Vale Sir David MacKay

By Joel Gustafsson

19 April 2016

I can vividly recall my secondary school physics teacher confidently proclaiming that Britain, as an island, could produce all of the electricity it could possibly need, just as soon as we understood generating electricity using the ocean’s waves.

It was a misconception that I held onto for many years until I read Professor Sir David MacKay’s book – Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air.

David’s work is as accessible and clear as it is thorough and robust. As I read the chapter (and all its references) on wave power, I realised 3 things:

1 - I had been a fool not to question my teacher

2 - Similarly held misconceptions are rife

3 - The route to the sustainable use of energy was going to rely on reducing energy demand. The silver bullet of bountiful renewable supply isn’t there.

I’m certainly not the only person at Max Fordham to have been inspired by this book.

The reduction of energy-demand is what I set out to achieve on all projects, and David shone a light on the importance of this aim. Not only does his book frame the issue of sustainable energy, but crucially, it also highlights the importance of robust quantification in addressing technical issues.

Through applying David’s method of thinking to my own work, I came to know him in January last year. The Cambridge University Engineering Department (CUED) was starting the process of moving to shiny new buildings in West Cambridge. David was tired of brand-new buildings being awarded for their ‘sustainability credentials’ despite soaring energy demands. He was very keen to insert his clarity of thought and passion for arithmetic into the design and procurement process. So he approached us, alongside a number of other industry professionals, to work out how this could be achieved. After a number of workshops and discussions the ‘Energy/Cost Metric’ was created.

At a theoretical level this is a simple equation that calculates five lifetime energy demands alongside each other – material production, material transport, reclaimable energy from recyclability, in-use energy and people transport. Cost is a major component, reflecting an implicit understanding that every project works to a financial reality, and that energy-saving at a high cost premium might work for niche buildings but cannot be expected to be widely applied when cost efficiency is a large driving force. These equations helped answer questions such as: is it better to spend more money on better glass to reduce heating loads, substitute concrete for cross laminated timber to reduce embodied energy or install a heat pump to reduce the imported energy for a given load?

Despite his diagnosis and ongoing treatment, I was fortunate enough to work alongside David and many other CUED academics implementing his ideas to their first Engineering faculty building. This has been professionally challenging and refreshing.

Like so many others I feel deeply saddened that David passed away. He was a great thinker and a passionate achiever. His death is a loss to all who knew him, as well as those who didn’t. He’ll never get the opportunity to quantify and communicate the outcome of his intervention into building design and energy efficiency.  I feel it is our job to ensure that the work carried out is carefully followed-through to see the first CUED building showcased to the wider industry. This may well be the first step to building performance being embedded into legislation.

One of his final blog posts is an open letter to Addenbrookes hospital, where David spent his final days. He issues a plea that the hospital invests in building refurbishment to reduce overheating, and the discomfort it causes to patients. I will be approaching Addenbrookes to offer a feasibility study pro bono. I like to think that David would deem this an appropriate gesture for the positive influence he has had on me, those within our practice and the wider industry.

He will be missed.


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