natural radon activity in soils

Sustainable Buildings – Design Agenda for the 21st Century ?

2009-05-06:  From the late 1980’s and the beginning of the 1990’s in European Union (EU) Research Programmes, it was noticeable that the more pressing early concerns about Energy-efficiency – logical after the oil crises of the 1970’s – were beginning to merge with those of Environment-friendliness, i.e. protection of the environment.  Even at that time, however, faint background references to Sustainability were becoming more common.


In 1995, therefore, Sustainable Design International developed and introduced the acronym ‘SEED’ … which stands for Sustainable, Environment-friendly, Energy-efficient Development … as a practical control, or check, on our own work output.



The next break-through came a few years later.  I briefly discussed the wide conceptual basis for our Corporate Design Philosophy in the post: ‘Sustainable Human & Social Development ?’, dated 2009-03-31.  This basis, while still continually evolving, is critical in terms of services provided, performance targets to be achieved, methods of working and relationships with client organizations, builders, craftsmen/women, manufacturers, etc.


This should explain the futility, in our humble view, of the ‘Green’ Agenda (as distinct from the ‘Sustainability’ Agenda) … and approaches based solely on Environmental Aspects of Sustainable Development.  They are a complete waste of time and resources.



Now in 2009, we remain fully convinced that Sustainable Design Solutions are appropriate to local geography, social need, climate, economy and culture … and are ‘person-centred’ and ‘reliability-based’.


Forget the images of mud housing and reading by candle light … the Future of our Built Environment is High-Tech, Smart … and Sustainable !   Let there be no doubt !!




Why not begin, so, by looking at a Simple Building Type … Sustainable Housing ?


With all of the current hype and fuss about German ‘Passiv’ Houses and Austrian High-Tech Timber Framed Construction … we have been in contact with a number of manufacturers in this region of Central Europe.  After many meetings and detailed discussions, we are disappointed … broken hearted !


Below follows our shopping list for the practical, commercial and affordable application, i.e. non-research, of Advanced Systems of Construction (small/medium/large scale projects – new-build and existing projects).


N.B.  Current Irish legal requirements and local authority technical control procedures are entirely inadequate.


Is anybody out there listening ???




To meet the urgency of Climate Change Adaptation and the challenge of Reliable Sustainability Implementation … a ‘SEED’ Building in Ireland must reach these performance targets:


         be set in Sustainable Landscaping (where appropriate) with Life Cycle Sustainable Drainage … and exhibit a considered, harmonious relationship between the building’s ‘interior’ environment and the ‘exterior’ built and social environments ;


         have a Minimum Building Life Cycle of 100 Years ;


         be Smart/Intelligent, Electronically Mature and facilitate Remote Building Management ;


         be properly shown to be Fit for Intended Use (in the Location of Use) … by CE Marking, using European Standards/Norms & European Technical Approvals (refer to Part D of the Irish Building Regulations and similar requirements in other European national building codes, European Union Safety at Work and Product Liability Legislation) ;


         be Super Energy-Efficient, with negligible thermal bridging and accidental air seepage … and promote and encourage, by design, Energy Conservation ;


         have a substantial component of Renewable Energy & Heat Technologies … sufficient to return a multiple of the building’s energy consumption to an Intelligent Regional or District Grid … and also incorporate Recycling, Rainwater Re-Use and Waste Management Technologies ;


         offer a high level of Indoor Air Quality, including proper protection from Natural Radon ;


         be Flexible and Adaptable with regard to internal layout, and Accessible for People with Activity Limitations (2001 WHO ICF) – in order to prolong Building Life Cycle and maximize Building Usability ;


         contain, as standard and for reasons of safety, a Domestic Sprinkler System and a remotely monitored Fire Detection System … plus a Carbon Monoxide (CO) Detection System, with a detection unit in the vicinity of each fuel burning appliance ;




         be Competently Built and Reliably Completed to project programme and cost estimate … with the building’s ‘Real’ Performance-in-Use capable of being tested, and continually monitored, over the complete building life cycle ;




         be simple and straightforward for Building Users/Occupiers to operate.




Principal Areas of Inadequate Performance …


1.  Showing Fitness for Intended Use.  Although a Single European Market for the Construction Sector exists on paper (not yet in reality) … this requirement is not well understood by manufacturers … particularly in Germany and Austria, where outdated national approaches to building product/system approval still take precedence over anything at European level.


2.  Domestic Sprinkler Systems.  There is a high level of resistance, among most manufacturers, to the installation of these systems.  Not acceptable !!


