Thursday, October 29, 2015

Diesel scandal is new performance gap

David Frise, BESA Head of Sustainability

For years the building engineering industry has been urged to emulate car manufacturers.

‘Why can’t you deliver the performance guarantees they do?’ we were regularly asked.

‘Why is there such a huge performance gap between how a building is designed and how it performs when cars do just what they say on the tin?’ was a common lament from clients.

‘Why’, we were asked, ‘don’t you reinvent your industry so building owners can enjoy the same long-term reliability in their buildings that they get from their car suppliers?’

The VW diesel test scandal has just shifted the moral high ground somewhere downhill.


The news that toxic particulate emissions from diesel engines are likely to be FOUR TIMES higher than published figures has rocked consumers. Having spent years urging us to buy diesel cars to reduce global warming emissions, it appears we got it badly wrong. Perhaps most shocking is that the authorities knew that tests were “fudged” and turned a blind eye to sharp practice by allowing wing mirrors to be removed and door joints taped up to improve air flow and fuel efficiency. 

None of this alters the fact that we still have a performance problem in our industry; even if a building is a far more complex ‘product’ than a car.

Earlier this year, I highlighted the fact that commercial biomass projects were under-performing by as much as 20%, according to a report published by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), who admitted that this was leading to higher carbon emissions than predicted and undermining the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).


In order to qualify for RHI payments, a biomass boiler must operate at a minimum of 85% efficiency for converting fuel to energy, but the average rate of the installed boilers surveyed was 66.5%. In fact, the report showed that 76% was the best any of the installations could possibly achieve.

This might look like relatively small beer when compared to the diesel scandal, but lots of small mistakes aggregate up into a major performance problem, which is why the UK Green Building Council estimates that many new buildings use 200% more energy than they should.

The big difference is that our failure – our performance gap - is out there in the open for everyone to see and pick over. Our defence is, mainly, that too many members of our industry don’t understand how some of the ‘new’ technologies work in practice.  In only a few cases is there evidence of deliberate falsification or manipulation of test results – unlike the cheating of VW.

However, the scandal engulfing VW is a warning to us all. We are continually urged to improve our image to make our profession more appealing to young people and our companies more attractive to investors. The car industry achieved a stunning makeover by delivering great products and was able to charge a premium for performance warranties and long-term service plans as a result.


We have never achieved anything like the level of customer satisfaction they have, but now their hard won reputation is hanging by a thread and huge compensation claims are looming.

Ironically, there is a major role for our industry to play in the ‘clean up’ operation:  Rising levels of outdoor pollution are having a growing negative impact on the health and productivity of building occupants. B&ES is spearheading a campaign to raise awareness of the direct correlation between diesel particulates (among other outdoor pollution sources) and rising illness levels, particularly among vulnerable building users like hospital patients and school children, and the potential building engineering solutions.

The drive to improve indoor air quality (IAQ) could well be the catalyst for our star to rise while car manufacturers go through a long and painful process of rebuilding their reputations. If we could turn more buildings into clean air havens; what a boost that would be to our reputation. 

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