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Eco Building

Report from The Bangkok Post

Save energy and maybe save lives

Buildings account for about half the world's consumption of fossil fuels. Producing buildings that are less dependent on oil is the only long term, sustainable way to reduce the power of America over our lives.

LUCIANA MELCHERT SAGUAS PRESAS

As the war on Iraq rumbles forward against the will of the majority of the world's citizens, we need to ask ourselves if there is any way to avoid the periodical outbreak of such conflicts more effective than protesting on the streets.

It is no surprise that this war was launched against the backdrop of a cost-benefit analysis carefully calculated by the United States. As many commentators have made clear, American pressure for the disarming of Iraq is more about controlling the Near East's oil reserves to meet the needs of an expanding empire than about combating terrorism.

The immediate benefits for America will obviously result from its share of sales of Iraqi oil. But let's not also ignore the indirect profit it will earn by reinforcing the policy of using oil-based energy to run the entire world. The likely impact on the emergence of new Osama bin Ladens aside, this war will probably carry a huge cost which the whole world will have to repay in years to come.

If we carefully analyse the costs and benefits of the race for oil, it is obvious that those who will pay the bill for this war _ and thus subsidise the war industry _ are the consumers of energy.

Rather than protest in the streets for what could be a lost cause, there are other means we can pursue to limit America's ambitions, one of which is a serious energy savings policy.

Yet, as obvious as this is, energy saving has been a missed opportunity. This oversight results in part from the strong economic interests, especially prevalent in the United States, that have been so successful in limiting the impact of alternatives to oil, such as solar and other renewable sources. It also is largely due to the fact that people around the world, particularly in the largest cities, are not doing enough to change the practice of oil consumption, which not only is destabilising the ecology of the planet through global warming but now increasingly places safety issues at stake.

Cities and their buildings, though occupying only 2% of the Earth's surface, account for 75% of the consumption of the world's resources, including oil. Buildings alone, including homes, offices, commercial facilities and so forth, directly or indirectly use half the commercial energy of the planet, be it through their systems of acclimatisation (air-conditioning/heating) and lighting or through the manufacture of its components, such as cement, steel, aluminium and so on. In England, for instance, the energy used in the manufacture of building materials accounts for 10% of the country's total commercial energy.

There are now numerous solutions to minimise the oil dependence of buildings, ranging from energy efficient materials _ for instance, high efficiency windows, insulation, bricks, concrete and masonry _ to high performance technologies _ such as energy saving appliances, advanced lighting controls and thermostats, efficient heating and cooling systems, solar water heating systems, heat recovery systems and photovoltaics, among others.

In addition, and most important, the solutions involve passive strategies _ that is, better orienting and siting of buildings, calculating glazing size and its location strategically, considering natural ventilation and appropriate shading for cooling, and so forth. A building in Rome used a large vertical garden to control overheating in summer. A 60-storey skyscraper in Frankfurt uses natural ventilation to reduce the use of air-conditioning, without jeopardising its structural stability. In Amsterdam, a company opted for low energy materials in the construction of its headquarters.

Common to these solutions is the understanding that buildings are not isolated from the surrounding environment.

The glass box concept largely imposed by American culture, which now dominates the landscape of major cities, has to be discarded, in particular in regions where solar gains are too intensive, such as here in Bangkok.

Perhaps a suggestion for Southeast Asia would be to have a look at what neighbouring Malaysia is doing, in view of the solutions proposed by architect Ken Yeang. His buildings are breaking away radically from the glass box tradition and creating forms that suit the local context and lead to serious energy savings. Another option could be to review the architecture of traditional Thai settlements and the passive solutions they applied to see how they could be translated into the modern building culture.

Reductions in energy consumption can vary from 100%, with the most drastic proposals, to 40-50%, with more reasonable approaches. Of course, and as a result of the economic impediments mentioned above, it will require a great deal of trial (and probably error) by architects, developers, engineers and their clients.

But it is clear that continuing to practise design solutions based on the air-conditioned model is not only emblematic of support for the American culture, it demonstrates the current subordination and vulnerability of our countries to policies designed abroad.

Energy saving buildings could be the best way to reduce the impact of a unilateral power on our daily lives and achieve a better-balanced world in the future.

- Luciana Melchert Saguas Presas is a Brazilian architect specialising in energy saving buildings. She is currently carrying out a comparative analysis in Bangkok based on policies implemented in the Netherlands, China and Brazil.


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