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10th Ecobuild turns sustainable technology spotlight onto opportunities on the mainland, photovoltaic cells and digital construction modelling

Global regulatory issues, bad press for solar panels, the mainland's new commitment to sustainable design and construction dominated proceeding at the 10th London Ecobuild, the world's largest sustainable design event.

Photo: Sheep thrills: government backing drives solar panel sales.
Sheep thrills: government backing drives solar panel sales.

Strong winds and the wettest UK winter on record, climbing energy costs and a fragile economic recovery were among the subjects of discussion at Ecobuild 2014 – the world's largest forum for sustainable design, construction and the built environment.

The event saw the launch of Climate Week 2014, as well as the presentation of the Climate Week and Building Research Establishment (BRE) sustainable buildings awards ceremonies, as well as the UK Green Building Council's (UKGBC) Rising Star Award.

Many of the world's most highly regarded solutions providers – including Balfour Beatty, Mitsubishi and Travis Perkins – were in attendance at this year's event, the 10th annual iteration of Ecobuild. Fittingly, this year also saw the event welcome a number of key partners – notably the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), the Building Research Establishment (BRE) and the UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) department. This highlighted the importance of government policy, voluntary performance standards and co-operation in driving market growth within the industry.

As part of the proceedings, Edward Davey, the UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, announced a new consultation process for the Energy Companies Obligation programme and improvements to the Green Deal, a move intended to assist with the financing of energy efficient household replacements and improvements. The Department of Energy and Climate Change also took the opportunity to launch its Renewable Heat Incentive road show.

Consensus at the event was that environmental assessment standards, particularly the UK's BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology) and the United States's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) are currently playing crucial roles in steering a whole service industry of consultants, software packages and education courses.

On the global front, Cai Xujing, BRE's International Business Development Manager, said the organisation was now working closely with the Chinese authorities, with a strong equivalence emerging between BREEAM and the Chinese Star system. BRE is also working with the Beijing Green Building Park on a new eco-friendly initiative, said to include 20 innovative buildings and a sustainable landscape programme.

Go East young man

Rapid construction in China was identified as a major opportunity for UK architectural and consultancy firms during a presentation by Angela Brady, former President of the Royal Institute of British Architects. She said: "British firms have successfully delivered high-density, high-rise buildings with strong vertical separation strategies. UK multi-disciplinary teams are particularly suited to those highly integrated projects that combine mixed use with mass transit facilities."

In light of the vast opportunities on offer, a number of speakers at the event were keen to emphasise their experiences in Asia. Sir Terry Farrell, the architect responsible for both the Beijing South and Guangzhou Stations (two of the largest railway terminals in Asia), addressed the lessons learnt from his company's work across the mainland and in Hong Kong. A number of other leading lights in the UK architectural industry – including Chris Wilkinson (Wilkinson Eyre Architects) and Ken Dytor (Urban Catalyst) – also identified China as a major opportunity for European expertise.

Matthew Downing, Head of the China Energy, Environment, Construction, UK Trade and Investment Department at the British Embassy in Beijing, cited a number of initiatives by the mainland government that underlined its environmental commitment.

He highlighted the fact that five provinces and eight cities were currently piloting low-carbon initiatives, promoting energy-efficient building design and nurturing low-carbon communities. Promoting the government assistance available to any UK companies looking to pursue opportunities, he also drew attention to China's construction activities elsewhere in the world, notably Europe and Africa.

He said: "As the mainland government is providing financial backing for many major construction projects throughout Africa and Europe, it is important for European businesses to build relationships with their Chinese counterparts."

As part of a well-attended UK Department of Trade and Industry seminar, Roger Yao, the Senior Trade and Investment Officer at the British Consulate in Shanghai, and Tony Yu, a Hong Kong-based Trade and Industry Officer, provided practical advice to those UK companies looking to target the China market. In particularly, they highlighted opportunities in Macau, the West Kowloon Cultural District and the multi-purpose sports complex at Kai Tak.

Carrot or stick?

Moving away from specific projects, a focus for many was how to ensure construction companies and consumers bought into eco-friendly developments and initiatives. With regulatory compliance viewed as one of the most important drivers of growth in the sustainable building market, few operators, it seems, are willing to pay a premium and exceed these minimum standards. This is despite the fact that grants and low interest loans have been made widely available in many countries.

