Construction systems

Having considered the challenge presented by global warming and the opportunities to generate fossil-free energy, it is now time to consider how the demand side of the energy equation can respond to that challenge. The built environment is the greatest sectoral consumer of energy and, within that sector, housing is in pole position accounting for 28 per cent of all UK carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

In the UK housing has traditionally been of masonry and since the early 1920s this has largely been of cavity construction. The purpose was to ensure that a saturated external leaf would have no physical contact with the inner leaf apart from wall ties and that water would be discharged through weep holes at the damp-proof course level. Since the introduction of thermal regulations, initially deemed necessary to conserve energy rather than the planet, it has been common practice to introduce insulation into the cavity. For a long time it was mandatory to preserve a space within the cavity and a long rearguard battle was fought by the traditionalists to preserve this 'sacred space'. Defeat was finally conceded when some extensive research by the Building Research Establishment found that there was no greater risk of damp penetration with filled cavities and in fact damp through condensation was reduced.

Solid masonry walls with external insulation are common practice in continental Europe and are beginning to make an appearance in the UK.

In Cornwall the Penwith Housing Association has built apartments of this construction on the sea front, perhaps the most challenging of situations.

The advantages of masonry construction are:

• It is a tried and tested technology familiar to house building companies of all sizes.

• It is durable and generally risk free as regards catastrophic failure -though not entirely. A few years ago the entire outer leaf of a university building in Plymouth collapsed due to the fact that the wall ties had corroded.

• Exposed brickwork is a low maintenance system; maintenance demands rise considerably if it receives a rendered finish.

• From the energy efficiency point of view, masonry homes have a relatively high thermal mass which is considerably improved if there are high density masonry internal walls and concrete floors.

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