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Appliances feel the strain in our technologically advancing world

There is an odd pattern to technological evolution.

New processes start off manually, then become mechanical, then electrical, then electronic until, finally, they ephemeralise and lose their separate identity altogether. For example, in 1915 the big problem was how to fire a machine gun through the propeller of an aircraft without chopping off the blades. The problem was solved mechanically but evolution did not stop there. By the 1950s, fighter aircraft no longer had propellers. Soon they will no longer even have pilots.

Thus too with innovations in construction: to start with they require manual labour; then their production is mechanised; then prefabricated in a factory; and, finally, they become mass produced elements in a cladding system.So much for the hardware, but what happens to the radical insights themselves? When they are not subsumed into a Jin Mao Tower or a Millennium Village their fate is even stranger, as the story of a recent example shows.

Just over a year ago a consultancy firm called ECD Energy & Environment, a branch of ECD Architects, came up with some thermal calculations for housing that stood the conventional wisdom of sustainability on its head.

For a start, its investigations led to the conclusion that passive cooling systems aimed at cutting CO 2emissions in new housing were all but useless because whatever impact they might have would be swamped by the unincluded heat output of domestic lighting and household appliances, all of which remain under consumer, rather than designer, control. To show the scale of this imbalance a director of ECD was quoted as saying that a breakdown of the heat output of a typical threebedroom terraced house with a top National Home Energy Rating would be lights and appliances 40 per cent; space heating 17 per cent. 'If you are looking for cost-effective energy savings then appliances are the area to aim at, 'he concluded.

At first this seemed to be little more than an interesting breakthrough on the realism front but, because of the aforementioned oddness of technological evolution, things did not stop there. After a year of not entirely inexplicable silence while the wind tower, ground water and chilled beam crowd chewed their pencils nervously, the idea of going to the appliance manufacturers for fast results rather than to the architects for token design features surfaced again last month, this time to be tried out on the world stage of the Johannesburg sustainability summit. There the final solution to the 'appliances first' question was due to be presented in a widely circulated report issued by the Food and Drink Federation, which represents Britain's £66 billion food and drinks industry.

The report argues that because of the low thermal efficiency of domestic cooking appliances compared with industrial catering equipment, any increase in the domestic processing and cooking of food will serve only to bring about an increase in overall energy consumption, and thus contribute to global warming.This analysis, the flip side, as it were, of the original ECD attempt to redirect energy research back from the building envelope to the design of the appliances inside it, has already made friends in high places, including the UN Environment Agency, which at the time of writing intends to publish it on two of its websites. Unhappily, it has also made powerful enemies, too. Not least Friends of the Earth, which has accused its writers of saying that consumers can only save the planet 'by living in large groups and eating takeaways while ignoring the fact that food packaging is a huge part of the waste problem'.

Clearly a bit of spin is needed before the idea of super-efficient appliances makes its next outing.

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