Addressing the issue, Gordon E. Palmer of GEP Developments, a UK-based environmental consultancy, said: "Most clients across the world are more concerned with building costs than energy efficiency. While some commercial clients use green credentials as part of their marketing, this is still very much a minority approach."

Photo: Wheatley: champion of BIM.
Wheatley: champion of BIM.
Photo: Alba: PV proponent.
Alba: PV proponent.

Another key theme at the event was the ascendancy of Building Information Modelling (BIM) [digital 3D renderings of proposed and existing constructions] as a means of co-ordinating a range of environmentally-sustainable initiatives. Craig Wheatley, Technical Director of Glasgow-based Integrated Environmental Solutions, said: "BIM allows the co-ordination of design input from a variety of professional stakeholders and can show the impact of any individual initiative on a project's overall development. This type of project management – from initial drawings to completion – substantial reduces waste and the need to rework designs."

According to Wheatley, drawing on industry standard protocols, BIM allows information on any building's theoretical performance – in relation to building codes and sustainability standards – to be generated as construction progresses. This allows initial assumptions to be replaced by actual data measurements in real time.

The upshot of this is a dramatic improvement in the accuracy of the building model and the elimination of the "performance gap" [the variance between intent and delivery] that often occurs. Such data is then not just available for certification purposes, but also provides a basis for on-going monitoring post-occupancy.

This concept of building management through adopting intelligent systems has its equivalent in other market sectors. In the heating sector, for instance, Daikin Air Conditioning (Hong Kong) Limited's Altherma Hybrid Heat Pump combines a high-efficiency gas combi-boiler with a renewable-energy heat pump, all in one efficient, compact heating system. Craig Payne, a Sales Engineer with Daikin, said: "This smart, hybrid unit automatically selects the most energy-efficient and cost-effective operation."

Despite the UK-centric nature of the event, developments over in Germany also spurred much comment. In May last year, the German government introduced subsidies for photovoltaic storage systems for the first time. Together with falling feed-in tariff rates for surplus electricity and rising purchase tariff rates, this has caused a surge of interest in the sector (estimated to be worth US$19 billion by 2017) and saw a number of first time exhibitors appearing at Ecobuild this year.

One such exhibitor was FitcraftEnergy, with the UK company debuting its LA2016 LiFePO4 storage cell (complete with battery management system) at the event. According to David Davies, one of the company's directors, it has already appointed agents in Australia and Pakistan, and was now looking to Asia. It is also seeking OEM collaborations and partnerships with solar energy groups.

Photovoltaic (PV) panels were on offer from a number of companies, including two Shanghai manufacturers – Chinaland Solar Energy and Jinko Solar. Around 50% of the world's PV panels are made in China, including the majority of Canadian Solar's product range.

Addressing the progress made in the sector over recent year, Manuela Alna, Canadian Solar's Technical Sales Engineer, said: "PV technology is now achieving conversion efficiencies of around 16%, with a guaranteed lifetime of 25 years. Even higher efficiencies, above 21%, are being achieved with Next Generation ELPS [Efficient, Long-term, Photovoltaics Technology] products that employ metal wrap through technology."

With solar panels having received a degree of negative press recently, Danya Golan, Marketing Manager of UK and Netherlands-based SolarEdge, believes many of the common problems are easily remedied. She said: "The relative efficiency – or otherwise – of panels tends to be the result of variable manufacturing tolerances, partial shading, uneven soiling/inappropriate tilt angles and badly-implemented fault monitoring."

A number of manufacturers exhibited solar thermal panels and storage tanks, among them Cambridge-based Viridian Solar. According to Stuart Elmes, the company's Chief Executive, its USP is its newly-launched Pod. This is said to simplify installation, while also solving the interface problem between retro-fitted solar thermal panels and existing heating systems.

According to Mark Atkins, a Building Services Surveyor with the Newlon Housing Trust London, upgrading homes and existing heating systems is one of the biggest issues facing the industry globally. In the UK alone, millions of homes require refurbishing to cope with changing energy demands and to comply with pre-sale certification requirements.

Photo: Eco-built: a make-shift multiplex.
Eco-built: a make-shift multiplex.

Ecobuild 2014 was held at the ExCeL Centre in London's Docklands from 4-6 March. The event attracted delegates from 121 countries and featured 1,300 exhibitors from 29 countries. A total of 44,538 visitors attended this year.

Glenville Holmes, Special Correspondent, London

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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