set out below…

As you can see this isn’t a doom and gloom story of sharp rises. I’m not advocating price increase – far from it. But unless we had a sharp rise which affected people’s pockets we will just continue to be in denial?

Not so sustainable….

I drive past McDonalds every day – deliberately. It isn’t part of my daily routine.

But I do remember the Nottingham Castle Marina branch being opened. If my memory serves me right it was 1989 – and a certain Martin Brandon-Bravo, the local MP at the time performed the little curtain drawing ceremony. I remember this as there was a brass plaque form many years. Then when he lost his seat McDonalds took the plaque down! Like erasing history?

So 24 years on, it is interesting to see another re-fit. A major one this time as the ‘restaurant’ has been closed for weeks. It’s not a great advert for the longevity of buildings.

Last week I was judging some awards – and the question of sustainability came up. Sure, we are putting buildings up with low carbon footprints. We are even getting good at it – some of the technologies are so clever we are being paid by the utility companies as they produce too much electricity to use themselves.

I guess McDonald’s are fitting better insulation and greener technologies.

But this building is 24 years old. It’s not exactly sustainable then. We have all of the embedded carbon from its original construction – and now another load.

My point is that some of the best sustainable buildings we have are buildings that have stood the test of time. Take the Pitcher & Piano in Nottingham. It was a church – built in 1876. It stopped being used as a pace of worship in 1982 when it briefly became a Lace Museum. Now a thriving pub. Sure, it has had a refit internally, but is this not a truly sustainable building? 136 years and counting?

Compare this to the monstrosity being built on Castle Boulevard I blogged about here. Will this be standing in 136 years – not a chance. Bet you my life on it…

Oh – and Ronny McD I haven’t forgiven you for taking down that brass plaque….

Churches past and present…

As I drive along Castle Boulevard each day (on my way to Costa Coffee!) I have watched the new Cornerstone Church gradually come out of the ground – on the site of the old MFI.

It’s not looking pretty. Imposing yes, pretty no. In fact, to date, it looks like a newer version of the MFI trade showroom it has replaced. All steel, crinkly tin and some token brick and stone facades. Theres a bit of a curved section of brickwork and a jauntily angled joint between brick and profile sheets. Although the scaffold remains up, the ‘reveal’ isn’t going to be eureka moment I fear!

I was thinking as I drove past this week what a difference a hundred years makes. Well, perhaps 200. If you have ever seen the Basilique_du_Sacré Coeur in Paris, St Pauls in London or La Salgrada Familia in Barcelona – you’ll understand what I mean. These are great pieces of architecture – that have stood the test of time. They remain iconic and standing! They were constructed of the very best material, stone, slate, lead. They had character and real features. They were more than just canopies to protect people from the wind and rain. They are not buildings they are places.

I wonder in a hundred years if this new Cornerstone church will be standing. I’m guessing that MFI was built in the late 1970′s – a pretty poor lifespan. 35-40 years?

Our world today is all about sustainability. We concentrate it seems to me on the energy and ‘green’ credentials. But surely some of the most sustainable ones are those that were built hundreds of years ago. Their embedded carbon has long since been written down. Look at the Pitcher & Piano in Nottingham – originally a church, now a bar. Re-use at it’s best.

I’m sure cost has featured highly and I gather that congregations are high in number. So, these new churches have done something the old buildings couldn’t do! Perhaps they are sustainable after all?

Another knee jerk policy : the feed in tariff cut was illegal

You might have spotted this story just before the Christmas break. Friends of the Earth and two solar firms, Solarcentury and HomeSun took the Government to court over the decision to slash the Feed in Tariff from 43.3p to just 21p per kilowatt hour. The favourable rate was introduced in 2010 as a deliberately attractive rate to encourage the fitting of panels.

A whole industry sprang up. Thousands signed up and this technology has the prospect of making real inroads to our CO2 emissions. Self generation (and selling surplus power back the grid) are clearly very green. Your south facing roof could save CO2 and potentially make you money.

But no sooner had the movement started than the Government slash the rate of the feed in tariff. Not by a few percentage points, but by half. The announcement was made in the middle of the consultation period! Mr Justice Mitting in the High Court found the Governments decision to slash feed-in tariffs (FiT) several months early, before a consultation on the issue ended, was “legally flawed”. There is likely to be a Judicial Review in the New year.

