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Energy for Real © Ian RitchieMonetary economics has so far failed to find a way of dealing with social costs or with renewable resources. The present western mania (indeed more and more global) for development based on a mechanistic and materialistic viewpoint, supported by the present inadequate economic methodology has led to increased pollution, both on a global and local scale. To most economists it appears that the social and environmental costs still remain intangible. One may think that the point of economics is to help us manage the world better, however I suspect that few economists see it this way. It seems inevitable that there must be a change in the current economic way of thinking. Man developed the present model, and our actions still maintain it. A sustainable economy means a more compassionate one, in the way we relate to each other and the planet. The earth owes man nothing.

Is not the art of living the ultimate art? In the end, it is not the planet which is at risk but man’s place (and existence) with it. Our present concern for the planet appears to be a reflection of our selfishness. We hear and talk about the loss of the world’s natural resources, plant and living organisms, both in our own country and across the planet, but more often than not in the camouflaged context of our human survival through nature’s diverse resource for human welfare (medical, etc).

Access to hard facts on energy, labour, social impact, recyclability, and the renewability of materials used in construction is very difficult. Graphs depicting comparative energy consumption of, for example, extracting raw materials or of processing them do exist. However, these ‘facts’, important as they are in signalling awareness, represent little in terms of the more complete picture. For example, we do not necessarily have the combined knowledge of the energy source used, their comparative polluting effects, the effect of these processes on health of the workers in these industries and consequent social as well as economic cost, etc. It is a mistake to assume that graphs/tables such as these give a whole picture. The importance and dependence on such abstracted and limited data discredits us. It is in these sorts of areas that information needs careful examination. Eventually, one hopes, we will have clear data on which to make our more holistic judgements on not just materials, but the entire construction process and the way we access and use our built architecture; in fact a more whole picture of the consequences of our decisions and choices.

© Ian Ritchie 10/94

Fluy House - solar energy systems 1976FLUY HOUSE, FRANCE, 1976-77

Use of passive solar energy for space heating by means of east & west facade radiant energy absorbing panels. Single fan transfers energy to below ground storage, and underside of suspended ground floor slab. Fresh air pre-heated by garden solar collector. South facade allows direct solar gain into space, and internal thermal curtain drawn at night. High level of roof insulation. The structure weighed only 12kg / m2. 1978 – 86 the space heating consumption was 50% less than equivalent developer housing.


Use of passive solar energy for space heating by means of glazed roofs and absorbing partially self-built panels. Direct air to air energy exchange via heat pump. No solar energy storage. Solar water panels designed but not installed.


Three south facing large glass conservatories which generated their own heating requirements, ensuring thermal autonomy from the 1.2 million m3 air conditioned museum. Revolutionary structural glass fixing (world patent) now licensed in Europe, USA & Japan.


World’s first light transmitting roof which conformed to current (1986) thermal insulation standards (U value 0.5). Light transmission 4% of incident light. Composed of an inner and an outer skin of Teflon coated glass fibre, 600 mm thickness of Fibair (optically white, spun glass fibre), Tedlar film vapour barrier, and ventilated air space. Two rotating roof apertures – sliced cylinders incorporating arrays of computer controlled mylar faced mirrors reflecting solar rays. The mirrors could track and rotate, which, with the rotating aperture, enabled full control of the sun’s rays throughout the year. They could also provide black-out.

EdF High Voltage Pylons 1999, FranceNATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM OF THE BOAT, LONDON, UK, 1984

A non-air conditioned museum which exploited the thermal mass and stable ground unbuilt temperature. The building was half in and half out of the ground. Its roof also incorporated mass through a landscaped roof and stone amphitheatre.


All glass offices, exploiting high performance glass coatings – low E, ceramic frit, and the world’s first structural glass double glazing facades designed and developed with Pilkington. The building’s thermal envelope was 30% better than the Building Regulations requirement at the time. We were unable to convince the client to allow for a natural ventilation strategy.


An all-timber construction (sustainable source), and locally fabricated, which exploits passive solar energy gain in winter, yet protects from excessive summer radiation. A very highly insulated building.


The world’s largest all glass structure, opened in 1996 as the main arrival hall for visitors to the new Leipzig International Exhibition Centre. During winter the internal temperature is maintained at 8°C, with underfloor heating supplementing passive solar gain when necessary. In summer, 1000m2 of low and high level ventilation louvres open. One third of the south facing glass is fritted to provide shading. During excessively hot periods, cool water circulates through the underfloor coils, and de-ionised water is sprayed externally over the glass to provide evaporative cooling of the surface.

Terrasson Cultural Greenhouse, France, 1992-6


A design which exploits solar radiation in the classic tradition of the European greenhouse. The mass for energy storage is found in the “gabion” walls. These are composed of unprocessed rocks from the local quarry laid into wire cages. It was the world’s first use of gabions to form the walls of a building, and the first use of freestanding (vertical cantilevers) gabion. The walls are watered during summer to provide evaporative cooling and to irrigate the citrus plants which line the inside of the wall. The building has a permanent ventilation opening around the entire perimeter between the walls and the flat laminated glass roof. The glass roof incorporates the world’s first hidden structural fixing. The building creates its own micro-climate throughout the year. It is used for exhibitions, theatre and as a tea house. A supplementary hot water heating supply was installed to the gallery level.


