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AJ Footprint exclusive: Bill Bordass on receiving his OBE

Bill Bordass reflects on his career and the challenges of bringing building energy use into the public eye

What does the OBE mean for you?

My father got one in 1945, but that was for defending the British Empire!  

I was in two minds about it, but I am pleased I accepted. The greatest delights have been the emails, letters and phone calls; and that Howard Liddell of Gaia Architects got one too. Perhaps it will also help our struggling Usable Buildings Trust charity which has promoted learning from building performance in use, but is finding it difficult to make ends meet now that interest is growing.

What particular achievements in 2012 won this recognition?

I think it was for a marathon, not a sprint: the long haul of reviewing how buildings actually work, bringing the results to the attention of those who can make a difference, and trying to develop things that can help us to do better. 

What are your current active projects?

Apart from reviewing the performance of a few recently completed buildings, Adrian Leaman and I have just finished editing this month’s special issue of Building Research & Information Journal on the subject of professionalism.  Over recent decades, regulations, markets, and management systems have tended to take over from professional independence and judgment.  But with the environmental, economic and social challenges we now face, has the pendulum swung too far?  Most of the authors think it has, but fear that building professionals do not have the right skills, attitudes and education to take things forward, and that their institutions inhibit the required integration.  The Edge group is planning a debate on this in February.  A thought I have had is to start with individuals rather than institutions.  

I have also been trying to bring the energy and carbon performance of non-domestic buildings into proper focus.  Actual in-use performance - surely the ultimate policy objective - is a gaping hole in the middle of a plethora of inconsistent measures, which tend to make buildings too complicated and expensive and distract people from what really needs to be done, leading in many cases to massive performance gaps between intentions and outcomes.  It all could have been so different had Display Energy Certificates (DECs) been used properly to motivate all the players to improve performance, and had there been some government investment in benchmarking.  Last month DCLG mandated commercial buildings to display an EPC (if they have one), rather than permitting a DEC to be used, thereby continue to unravel what had promised to be world-leading system, instead of making it bite. This must be as much a frustration to DECC as it is to property and energy managers, who could have their skills rewarded year after year by improving DEC ratings. As DECC knows from its own Whitehall Place building, massive savings can often be made cost-effectively through better control and management and minor alterations.  What’s not to like?

And key aspirations closest to your heart for 2013?

Good building performance is in the public interest in so many ways.  Government once understood this, for example when it set up the Building Research Station in the 1920s and built up technical, research and advisory departments in ministries and local authorities.  Now much of this is gone and hasn’t really been picked up.  There needs to be strong and independent representation - something a bit like an Institute of Fiscal Studies.  Our provisional name is the Institute of Building Performance: independent, authoritative, evidence-based, and both supporting and challenging the activities of industry and government.  The problem is that there is no coherent demand-side constituency, making it a classic case for some government support with continuity of funding.  I really hope we can get something going this year.

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