Of course a number of people paid premium prices to get panels fitted before the cut off date – which now looks like a waste of money. But more fundamentally, this whole debacle has put some people off the fitting of the panels.

Like most things, we don’t like uncertainty. The smart money is that this is a set-back. the Government have had their knuckles rapped. But they will almost certainly reduce the rate – they’ll just have to it a bit smarter next time!

Nas the clue is in the official Government response – Greg Barker the Climate Change Minister said the government disagreed with the court’s decision and would seek an appeal.

Perhaps the Government are not quite as Green as they suggest?

UPDATE 4 January

Climate change minister Greg Barker has today said, “We disagree with the court’s decision,” adding, “We will be seeking an appeal and hope to secure a hearing as soon as possible. Regardless of the outcome, the current high tariffs for solar PV are not sustainable and changes need to be made in order to protect the budget, which is funded by consumers through their energy bills.”

The Empire State Building is green…

In all the times I have been to the USA I have never really thought they go mad on green. I think a few years ago, the best they got was lighting the Empire State with green lights – missing the point a bit?

But times have changed and this building now sources 100% of renewable energy. The owners announced recently that they are buying all of their energy from the Green Mountain Energy Company. This is reckoned to save around 45,000 tonnes of CO2 annually – or the equivalent of
planting nearly 150,000 trees – more than 6 times the number of trees in Central Park now.

The owners have spent $550m in the last twelve months – of which $100m has been on ‘green technologies’. 6,500 windows have been upgraded to replace the glazing with a new super-insulated sandwich glass. This will save another 100,000 tonnes of CO2 over a 15 year period – the equivalent of 17,500 cars being taken off the road.

I think it has taken the Americans some time to come to the sustainability table. New York is rather consumer-centric.

The Empire State building isn’t my favourite New York piece of architecture (The Chrysler Building is), but you can use it in lots of places to identify where you are! It is certainly iconic. And at 2.85m sq ft – it is a monster of a building – from a different era. But it is now bang up to date! And very green…

When I say ‘green’ I mean purple…. bright purple last night!

Just what is a sustainable development?

From my last weeks posts you will know that I spoke at a conference in Istanbul two weeks ago. The theme of the conference was ‘sustainable energy technologies’.

I have spoken to a lot of people since I returned (justifying my ‘holiday’ mostly). But it occurs to me that people, generally, don’t understand what we mean by sustainable buildings or developments. Most, understandably, go to the ‘solution’ – solar panels or loft insulation. They understand these to an extent.

We do have some major issues in identifying what sustainability actually means. There are lots of other labels too – green buildings, low energy buildings, carbon neutral, zero carbon, Code 4 homes, BREEAM excellent offices… The list goes on. And it’s not always helpful.

One of the things we had an issue with when trying to capture data for my research paper was how you identify a ‘more sustainable’ building. It is not an easy test – you can read it – if you have time in the paper here.

In fact the most established definition of sustainable development is often quoted as the ‘Bruntland Commission’ from 1987,

Development ..”that meets the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

So, that’s the easy bit. The next bit – how do we measure it and make those measurements easily understood by all? In my industry we are having to get to grips with it. But I have realised in the last week or so, that people generally have no idea about what is being done around them to try and reduce our ‘footprint’. They hear the buzz-words, but these are just that. They offer no clarity, no help. They are good for marketing but not much else?

We have some way to go… The story needs to be clear. It also needs to be widely understood if it is to have any effect?

SET conference 2011 – the big day

Day three of the conference in Istabul – and the big one for me.

Back in January I was discussing with my friends at Nottingham University the fact that we weren’t seeing premium prices for sustainable buildings – which was odd really. In fact, in the commercial market the opposite is true – the ‘market’ appears to be applying a discount to sustainable buildings! In the residential sector the issue is that there is a lack of clear data.

And so an idea was born – I was challenged to ‘prove’ my assumptions. This is not as easy as it sounds – the resultant paper was jointly written – and was quite difficult. The reasons is that whilst the University are well used to writing papers with hard facts and peer-tested data, the market doesn’t work like that. It’s an imperfect place most of the time.