The design of the club house building exploits gabion construction to provide environmental protection from cold easterly winds, to create an unheated circulation buffer zone between the entrance and access to changing rooms. Alcohol-vapour solar energy panels integrated into the roof design are incorporated as pre-heaters for the shower water supply. The Building was officially opened by the Princess Royal in April 2000. The scheme received Sports Council Lottery funding.


The design of this permanent concert platform exploits the only man-made material that is designed to naturally weather and in the process self protect and finish its surface without the need for additional protective coatings. The material is a naturally rusting steel – Corten A. The building was conceived bearing in mind that it would be unused for two thirds of the year. It has only trace heating of essential services to ensure winter protection. The stage is naturally weathering oak form a sustainable source.

20,000 V discharge 3 D light forms, detail, 1985PV SELLS – PV CELLS – OR, IS UK ADVERTISING BETTER THAN THINKING?

So, architects advocate photovoltaic cells as part of a green approach to their buildings. How many remember the early cells used for satellites made from Gallium arsenide ? Pretty nasty stuff. Nowadays, it is more common to find them made of second-grade chip silicon.

Should we be surprised to find that the production of PV Si cells is near electronic chip factories? How many architects know how they work? -the freeing of electrons by photon energy.

Or how long they last ? – at best 25 years.
Or what is the real pay-back period ? – 100 – 120 years when there is no subsidy, which someone is paying for anyway. Unfortunately, the PV cells died 75 years ago!
Or how efficient are they ? – currently marketed amorphous Si modules achieve about 5% in use, 10% at very best, and theoretically only 27%. (Vacuum tubes are 70% irradiation conversion efficient – only for heating water ?)
Or how much they cost? – they say between £ 12 – 15/Wp, but some went up last year by 10%.
Or how much energy is used in their fabrication ? – the glass, the frame, the silicone, the wire, the protective packaging, the transport……
Or how much do they cost to maintain/m2 ? – keeping the glass really clean to enable them to function near their capacity.
Or how much energy is used to do this, and maintain the overall system ?
Or what do you do with the heat that they give off ? – keeping them cool to enable them to function near their capacity, and, annoyingly, they tend to give off more heat in the summer (solar irradiation at its highest) when we don’t really want it. Most inconvenient for integrating into facades unless the facade has another skin and you ventilate the cavity and of course this all costs more money (energy) for the additional glass layer; and how inconvenient that they only last up to 25 years – which means either dismantling or throwing away the facade – depending how “well” they have been integrated into the facade – a bit of a waste of energy, no ?

In the UK, we receive a peak level of solar irradiation of only 600W/m2 – at a manufacturer’s stated of efficiency of 10%, gives 60Wp/m2 at 15/W = 900/m2, when really you only probably exploit half the energy because the protective glass is not kept clean, and/or they are not kept cool. So really they probably cost the capital equivalent of nearer £ 1800/m2; or £ 30/W generated.

20,000 V discharge 3 D light forms, rig, 1985So, the architects’ argument goes like this:

Europe, and particularly Germany tells us to use them (so when there is huge demand they will not cost too much – so they say) and subsidises their use, so it must be right; and the architect looks more intelligent and green (oh oh); and if we cover our buildings with them they also offset the cost of the cladding, and/or roof; and the best of all, they are an economic form of cladding – after all pv cells are still probably cheaper than granite / m2 !

Now there’s a good reason to use glass, eh?

We do not have too much sunshine that arrives on the surface of the UK to exploit solar energy economically. However, if one day we are able to receive beamed wireless solar energy (like everywhere else on the planet) that is unaffected by cloud cover from solar power collector satellites in geosynchronous orbit, then this problem would disappear. In the meantime, we should be looking to exploit wind power. At the moment, the placing of further large wind generator farms is attracting increasing environmental (visual/aesthetic) concern. Perhaps we should be looking to integrate a new generation of quieter wind generators into our existing urban environment and new urban buildings.

© Ian Ritchie 1998

20,000 V discharge 3 D light forms, early studies, 1985[P.S. 2002]
Clearly, if Governments continue to subsidise energy (tax payers money), then the strategy of switching this subsidy away from nuclear and oil industries towards renewable energy production, especially wind, is blindingly more intelligent than continuing with the status quo. To set extremely modest targets of switching only 2.0% per annum of the subsidy away from the nuclear industry (about £1.25billion including waste management) will add 15% (£25m) towards the present UK Government contribution towards renewable energy production (currently circa 150 million).

Some US (California) companies state that pv costs are now down to $4/Wp, but this assumes 100% efficiency of the cell over its useful life (and in a ‘sunshine’ state), which is clearly not actual performance. Information that we have from industry does seem to differ with FOE information. “The cost of photovoltaic cells is down from $80 per watt in 1975 to $4 per watt now. Costs for photovoltaic technologies are still falling at around 20 per cent a year.” (FOE web site 2002).