Paul McNeive: 'Legislation drives dramatic rise in energy efficiency'
The right moves
It's only three years since I reported here on site-visits to Denmark and Sweden, to inspect developments which were utilising the latest technology in sustainable energy-efficiency. A number of Irish developers were on the trip also, and it's fair to say that there was some scepticism about the practicality of implementing those technologies in Ireland, and whether or not Irish occupiers could be weaned-off open fireplaces and oil or gas-fired central heating systems.
There was relatively little building going on at the time, and there was a concern that extra up-front costs would render development unviable in a recovering market. Furthermore, it was believed that, even then, there were no large, speculatively built commercial buildings, or apartment schemes, that had installed, for example, "district-sized" heat-pump systems, as were becoming popular in the UK. The consensus was that it would take a few brave developers to prove that the technology worked here, before these new systems became commonplace.
What a difference three years has made! Largely driven by European legislation, we are now seeing a comprehensive implementation of the new standards of energy efficiency for our residential and commercial buildings.
At the heart of this is the drive to the 'Nearly Zero Energy Buildings' (nZEB) standard, and all new buildings are required to meet that standard by December 31, 2020. The Irish Government is implementing these standards, for homes, by implementing new building regulations, and any dwelling receiving planning permission from now on must meet the nZEB standard. For residential properties, this means a further improvement in energy-efficiency standards over the 2011 building regulations, which in themselves set a 70pc higher standard than the 2005 regulations.
To meet the standard, buildings must have a "very high energy performance," and the low amount of energy required in the building, should be mostly derived from renewable sources, including energy generated from sources on-site, or nearby.
For commercial buildings, there are a variety of ways in which developers can meet the nZEB standard, to include any combination of using renewable energy sources, better insulation to walls, doors and glazing, higher air-tightness standards and the use of solar-shading.
Ireland's latest generation of commercial buildings are already being built to these higher standards. Declan Barry, director of OCSC (M&E) consulting engineers, told me that for the best "Grade A" office buildings, the favoured four-pipe fan coil air-conditioning system makes it more difficult to achieve nZEB, so heat pumps are often added, externally, typically at roof level, and possibly supplemented by some photo-voltaic (solar) panels.
Some office buildings are still being built with gas-fired heating, using boilers with combined heat and power units (CHP) in the basement. However, to achieve nZEB this strategy requires using a lot of solar panels on the roof, which mitigates against the trend for using roof-spaces for recreational purposes or planting for grass and bees.
In the residential market, heat pumps have become "the new norm" in achieving nZEB standards, according to Mike Teahan, director of Renewable Building Solutions Ireland. He is working on a dozen apartment schemes around Ireland, all of which are installing individual heat pumps in each unit. Using a heat pump usually avoids any need for solar panels on the roof.
One new-homes agent told me that some developers resent the higher standards as they are adding extra cost to a product which they see as barely viable in many locations.
However, one veteran builder, who is currently developing hundreds of units, told me that, of all the add-on costs, taxes and levies, nZEB is the only one he agrees with. "We have to deal with climate change," he told me.
The standard of our stock of buildings is rising rapidly, which is laudable, but, I suggest, has gone as far as practical, given current technology.