But the paper was written and it should be on a sperate page now at the top of this site. It is quite long – so you might need to print it (not very sustainable). Since the paper generated a lot of discussion, we have decided to do some more work on the data. So this is very much work in progress.

And I guess that fundamentally we hope that the results turn around – soon….

SET Conference 2011

I can’t believe it is 12 months since I first went to Shanghai – a year ago I visited the City with Nottingham City Council and The University of Nottingham. I spent a fascinating few days with the University at a conference aimed at Sustainable Technologies. I also got to see the World Expo – which was fascinating.

One year on and we hit Istanbul. I have been invited – and this time I am speaking at the SET (Sustainable Energy Technologies) conference.

I have written a joint paper which addresses the question of whether green property attracts premium prices*. It’s not an easy question for various reasons. The paper is lengthy and can’t really be published in a blog post. You would fall asleep! I will though, after the conference ends, put it on its own ‘page’ on this site. I would welcome comments and observations. I don’t expect the findings to be popular!

I am in Istanbul this morning where the conference starts today and, assuming the technology works, I’ll do some updates on anything interesting I come across.

We also get a chance to see some of Istanbul after the conference ends – I am looking forward to this. I’m told that this is one of the most photogenic places in the World – so you may see some images… I’ll try to limit it to twenty images (which I guess will be as difficult as my attempts in Nottingham over the last few weeks – see here).

The one thing I won’t be doing is Turkish Delight – which ranks alongside Mushrooms as food of the devil in my book.

If it goes quiet, you will guess that I can’t work the Turkish wi-fi!

*PS – the answer to the question is no for commercial property and yes for residential… in Nottingham at least!

I’d like to teach the world to see?

You will know, if you are a regular reader of my blog that I have some issues with ‘green bling’. I an all for us finding technologies which can reduce running costs and or ‘carbon footprint‘ (whatever that is!).

One of the issues we come across in the valuation world is the apparent dichotomy between who pays for the technology and who benefits. My research with Nottingham University suggests that,at present, we can’t see increased values for sustainable buildings in the commercial sector*. This is partly as a result of the fact that some of the technology is expensive for the developer, but it is not he who benefits on the long term.

So this video (don’t worry about the language!) is brilliant – it takes a humble coca-cola 1.5l bottle and turns it into a sun pipe! Sometimes the best ideas in life are the simplest!

* I am yet to work out how best to share my joint research with you!

The green agenda – tread lightly?

We seem to be bombarded with sticks and carrots in the property industry. We are told that almost half of the UK’s carbon emissions come from buildings. So it is my industry that can make a difference.

Is this a picture of global warming? It didn't feel like it....

The Government are trying to impose rules on the Industry for new buildings – especially in the housing sector where Zero Carbon is a target for 2016 for anything newly built. In the commercial sector we are required to provide Energy Performance Certificates for sales and lettings. It has been suggested that by 2018 it will be illegal to let commercial properties with an “F” or “G” rating.

On the other hand we have the feed-in tariff for those with solar panels – a technology that allows you to sell your excess electricity back to the grid.

Putting to one side the questions over the validity of the arguments about the damage we are (allegedly) doing to the planet, the messages we get and guidelines we have to operate by can be confusing to say the least. The lack of clarity does nothing to help us make choices.

But, if you take a step back – it probably isn’t a bad thing that we should reduce our footprint. Not just on the resources we are consuming but generally on the planet. The resources are scarce and the real test is when we see prices of gas and electricity increase – last weeks suggestion of 18/20% increases this winter will start to hurt.

So perhaps the message needs to be a little more realistic. Rather than zero carbon, perhaps we should try to ‘tread lightly’. To think about what we do. But at the same time acknowledge that in some situations we can do little to get to zero carbon. In my business we spend our lives driving to property – it isn’t practical to use public transport. We do where we can (commuting to London as an example).

Tread lightly – I like that. Now I need to lose some (more) weight….

By Tim Garratt Posted in Nottingham Tagged BREEAM, Carbon Cycle, Carbon Management, , EPC, Global Warming, Greenhouse gas, Low-carbon economy, , Tread Lightly, zero carbon