3.  Accessibility of Buildings for People with Activity Limitations.  Not well understood by manufacturers and building organizations (at all levels).  Although there is a lot of legislation in Europe covering this particular issue … it is routinely disregarded and/or very poorly implemented.  In Germany and Austria, for example, the long outdated term ‘barrier-free design’ is still in common use.  Can you believe that ?


4.  Radon Protection of Buildings.  Not considered important in Germany and Austria … so manufacturers just don’t bother.


5.  Fabric Thermal Performance.  Where building systems are ‘adapted’ for use in Ireland, I have seen thermal performance, as originally designed in Germany/Austria, seriously compromised by the installation of meter boxes and permanent ventilation openings in external walls.  Just the tip of the iceberg !







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‘Feeling’ the Violent Earthquake in Abruzzo, Italy ?!?

2009-04-13:  Exactly a week ago … in the early hours of Monday morning (03:32 hrs local time), 6th April 2009, a violent earthquake hit the central Italian Region of Abruzzo.  The quake had a ‘magnitude’ of 6.3 on the Richter Scale … a scale developed by Charles Richter (1900-1985) during the last century, in collaboration with Beno Gutenberg (1889-1960).


The high numbers of fatalities and people injured continue, even at this time of writing … seven days later, to rise and rise.  Approaching 60,000 people have been left homeless.  It will take many, many years to restore buildings … and much longer than that to restore the delicate social fabric of local communities.


It is a remarkable joy to experience the culture, and live among the people of one such small community in the centre of Italy … Amandola (≈ 4,500 inhabitants), which is a typical hilltop town located approximately 70 Km north of L’Aquila (≈ 67,000 inhabitants), capital of the Abruzzo Region.


Colour photograph showing the view, taken just a few hours after the Abruzzo Earthquake, looking towards L'Aquila over the snow-capped Sibillini Mountains. Click to enlarge. Photograph taken by CJ Walsh from within the historical centre of Amandola, 70 Km away. 2009-04-06.
Colour photograph showing the view, taken just a few hours after the Abruzzo Earthquake, looking towards L’Aquila over the snow-capped Sibillini Mountains. Click to enlarge. Photograph taken by CJ Walsh from within the historical centre of Amandola, 70 Km away. 2009-04-06.

Earthquakes between 6.1 and 6.9 on the Richter Scale regularly cause damage in areas up to 100 Kilometres away from the ‘epicentre’ … that point on the earth’s surface located vertically above the place deep within the Earth where the quake originated.


To put local news reports into some context … accurate measurement of dramatically increased levels of natural radon activity in soils, allied with a good understanding of local geology and seismology, can be an important, although not 100% reliable, indicator of what is happening deep underground.  Unfortunately, and unlike in Ireland, radon protection of buildings is not taken seriously in Italy … so, not much attention would have been paid to what anybody said about radon activity in the soils around L’Aquila before the ‘big one’ hit !


Tremors from an earthquake, or trembling vibrations, can be felt strongly far away from an epicentre.  I know, because I was in Amandola last Monday morning.


To be involved in Earthquake Resisting Design is one thing … I am very comfortable with technical issues, facts, concepts, building products, etc.  To become intimate, however, with the ‘reality’ of a mother of an Earthquake is altogether different !


Jerked awake in those early hours … the building was rocking, not just swaying.  Before reaching full consciousness … too much had already happened.  If the building had collapsed, I would never have known what hit me.  But, it didn’t … and there was no internal damage or cracking.


I don’t know why … but, I went back to sleep again.


Just after 08.00 hrs (local time), phone texts began to arrive from Ireland … “was everybody safe ?”.  Something ‘big’ must have happened during the night.  I rushed to put on the television news … forget about SKY NEWS, CNN, BBC and that miserable, no-good, laughable excuse for an ‘impartial, balanced and fair’ news service FOX NEWS … the best coverage … and continuous coverage … was on the Italian TV Stations.


Tragic scenes … of historical buildings destroyed … expected, because they would not be of modern (reinforced concrete or steel) construction … and, far many more than should be the case, of modern buildings seriously damaged or collapsed like a plate of pancakes … somewhat expected, because of inadequate technical controls over building design and construction in many parts of the country.


[Similar scenes of modern, ‘tofu’ construction could be witnessed after the Major Earthquakes in Central China, beginning in May 2008.]


Later that morning, I inspected an historical building which I had recently restored … and where I had incorporated earthquake resisting features.  Relief, relief, relief … not a single crack.


Travelling back to Rome by car that afternoon, fleets of emergency response vehicles moved swiftly in the opposite direction towards the Earthquake Zone …







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