Battle against air conditioning

Copyright: David Lawson - first published Financial Times November 1994

Twenty years ago you would have been hard pressed to find a new building with full air-conditioning in the UK. Such technology seemed pointless in a temperate climate. Today it is difficult to find one that is not festooned with   "comfort cooling".  The term has been  imported from the US - and there lies part of the reason for this sea change. It is what Tim Battle, an engineer trying to turn back the tide of technology, calls an invasion by the Coca-Cola society. In other words, adoption of all things American, glitzy and  futuristic in the striving to be modern.

  This has infuriated conservationists, who argue that such energy-hungry systems, with their CFCs and  potential health risks are an unnecessary luxury. Some of the very engineers who have to design and build the systems are often sympathetic. "Modern technology is very seductive," says David Lush, a consultant with Ove Arup and past president of the Chrtered Institution of Building Services Engineers.

  Disapproving noises  are also coming from the government, which tried earlier this year to pu draconian restrictions on air-conditioning in the next round of building regulation reforms. "There is a general disappointment that they failed," says Kenneth Dales, president of REHVA, the European Heating and Air Conditioning Associations. The industry won a reprieve by arguing that blanket restrictions were wrong. but ministers have made it plain they expect designers to come up with measures that ensure fewer systems are installed, and those that get through are more efficient.

  Equpment manufacturuers feel the problem has been over-stated. In real terms, air-conditioning accounts for less than 1 per cent of the UK's output of carbon dioxide and  less than 4 per cent of energy consumed by the commercial building sector, according to York International the world's largest producer.  Advances in technology are making the figures look even better, while CFCs will also have disappeared by 1995, it says.

   But it is harder to argue away the conclusion that  air-conditioning has been overused. Growth of new technolgy has meant greater demands on cooling systems from computers crammed into even the most mundane workplace. As the noise and dirt of city centres kept windows  closed, this soon became a standard fitting for most  city centre buildings. It then spread to business parks and suburbs where the need for such systems is less clear.  A combination of recession and fears about global warming may be about to create another sea change, however. Engineers have always blamed developers for over-specifying buildings. They, in turn, accuse estate agents, who claim occupiers will not take anything less than full variable air volume (VAV) systems.

  But  one of the country's largest developers is about to test this law in a 140,000 sq ft block planned for central Croydon. "Our findings show that occupiers are willing to pay a little more for a greener building which cuts energy bills by 30 per cent," says Bob Delafield, project manager for Norwich Union. This desire to cut current running costs - tinged by fear that some kind of carbon tax will emerge later this decade to make things even worse - is still at the experimental stage. Building will not start until a tenant decides that energy-saving is vital and signs up for the space. NU is also hedging its bets. This is not one of those "landmark" developments which turns up every few years, boasting complete lack of air-conditioning in favour of natural ventilation.

 "Those are plainly not feasible on anything other than a greenfield site where you have freedom to manipulate important factors like orientation to the sun," says Graham Love, head of project consultancy at Jones Lang Wootton.   The Croydon scheme is is likely to offer "appropriate" cooling such as displacement air techniques, which  cut running costs to around half the level of full VAV. But the designs are  still  flexible enough for future occupiers to fit the kind of systems they desire.  It will be "capable" of using low-energy methods, says Bill Dickson of architects Sheppard Robson. Occupiers will have to decide  whether to use that capability.

  Success will be judged by the business world not in environmental terms but  a swift letting. That  could lead to further schemes taking off. Mr Dickson has three others on the drawing board, while Tim Battle, a veteran low-energy campaigner with engineers Rybka Smith Ginsler and Battle, is also hoping to spread his efforts beyond this development. He is advising the Prudential on plans for 250,000 sq ft of offices on the site of Forbury House, Reading, an obsolete Sixties building. This could involve energy-saving construction such as minimising solar gain, as well as "appropriate" air-conditioning.

 It is also significant that both are city-centre sites, says Mr Battle, destroying the myth that such developments are restricted to green fields.  Norwich Union may also  try these  new ideas on a proposed  office blockin City Square, Leeds, although chilled ceilings could be more appropriate for this site.

  No amount of success is likely to see  central London, the powerhouse of office building, swept up in such changes, however. Rents are much lower in places like Croydon and Leeds, so running costs play a bigger role and are more important to tenants. "If we took this to the City or West End, it is  much less likely to be accepted," says Mr Delafield.

  But success in Croydon would be a significant break with the stultifying "institutional standard" blamed for blanket provision of full air-conditioning in so many office buildings. Letting agents will take immediate interest and give way to engineers' pleas for systems which suite individual needs."We are teetering on the edge of change," says Mr Dickson. "Developers know they must provide cheaper buildings.  Employers realise that essential staff will not be retained by flashy gimmicks and gold-plated taps."

 That means a combination of economy and comfort - all within increasingly stringent regulations.   Air-conditioning is not going to disappear, despite the wishes of dedicated conservationists. But it will be brought under control  Perhaps this is a good time to change the name to comfort-cooling after all, if only to get away from the idea that buildings either have air-conditioning or donn't. Far more effort will now go into appropriate systems selected form  a wide spectrum services  honed to greater efficiency.