In recent years, there has been lots of talk about the cost of energy. There have been discussions about the cost of fuel, the management of the utility company, the capacity of the BEC system, the age of its equipment and the possibility of finding less expensive sources of power. There has been no discussion at all about the source of the problem. The single, most agessive user of electric power is buildings. Even car makers faced up to this problem three decades ago. From the wasteful gas-guzzlers of the 1960’s they were forced to develop energy efficient cars, some of which we now boast about owning. In the meantime, our hoggish use of electrical power in buildings continues unabated, increasing by the day. And of the jobs done by electrical power in our buildings, the achievement of creature comfort is the most expensive. Ironically, the more we commit to the use of electrical power to create a more comfortable building environment, the less we feel really comfortable.
Unfortunately, this concern is of little concern to most consumers. As an architect, I have found that there are several more important issues for my clients than the cost of power when crafting their dream, and therefore little or no support for the measures that reduce the need for energy in their buildings.
Here are a few of them.
First Cost
We have become accustomed to judging buildings (and many other things) by their initial cost only. But it is not difficult to show that an inexpensive wall that requires re-painting every six months is more expensive than a tiled wall. Similarly, it is not difficult to show that an inexpensive building that has to be air conditioned all the time is more expensive than a more expensive building designed to allow breezes to keep its occupants cool most of the time. But the perceived benefits of feeling that you have shopped well and the admiration of friends, family and your banker make getting the lowest cost an attractive goal. Until the first power bill arrives. Most so-called low-cost homes, for example, pay higher costs for power than their wealthy neighbours, if measured by the size of the buildings. Public buildings are required by the public to cost less, so the various governments saddle them with buildings that cost them more in taxes every year. For a truer measurement of the cost of a building, perhaps the cost of acquiring it initially plus the cost of operating it over the life of its mortgage would be a better gauge.
Current Technology
Over the past several decades, few “innovations” have had such wide effect as the introduction of asphalt shingles to the home-building market. This innovation encouraged builders to “save money” by reducing the pitch of the roof, and therefore the amount of exposure of roof surface. The lower pitch reduced (and eventually eliminated) the ventilated attic, a feature responsible for keeping the ceiling surface below cool. In fact, it has made the ceiling into a source of heat, the only way for the heat now trapped in the unventilated roof-space to escape. In other words, those old attic rooms were not only cool themselves, but kept the ceiling below cool, long before pink insulation!
Another innovation creating havoc on buildings is the popularization of impact glass in windows. The advertisement for impact says it all: you can feel safe inside while watching the storm outside. What this type of ad is encouraging, and the major perceived benefit of impact glass is the elimination of the shutters that once protected the window opening during storms. But that shutter did double duty. It also kept the sun out. Instead, the sun is now invited into the building to create a massive heat load. But we needn’t worry, We’ll just air condition the place, using all this power we have available to us.
The style of buildings has always been copied and “localized”. In most instances the result has been the development of communities of architecture where the “look” of the buildings spoke of their origins and their social and economic status. Unfortunately, after travel to far-off lands became common, what was being copied was no longer the architecture, but the status. So buildings began to “look like” other buildings so that they could borrow their importance. For example, in North America there are cathedrals, like St Patrick’s in New York which have borrowed the importance of their European counterpart, although the thin-ness of the details betray the fact that they are copies. Non-the-less, there is nothing wrong with copying design styles. That is essentially how we learn. Where the practice becomes a problem is when the buildings copied do not address the climatic conditions in which the copies are to be placed. Then it is the duty of the designer to make the necessary adjustments and choices. From the buildings designed over the past four or so decades in the Bahamas, it appears that neither the owners nor their designers are concerned about the amount of energy it takes to mitigate the environmental issues created during the design process. The result has been a proliferation of high-energy-use buildings.
There is, of course, an appropriate way to make use of the styles of buildings developed elsewhere. Jt is to choose buildings developed where climatic conditions are similar. Caribbean homes, for instance, tend to be designed to be completely open, to allow the cooling breezes to pass through the interiors. But here in the Bahamas, we have convinced ourselves that buildings designed to be heated in Winter are more appropriate for us, mainly because we have been able to pay for the air conditioning the buildings demand.
The style of buildings is an important communicator. It communicates both intent and status. But while the primary concern may be to communicate wealth and social status, buildings also communicate attitude, especially the attitude towards the environment. In the energy discussion, unfortunately, our buildings tend to communicate that our wealth is more powerful than the climate. Unfortunately we are now finding that our accounts are getting dangerously small. Perhaps it is time to open the windows.
August 10, 2014