Interview: Prof Sue Roaf

by Apr 08, 2011 No Comments
Heriot-Watt University Professor Sue Roaf on building homes fit for a low-carbon future

In 1994, Professor Sue Roaf set out to design and build Britain’s first low energy eco-house. After spending ten years in the 1980s travelling with nomads in Iran and Iraq and seeing the effects that climate change were having on Middle-Eastern temperatures, she returned to the UK feeling that it was time for the western world to set an example.

“It was basically done to prove that you could run your life on zero carbon,” explains Roaf, professor of architectural engineering at Heriot-Watt University’s School of the Built Environment. The six-bedroom house in Oxford was completed 18 months later in March 1995 and is still considered one of the best examples of low carbon housing in Britain today.  portfolio-environment-2-2

The project also proved that a low-carbon lifestyle could be achieved without sacrificing comfort and at little extra expense.

“My house cost the same as any other house,” she says.

“Planners loved it because it looked ordinary, it wasn’t ‘look at me’ architecture or shock art or architecture as a piece of sculpture, it was just an ordinary house, in an ordinary street, in an ordinary community and I think the consequence of that was really important.

“The first example of photovoltaics in Britain and at that scale was in an ordinary house that people could relate to. So the postman and the milkman and the local community groups could say, ‘oh, I’d like a house like that’.”

Every inch of the house has been designed with sustainability and efficiency in mind. The roof is made from photovoltaic solar panels that generate enough energy for the whole household, exporting any extra power to the National Grid. Hot water is heated by separate solar panels, triple glazed windows reduce the amount of heat lost through glass and the brick cavity walls of the house have been insulated using fibre blocks which ensure that maximum heat is retained in winter. The building is shaded in summer to cool the concrete down even on the hottest of days.

One lesson that Roaf, who has since co-authored two textbooks on low-carbon housing which are widely used, learned from the eco-house project was that investing in energy generation, although initially expensive, really pays off in the long term. Even after two of the coldest winters in recent years, she only pays “a couple of hundred quid a year” in energy costs – an amazing figure for a six-bedroom house considering the average UK dual fuel energy bill is around £1,133.

She would strongly recommend others to follow her lead and invest in their own energy in order to ‘future-proof’ themselves.

“As a matter of priorities, do you have a really fancy kitchen and a really fancy bathroom or do you actually put it into creating a house that costs very little energy to run?” she asks.

“And so what I did was when I was in my 40s, I invested in a house that would future proof me to keep me safe.

“I still own the house – I’ve got a son and a lodger there – and I went back at the height of this really cold winter and they virtually, some days, didn’t even have to light the fire. It runs on one wood-burning stove and three radiators in the north-facing rooms, so even in extreme weather, if all the electricity fails the temperature in there never gets below about 17 so your safe and it keeps you physically safe and as I get older, even if I can’t run lots of energy, I won’t die of hypothermia.”

While the tragedy of older people dying of hypothermia in their own home seems like it should be a thing of the past, the figures show otherwise. In 2008/09, the General Register Office for Scotland recorded 3140 deaths between December and March as due to winter conditions. The previous year’s figure, when temperatures were a lot milder, was 2050.

That 1090 more deaths occurred during a period of unusually cold weather cannot just be coincidence. As energy prices increase and winter temperatures drop, Roaf firmly believes that people should take action to secure their own energy future.

“If you future-proof yourself now, you’ll keep yourself safe in your old age, so you have to put in all the insulation, put in your solar, because whatever anybody says is that you can build all the big windfarms in the world or all the nuclear; the point is that you still have to pay for that energy.

“There is only one energy source that will [definitely] lift you out of fuel poverty and that is if you own your own source of generation,” Roaf says.

portfolio-environment-2-1She also argues that while people do need to focus on becoming more individually energy independent, this is best done by taking a community approach and she has been hugely impressed by the work of the Solar Cities project in Dundee. Started by Elaine Morrison in 2006 after attending an international conference on solar cities, in the past few months alone, the project has seen almost 60 solar roofs fitted. A partnership with Dundee City Council means that solar panels can be bought in bulk by the local authority and sold on at cost price to households.

In an effort to improve our understanding of eco-houses and build up the construction industry’s confidence in them, Heriot-Watt’s Energy Group is about to begin its Riccarton eco-village project later this month. Twenty homes will be built using different combinations of renewable energy technologies and materials and postgraduate students will live in the houses, with avatars of them created in order to see what energy impact their behaviour would have in any one of the houses. Energy use in each building will be monitored in a bid to establish which combination is most energy efficient and will also be able to provide guides for the costs involved in low-carbon building.

Roaf is extremely excited about the project, which is being directed by architect Gary Clark and will also involve experts from Edinburgh Napier University, Strathclyde University and the newly established Edinburgh Centre on Climate Change. She has put forward some of her own design ideas and is looking forward to finding out whose design comes up trumps.

“Everybody needs help with this [agenda]. This is what I hope this eco village will do, is that people will actually know what to do. Because lots of people are being pushed and squeezed to go low carbon but where are you best to spend your investment? So basically, the building industry will then be able to see where to make the most cost-effective choices to lower the carbon.

“What is the best choice? Nobody really knows. I don’t know. I’m not going to know until…I would put a tenner on my design idea being right but I probably wouldn’t go above that. I mean, if you see Sean Smith [consulting engineer] at Napier, he’d probably put a tenner on a different combination, so none of us know and we’re the experts,” she says, pointing out how important the project is likely to be in terms of informing decisions.

About £1.5m in funding is still needed for the project and Roaf is hopeful that this can be raised, with some of the money coming from the Scottish Government.

The eco-village project is just one of the ways in which the School of the Built Environment has changed in recent years. Gone are the days of teaching students how to create things like big air-conditioning systems; energy efficiency is now at the heart of everything they learn.

On this, Roaf says: “It’s been a complete revolution in the past five years. We got reviewed here last week by the Chartered Institute of Building Service Engineers and they said that they thought that our course was really visionary and that we were leading the way,”

“We’re doing what I would say is good Heriot-Watt common sense. Some people might see it as leading edge but it’s just looking at the writing on the wall; climate change, increasing energy costs, 21st-century building design, not the vestiges of 20th-century building design which evolved in a world in which energy was almost free.”

But it is not only Heriot-Watt’s ability to rise to the low-carbon challenge that Roaf has faith in; she also has unwavering belief that Scotland does too. Heriot-Watt’s professor of petroleum engineering Patrick Corbett coined the phrase ‘carbon enlightenment’, saying he believed Scotland would be at the forefront once again. Roaf fully agrees.

“The Scottish are better thinkers than anybody out there. It is a particular Scottish mindset which is can-do,” she says.

“And if Patrick’s right and our dreams are met then we will lead the carbon enlightenment.”

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