Velux CEO: ‘If you want the most energy efficient home, live in a cave’

David Briggs [Photo: Velux]

This article is part of our special report Buildings and the forgotten 90%.

Companies and lawmakers must take more responsibility in helping to solve issues related to buildings, including reducing carbon emissions and improving health standards, according to Velux CEO David Briggs.

David Briggs is the CEO of Danish windows firm Velux. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Sam Morgan on the sidelines of the 2019 Healthy Buildings Day, in Paris.

Can initiatives like the Healthy Homes Barometer transfer the ‘Greta effect’ to the buildings sector and convince people to make changes to reduce their inefficiencies and improve health standards?

I’m a little bit cautious about saying the “Greta Thunberg effect” because we don’t need to be overly dramatic, at least in this issue, although I have a deep respect for that young lady. But I think most policymakers are now clear that if we’re going to meet our emission targets then we’ve got to address energy efficiency in buildings. It’s pretty commonly understood that 40% of our carbon emissions are from them, so we know we’ve got to accelerate renovation rates and legislate to ensure new builds are as efficient as possible.

With Healthy Buildings Day, we want to make sure that this need to renovate does not mean that we forget the basic premise of a building: to protect inhabitants, keep them comfy and healthy. Ninety percent of our time is spent indoors. If indoor conditions aren’t right then people are going to get sick. Let’s take the opportunity of needing to renovate buildings to ensure well-being too.

So there’s no dichotomy between efficiency and health?

No, it’s not a choice. It’s absolutely an ‘and’. If you start to make it a choice, by starting to legislate and design in that direction, you may as well take it to the extreme: if you want the most energy-efficient home, live in a cave. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to live in a cave. Nobody wants to buy or live in a house just because it’s energy efficient. People, of course, want that but, fundamentally, they want a house or working environment that is comfortable to be in.

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This is the fifth Healthy Homes Barometer to come out. Are you still shocked by the numbers they throw up? One in three European children living in an unhealthy home, for example.

It really does shock me, to be honest with you. We started it five years ago and I think we were definitely the first company of our type looking at presenting the issue and making the wider public aware of it. I’m consistently shocked by the numbers, especially those about children. The fact that just one of the four factors we looked at [darkness, dampness, coldness and noisiness] can lead to a higher chance of poor health is startling.

How do you want national governments, regional bodies and so on to use the findings your company has helped put together?

The point of supporting this work is for other companies, and legislators, to take on their responsibilities like we are. Velux doesn’t have the solution to all the problems we’ve raised, far from it, but all our product innovations are at least aimed at resolving some of these issues. I would like manufacturers of mechanical ventilation, for example, to look at this and say ‘ok, what can we do about it?’ If other companies don’t take into account the impact their products have on the actual reality in people’s homes, by digitalising, adding sensors, making sure their solutions are maintained, then we’re all the poorer for it. Basically, I hope the barometers are thought-provoking for designers, architects and more.

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How do you go about sharing knowledge, best practices, in this sector? Is there a communication problem?

I definitely think we could do more. It’s clear when you look at the building sector that for too long we’ve thought of each other as just steps in a value chain. What we actually need to do is share the issue among us, because you can’t solve it by just looking at your own small part of the chain.

The need to up renovation rates is clear but, and you mentioned maintenance before, little is said about what to do once the renovating is complete. Is that an issue that will take on greater importance?

Ideally, yes, people would think more about maintenance. It tends to be something people address when something breaks. Digitalisation can help to some degree, because I’m a firm believer that designing and renovating buildings in the future will begin by creating a digital copy of that building. That copy should enable simulations, which could help the development of predictive maintenance. There’s also the role of IoT and machine to machine connections. Take our factories, for example, we don’t wait for a machine to break. Sensors and algorithms tell us when components are expected to break or wear out. That saves a fortune and I believe we can get there in buildings. We’re not there yet.

What are the main obstacles to that at the moment?

A little bit cost, of course, but the price of sensors and machine learning is coming down so fast right now that it will become something that is more possible. Eventually, building owners will come to the same conclusion factory owners have already had, namely, that connecting components can decrease overall costs. The most expensive time to fix something is when it’s broken.

The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) was widely hailed as a strong piece of legislation when it was finalised. How involved were you and the rest of the industry when it was being put together?

I have to say, to the credit of the European Commission that worked on that directive, I think it was exemplary work. We absolutely participated wholeheartedly in the drawing up of that legislation. It was a good example of how legislators can work hand-in-hand with the industry, not in a lobbying sense where everybody is just out for their own interests but following a desire for some sort of collective good. We were quite happy with it.

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Where does the Healthy Buildings Barometer go from here? Any indications what a sixth edition would look at?

What I would reflect upon is that we’ve identified a problem: the health of buildings and the impact on the health of people that spend time in them. There’s a huge amount of research done on productivity in different work environments but maybe we haven’t really tapped into the impact on productivity caused by living in an unhealthy home. We know, for example, that if you have proper access to daylight in schools then kids’ academic performance can be boosted by up to 15%. There’s empirical evidence for that. But I wonder how the home environment affects it.

So, quantifying success at school?

Yes, because trying to get people to act more requires hard facts and data. It’s not just about scaring people with stories about asthma and eczema, which is bad but a fact, it’s also about quantifying the upside of getting it right. So that’s probably the direction we’ll look at.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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