2/2009

Electricity gluttons live in low-energy houses

Matti Pentti

One of Matti Pentti's concerns is that thick layers of insulation will cool down
the outer walls of buildings, thus making them more susceptible to moisture
damage.

The development of low-energy houses has been hailed as an important step in halting global climate change. In addition to increasing the energy efficiency of buildings, researchers from TUT believe that we should also improve urban planning and tackle people's energy-wasting habits.

Global warming is a powerful incentive for reducing energy consumption in all fields of life. One area that holds potential for energy savings is the construction industry. Buildings account for 40 percent of the total energy use in Finland, for example in the form of heating.

This important and complex topic has sparked heated debate among scientists and the general public in Finland. Experts have not been able to reach mutual understanding of the best way to increase the energy efficiency of buildings. After the Finnish government decided to tighten insulation regulations, researchers from TUT commented that the new standards may also carry risks.

"We believe that tightening regulations is not the best way forward," says Professor of Structural Engineering Matti Pentti from TUT.

"Nevertheless, this problem should not be blown out of proportion. We can and should increase the energy efficiency of buildings. Structural solutions and details just need careful planning," says Pentti.

Houses, villages, cities

The discussion in Finland is part of a large-scale international debate. One pioneering country in the field is Germany, where the effects of construction-related emissions have been studied in more detail.

"It would be good if energy efficiency could be seen in broader perspective than merely as a home insulation debate in Finland, too," Pentti says.

This broader approach endorsed by Pentti also includes an evaluation of primary energy sources, which takes into account the energy used to produce building materials as well as residential energy use.

Urban planning has a significant effect on energy efficiency. It comprises, for example, zoning, infrastructure, architecture and transportation planning.

"The most effective changes should be made first, and investment should be directed to areas that hold the most potential for emission reductions," says Pentti.

In his view, we should also pay more attention to heating solutions and building technology.

Residents play a key part

The results of research projects headed by Senior Assistant Juha Vinha at TUT clearly demonstrate that residents play a key role in curbing energy use in buildings. Vinha investigated the energy consumption of 170 relatively new houses that were built according to the same standards. His findings revealed that the most energy-gluttonous houses used up to five times more energy per square metre than the most energy-efficient ones.

"This is a major problem especially in blocks of flats where the residents cannot see the concrete consequences of their actions. Unless we can tackle people's energy-wasting habits, other measures will have little effect," says Pentti.

Pentti believes that solutions to these problems will eventually be found. All in all, it is important that the matter is openly discussed.

It is certain that low-energy houses will become more popular in the future. In Finland, regulations for the energy efficiency of buildings will be tightened in 2010 and then again in 2012. The more stringent regulations will bring forth new business and research opportunities.

EU is currently preparing a new directive on energy efficiency that will have consequences for Finland, too. Thus, the green building debate is set to continue.

 

Text: Antti Routto
Photo: Petri Laitinen

 

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