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Which technologies will prosper in the year ahead?

The driving factors that will be the keys to success for certain technologies include the economic climate, legislation and rising energy costs, say industry experts.

Encraft managing director Matthew Rhodes asks: “Is the technology of the future determined by expert opinion or by customer demand? I think the lesson of 2011 for the UK must be that customers matter, and we ignore them at our peril in 2012.”

The current UK building stock provides huge opportunities for creating economic value through well-established and proven technologies such as building management systems and different types of wall insulation, he says.

There are also significant niche opportunities for heat pumps, solar thermal and biomass.

“We’ve also seen some interesting new technologies come to market, like Solar PVT, which combines solar PV with solar thermal. That works particularly well where there is a substantial heat demand, like a domestic swimming pool,” says Mr Rhodes.

None of these is yet truly mature in a commercial sense, but if some master technocrat could wave a magic wand and make sure the right technology was installed for each building, optimising energy performance while providing sensible returns on investment, then surely any or all of them would be the coming technology of 2012.

But technocrats do not rule the UK, he continues. Whitehall can employ as many consultants and set and change as many tariffs as it wants, but customers and investors know what they want.

They will go for technologies that promise minimum hassle during installation, deliver low running costs, tangible and predictable income, low project development risk and give them a sense of increased power and control over their futures.

And ideally it should all be visible, allowing a bit of keeping-ahead-of-the-Joneses.

“Consequently, I predict that despite the draconian cut in FiTs, Whitehall’s best efforts with the Green Deal and the universal laws of physics, wind turbines and solar PV will be with us for a long while yet,” says Mr Rhodes.

“Unlike King Canute and the DECC officials, who may wish to sit on the beach and command the tide to turn, the successful technologies, companies and national economies of 2012 will be those that go with the flow of customer and investor demand.”

It’s the economy, stupid

The continuing economic conditions are cited as a determining factor of future technology uptake by Remeha Commercial managing director Mark Northcott (pictured) who says the world has changed since the economic crisis.

“We live in a frugal economy where, despite our social and political responsibility to provide affordable food and fuel, in Europe the cost of fuel continues to spiral ever higher.

“In the commercial sector, we also face pressing environmental concerns and increased government legislation and targets.”

The current financial situation means measures and technologies that incorporate short paybacks need to be adopted to lower the UK’s carbon emissions and use energy more efficiently.

This is particularly relevant for existing buildings - and according to the Building Research Establishment report, 60 per cent of the buildings that will be standing in 2050 are already built. Therefore these buildings represent the real challenge.

“It is essential that any low-carbon and low-NOx technology we use from now on is both affordable and replicable,” Mr Northcott continues.

“It’s important too that when developing or producing new technology, we examine our fuel resources and use the fuel as cleanly as possible.

“Gas is still the cleanest fuel available, offering the shortest payback and cheapest installation costs, allowing us to fulfil our responsibility to provide affordable energy.

“That’s why I think that high-efficiency, super condensing, low-NOx gas boilers that offer clean combustion will see the most increase in demand in 2012, as they meet all these needs.”

Renewables are an important part of the mix, but it is important that this technology should be truly sustainable both environmentally and financially. “Technology that relies on government grants is almost certainly doomed to failure,” adds Mr Northcott.

Uncertain outlook

Dr Shaun Fitzgerald of Breathing Buildings also makes a point of the economic factor: “Much as I would like to think that the market will grow by 15 per cent [in 2012] and that I can help pick some winners and losers, that simply isn’t the case.

“At best the ventilation market will stall, but it could easily contract due to declining starts in 2011. There will be an unremitting focus on costs. But where 2012 could herald a change is that the focus on cost will extend to the running costs of a building.”

Clients now want buildings that have been well designed, are low energy with low running costs. “For the first time last week I saw a commercial office space offered for rent with the tag line ‘BREEAM Excellent’,” he says.

“Maybe we aren’t yet at the point where tenants will pay a premium, but they do see low energy as an entry requirement.”

That means low-energy ventilation will be the winner in 2012. Gone are the days when engineers can solve problems by throwing energy at a building. That means designing the right solution for the whole building, says Dr Fitzgerald.

The winners in 2012 will be those who can put smart natural ventilation and mechanical ventilation together without driving up heating bills or causing cold draughts. “Next year is the year ventilation moves out of a silo and into whole building design.”

Ventilation crucial

Continuing the theme of ventilation, Johnson & Starley commercial director Sean O’Sullivan says heat recovery systems have potential to develop further in 2012. Residential properties built to the Code for Sustainable Homes are like tightly sealed boxes.

“Yet a typical family of four can generate 5-10 litres of water vapour each day, so the air within it becomes saturated with water vapour,” he says.

“The result is an uncomfortable atmosphere and when the air in the house cools at night, it releases water vapour that condenses on to colder surfaces. This causes potentially longer-term damaging effects on the building fabric and fittings.”

To prevent condensation, Mr O’Sullivan explains, the relative humidity of the air must be kept below 70 per cent.

To achieve this, air temperature has to be increased, raising the question of fuel costs. The better method is to ventilate and dilute the moisture-laden air by using fresh air with a lower relative humidity.

To achieve this, simple extract fans or a whole-house central extract system can be effective, as they extract air from wet rooms and create a negative pressure that draws in fresh air through trickle vents. However, when these products extract, they also remove heat.

Alternatively, a modern heat recovery system that uses the heat to warm fresh incoming air, which is then supplied back in to the property, is better and up to 95 per cent efficient. This removes stale air while reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions.

The developer can seal and insulate to a high standard with the ventilation effectively managed by the heat recovery unit, says Mr O’Sullivan.

Good atmosphere

Zehnder UK brand manager Louise Harris agrees that cooling and air quality are the emerging issues in creating a comfortable indoor environment.

She says manufacturers have to take a more holistic approach to the overall indoor environment rather than simply concentrating on temperature.

“This is leading to the provision of indoor climate solutions rather than just products, with the growth of integrated energy centres where multifunctional units provide energy-efficient and sustainable heating, cooling, ventilation and hot water in one,” says Ms Harris.

She adds that heating and cooling products will also be more commonly combined with other building services, such as lighting and ventilation, to simplify installation and operation.

Low-temperature systems are the future and there will be a greater focus on the development of products which can work effectively with them, she continues.

New radiator technologies will come from developments in construction and operation, with the use of alternative materials such as graphite and supplementary functionality for additional heat output.

When connected to heat pumps, which can also supply cold water, radiators will require a dual function as part of the overall climate solution.

In conjunction with system innovations, the use of BIM modelling is set to the increase, stimulating a collaborative approach with designers that will reduce construction time and improve quality, Ms Harris concludes.