Wednesday 16 October 2019

My career: Building green

Eithne Dunne

Aodhan MacPhaidin strives to alter the way people use energy in their homes for the better, while also influencing government initiatives

DESIGNING a beautiful, functional building is one thing; designing one that is as environmentally friensaid dly as possible is quite another.

Environmental architects combine their knowledge of structure and aesthetics with an overriding belief in sustainable construction and energy-conscious living.

They don’t all get to put their message across on TV, of course — unlike Aodhan MacPhaidin, co-presenter of RTÉ’s My Family Aren’t Wasters, which sees various families being put to the energy test. MacPhaidin is an environmental and research architect and spokesman for the Power of One campaign, along with co-host Dr Kirk Shanks. The pair have been working in national and European energy research for over 10 years now, so they are well placed to set challenging targets for the families that feature on the show.

MacPhaidin, who comes from Co Donegal, started his career by qualifying as an architect, after which he moved to New York and worked as a project architect on various construction jobs. In 2002, he returned to Ireland and completed a master’s degree in sustainable development at Dubsaid lin Institute of Technology (DIT).

This enabled him to focus on energy and how it relates to architecture and design — something that wasn’t covered in his primary degree. “Maybe there is more emphasis on that in architecture courses today, but back then they were purely design based,” he says.

It was while doing a work placement with the Energy Research Group at University College Dublin that he met Shanks. The two were similarly passionate about the environmental aspects of architecture, so they set up a research group at DIT and proceeded to conduct major studies on the energy efficiency of Irish housing stock for Sustainable Energy Ireland. “This was before the building energy rating had come in; we were looking to see if the quality of buildings was improving.”

Interestingly, and contrary to what you might expect, MacPhaidin and Shanks found that many modern buildings, which should have been using less energy than their older equivalents, were actually using more. The differentiator? The people living in them. “The people in the modern homes were using more energy than those in the older buildings,” says MacPhaidin. Their findings piqued the pair’s interest in behaviour — what people do as opposed to the energy efficiency of a building itself. “Someone could be living in an A-rated house, but have the heat blasting and all the appliances on,” says MacPhaidin.

Last year, in what served as the inspiration for the current RTÉ programme, MacPhaidin and Shanks headed up the Power of One Street project for the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. This involved getting eight households to change their habits over a period of six months and provided an invaluable insight into how people deal with the energy-saving challenge.

“We really got into it,” says MacPhaidin. “We liked the fact that we were engaging with people, which is a bit more dynamic than purely crunching numbers.”

When RTÉ approached the pair about a TV programme, MacPhaidin says both he and Shanks were highly enthusiastic about getting the environmental message across on TV. And, although the programme is designed to be entertaining, all of MacPhaidin and Shanks’ findings are scientifically measured and recorded, before being fed to the department to help inform government initiatives.

MacPhaidin is hugely enthusiastic about environmental research and architecture, and says it is an extremely interesting career with plenty of potential — and plenty of challenges.

“It’s a tough area, as you are dealing with people’s behaviour and it’s hard to change habits. But the public is more aware of the issues now, so there is less resistance to the topic. Because it’s a new area, there is great potential to create a niche for yourself.”

Of course, when environmental concerns are foremost, aesthetics usually suffer to some extent, which might be a step too far for some architects. But, as MacPhaidin says, something has to give. “For me, the aesthetics of a building are important, but there is more to it than that.”

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