Skills for the future

Digital construction and zero carbon buildings are changing how the building services industry develops its engineers, says Hywel Davies

As noted in this column last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report underlines the urgent need to change how we build, maintain and refurbish our built environment to reduce its emissions.

We are also seeing the advance of digital technologies into our sector: building information modelling; robotics; factory-based assembly using modern manufacturing techniques; and artificial intelligence in the design and construction of buildings. There is also greater use of sensors and information systems in buildings and infrastructure, to inform the operation of built assets.

We face the challenges of the Clean Growth Strategy, decarbonising the electricity grid, phasing out high-carbon fossil fuels, adopting lower-carbon heating technologies, and switching to electric vehicles. And we have the very clear call from Dame Judith Hackitt for a change in the culture of our industry.

All these demands require us to build and behave differently. So we must think about how we train the next generation of engineers in digital, low carbon construction, using decentralised energy and focusing on buildings as systems that need to be safe throughout their life.

What are the implications of this for our universities? What changes need to be made to the courses of study that those coming into our industry follow?

The move to low or zero carbon buildings will change the way we teach building design. Systems that we currently take for granted will be less favoured in future. Changes in the carbon intensity of electricity generation also alter some of the assumptions we make about heating systems.

As we move to a decarbonised grid, the argument for fossil-fuelled heat generators changes, and the need for newer technologies – such as heat pumps – grows. But we know successful adoption of these technologies requires good design, and good design requires an understanding of the technology and the physics of the building as an overall system into which this technology will be installed.

”A new set of skills is required in the design of buildings for a digital, decentralised, low carbon, post-Hackitt world”

As we move towards a distributed, decentralised energy system, with significant levels of renewable energy generation, the whole basis of the grid must change. Managing peaks of supply and demand will also become more challenging as we shift to more electric heating and electric vehicles. We will need new ways of managing demand to avoid the need for significant and costly upgrades to the distribution network – upgrades that, in some parts of the UK, may take years.

We need storage to maximise the use of renewable energy on a mildly windy sunny day. Electric vehicles have the potential to be both an opportunity for storage and a challenge, by creating peak demand when everyone wants to recharge them – at night!

These emerging trends require a new set of skills, not just in low carbon design of buildings, but in the design of the built environment for a digital, decentralised, low carbon, post-Hackitt world. This, in turn, requires courses that CIBSE and other professional bodies accredit to evolve, so that the skills of those who emerge from these courses keep pace.

This is nothing new. Several years ago, the need for a new skill set for the design of sustainable buildings led CIBSE to work with the Royal Academy of Engineering to recognise four Centres of Sustainable Building Design (see panel below).

Heriot Watt, Sheffield, Loughborough and University College, London set up the centres to address the need for interdisciplinary teaching to deliver graduates more able to meet the current and future needs of the built environment sector. They now offer training that bridges architecture and engineering, and considers the need for more sustainable buildings in everyday practice.

Those who lead the centres – and, indeed, all those who train the next generation of engineers for the built environment – are continuing to develop and evolve that training. They recognise that it is essential to meet the needs of our sector and to deliver a new generation of engineers equipped for the challenges of distributed energy, digitalisation and zero carbon.

CIBSE and its members should do all we can to support and encourage them.

Centres of excellence

Centres of Excellence In 2013, the Royal Academy of Engineering recognised four Centres of Excellence in Sustainable Building Design at the universities of Heriot Watt, Loughborough, Sheffield and University College London. The centres work as a network to produce built-environmental professionals with the knowledge and skills to deliver affordable sustainable design.