Healthy Buildings

I am taking a break from the final session of the day to catch up on some thesis related emails. Figured I might as well write up what’s happened so far.

The welcome reception at GoMA last night was quite good. Dr Bruce Flegg, Minister for Housing and Public Works, gave a good speech welcoming us all and stressing the importance of what we do. I was very impressed with how across the topic Flegg seemed to be. Dr Flegg has a background as a GP and is all too aware of the problems associated with unhealthy workplaces with things like mesothelioma and asbestosis. He has seen people who have developed health issues associated with accidental environmental exposure (so not people installing these materials like Bernie Banton). Flegg also spoke about the need to ensure that public housing stock, particularly in our indigenous communities, are of a high quality in terms of their energy efficiency but also in the way they promote health and are appropriate to the communities and regions in which they’re built.

At the opening I also got to chat with Susan Savage, the Assistant Dean of Teaching and Learning in the new Science and Engineering Faculty at QUT. We discussed changes to the first year Bachelor of Science program that sound very promising. A common first semester will expose students to what science is and how it is done before students choose a major in their second semester. Mathematics will be embedded in each subject to make sure that our students continue to be exposed to it rather than doing a single Data Analysis unit and then thinking that they’ll never have to do statistics again.

The opening plenary symposium, “Balance of Power”, was a discussion by two international speakers about the issue of a compromise between energy efficient buildings and healthy buildings. Professor Jiang Yi from Tsinghua University spoke about the issues of growing energy demand in the search for thermal comfort and presented some very interesting case studies where Chinese buildings have been built to maximise the availability of natural ventilation and light while still providing a very high quality of thermal comfort for the occupants. His message was that a combination of decentralised air conditioning systems that don’t work against each other can augment a default system of natural ventilation (with office windows which can be opened, for a start) to drastically cut our energy usage and ensure a ready supply of fresh air.

The second speaker, Philippa Howden-Chapman discussed the problems faced in the New Zealand housing stock. New Zealand is a first world country but most of the public housing stock was built around World War II, prior to the first global oil shock, and is characterised by poor insulation and unflued gas heaters (often LPG). As a result, people in public housing are facing the choice of “heat or eat”. And even if they can manage to heat themselves, NO2 levels in the home tend to be three times higher than in homes without an LPG heater. Her group has done a lot of work to intervene in the worst affected homes and improve thermal comfort, health and energy efficiency. New Zealand has the lowest per capita energy use in the OECD despite being so damn cold. But heating an uninsulated house can be very expensive. The big finding is that if the government spends the money retrofitting homes they save a lot in terms of public pharmaceutical provision, hospital visits and lost productivity and education. An econometric analysis showed a 3.9:1 return on investment, with the investment in a house paying for itself if a single hospital visit in that house can be avoided.

I spent the parallel sessions this morning doing AV support for two sessions. The venue has done a great job making it as easy as possible for presenters so the most I had to do was look for two missing speakers and walk people through how to use the pointer. The first session I attended was all about ventilation and there were some very interesting presentations about filtering incoming air and how being a bit clever about our behaviour in the home can lead to much better air quality.

The second session focussed on regional solutions and included three talks about stoves in the developing world. A lot of poorer regions such as rural Kenya and Andean Peru rely on the use of solid fuels such as dung and the homes typically do not have very good ventilation. Some new stove designs were developed with community feedback in order to arrive at a design which was both energy efficient and didn’t depart from the cultural aesthetic of the typical oven design. Other considerations included the cost to the end user, provision of local jobs in assembling and maintaining the ovens and ensuring that the indoor air quality was improved beyond the energy efficiency gains. One of the more novel approaches for this was to use a thermoelectric device that could power an air blower with waste heat from the oven. This meant that particulate matter and incomplete combustion byproducts (CO mainly) were removed much quicker. Excess energy from these thermoelectric devices can be used to charge mobile phones (and something like 40% of homes in rural Kenya have mobile phones!). Some very inspiring work, showing that science can have a real impact in the developing world.

I’ve also caught up with the two other students in my plenary session, Joana and Mengyan. The three of us will be meeting with our session chairs on Thursday morning (QUT SEF Dean Martin Betts and UC Berkeley Professor William Nazaroff) to discuss the session but today’s chat was a bit of getting to know each other and discussing what Brisbane’s like. Joana was very interested in what sort of Australian foods she could take back to Portugal for her friends. Vegemite, Tim Tams and Iced Vovos.

The conference is going well overall. The QUT Events team and the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre staff have done an amazing job making sure everything’s as clear as possible. It’s a great venue (the new wing of the BCEC) and the conference is bringing together people from 40 countries, be they academics, students, consultants, industry practitioners or vendors. There are 160ish students in attendance (many of whom I’ll meet tomorrow night at the student event) and I’ve heard that something like three quarters of attendees are from overseas. I’m looking forward to the next few days.

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