The greenhouse effect makes life on earth possible. An increase in greenhouse gases, however, originating from human activity is threatening our climate. For Malta, this means that our already scorching summers will become more unbearable and sectors like agriculture and tourism will be disrupted by desertification because of the irreversible loss of many species of plants and animals.
The evidence is haunting and the alarm bells are deafening. And, yet, we still find it somewhat uncomfortable to start a dialogue about these issues, let alone act. But we must start from somewhere.
Buildings are the biggest culprits of energy consumption. They also globally account for 40 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. That makes buildings both the largest contributor and the key solution to mitigating climate change.
For a long time, buildings were only thought to be a lifeless combination of several resources, plugged into the electrical grid, that provide shelter for humans. Over time, we started to realise that the buildings we live in directly mirror our lifestyle and that any changes we make in the way we live are reflected in the architecture we build.
Buildings can be self-sufficient. For a building to be carbon-neutral, any resultant carbon emissions from a construction project need to be counterbalanced by renewable energy and carbon storage. Buildings emit carbon in two ways: there are the emissions from the materials to build them and emissions from the fuels needed to operate the building.
The selection of low-energy, low-carbon materials is the key to minimise construction emissions. Reducing the operating emissions is where it becomes important to get the design right. From a design point of view, every decision needs to be made to reduce energy consumption as much as possible.
With proven and commercially available technologies, the energy consumption in both new and existing buildings can be cut by an estimated 30–50 per cent, without significantly increasing investment costs.
While the design phase of a construction project remains the best time to take the important decisions to minimise energy consumption, this does not mean that old buildings cannot be transformed or retrofitted. A well-engineered, well-designed energy retrofit saves enough energy for a return on investment within a few years.
By designing buildings with the local climate and context in mind, energy can be saved.
For Malta, it is essential to plan the building for a hot, windy and humid climate with little precipitation.
Among the many possible design choices, this means orienting and shaping the building to invite in natural light during the day, having natural ventilation systems to mitigate the problem of too much moisture, having well-designed shading systems to provide solar protection during overheated periods and allowing solar radiation during under-heated periods.
It also means having absorbing and reflective materials in the right places, having well-insulated walls and right-sized windows made of the right materials, choosing high-efficiency equipment, installing photovoltaic panels on the roof and using trees and greeneries as shading devices.
‘Dirtier’ buildings will not have any value in the future when carbon-neutral buildings become the norm and not the exception to the rule. There are some problems, however, that need to be addressed for this to become a reality. Technology is always advancing and there will always be new ways of doing things better, which is why building codes and policies need to be constantly revised and improved.
Unfortunately, the building industry moves at an incredibly slow pace in adapting to change. And this is where politicians come in. We can use our position to ensure positive changes and to act on such issues that our politicians have so far ignored. The Nationalist Party has put the environment and climate change at the top of its list of priorities and we are offering solutions that can make a difference to the way we live.
While we acknowledge that the construction industry is part of our economic life, this does not mean we should build without any forethought. While carbon-neutral architecture alone will not stop climate change, we need to change the mentality that we cannot make a difference.
Malta should lead by example, especially considering our small size, and ensure each sector works towards a sustainable future. Intelligent, efficient buildings with low energy consumption are just one of the solutions, providing a platform for further change.
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