Old Habits Die Hard

Achieving excellence?

When it comes to construction, there are certain things we all know to be true.

Like: thermally efficient building elements reduce carbon emissions, improve thermal comfort and cut energy bills. Pretty good incentives for ensuring high standards of design and construction, you would think.

And: people often want the cheapest or quickest solution, and are frequently resistant to change. Witness how outdated specifications are commonly assumed to meet current standards, or how often people bemoan the increased thickness of insulation they require.

Unfortunately, we also know that ingrained attitudes and short term views like this are difficult to shift. The Greek philosopher Aristotle once said:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.

Sadly, too much of the construction industry has got the opposite habit. Ongoing research into the performance gap shows that knowledge levels are not what they need to be, and that we are failing to translate designed performance into as-built performance.

Costing the Earth

Some consumers are becoming wiser and asking for more efficient buildings. Many, however, want to continue living how they want, when they want.

But that isn’t working. A recent report by the World Meteorological Organisation showed that levels of carbon dioxide increased more from 2012 to 2013 than any other year since the mid-1980s. Not only that, but other greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide rose significantly too.

Forests and oceans act as carbon stores, buffering the atmospheric increases caused by human activity. Those stores are now faltering and making the prospect of more extreme climate change a real possibility.

These issues aren’t solely down to buildings, of course. But while the construction industry can’t do much about vehicle emissions or global farming practices, there is a solution it can adopt which will help begin the long process of turning the ship around.

Time to put fabric first?

Fabric first means exactly what it suggests: concentrating on getting a building's fabric right. It is essential to a ‘fit and forget’ philosophy that building users will appreciate without even realising it. Once good building fabric has been constructed there is no need to worry about it, meaning minimal input from occupants whether they are clued up or not.

Maintenance-free energy efficiency is built in to the building fabric, for the life of the building. The founder of Passivhaus – a physicist with no background in construction – took an interest in buildings because he couldn't understand how energy efficiency was failing to improve despite the addition of extra insulation.

Building fabric that consistently delivers its intended level of performance results in healthy, comfortable, high quality environments for us to live and work in. And it removes the need for what some term as ‘eco-bling’ – complicated renewable technology that can be expensive, difficult to operate or maintain, less efficient than claimed, or have a service life shorter than the building's lifespan.

Fabric first can be employed on projects of any size, from the largest public building to the smallest domestic extension. And while it helps to safeguard Earth's future, it does not have to metaphorically cost the Earth. Some aspects cost more, some cost less; getting the balance right is the key.

It’s good to talk!

Producing genuine performance improvements means better communication. Making sure performance expectations are understood; educating clients, designers and specifiers in the benefits of a fabric first approach; ensuring that contractors are trained to deliver the expected standard of work.

Insulation has the biggest role to play in improving the thermal performance of buildings, but fabric first is about more. It’s about achieving continuous insulation, minimal thermal bridging, and high levels of airtightness.

Addressing these aspects of construction means thermal targets can be met and performance levels translated to the finished building. The finished building that we want future generations to use for decades to come.