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Blog CO2 neutral hospitals

Long term vision is key for CO2-neutral hospitals


Europe has the ambition to be CO2-neutral by 2050. For the realization of hospitals, this brings on specific challenges, as this building type is a high consumer of energy. At present, hospital construction in Belgium isn’t doing well. The installed capacity of renewable energy fluctuates between 3 and 4%. What are the largest obstructions? And above all, what has to be done to obtain those objectives?

Budget and technology are blocking us

Engineer-architect Simon Ossieur of VK Architects & Engineers elaborated on his point of view and vision during the most recent Pixii Expert Day. In hospital construction, according to Simon, there are still some large obstacles in obtaining the objectives by 2050. Assignments of this kind require the framework of a public tendering. “Which means by definition that we are at least 10 to 15 years behind on developing technologies,” says Ossieur.

“In addition, budget also often is an issue. These last years, there is a huge search for budget and the pressure on the project owners and/or authorities ever increases to save on construction costs. However, one forgets that it is precisely these savings which will lead to heavy investments towards 2050 to meet the objectives, even for hospitals that are being constructed or designed today.”

The government also has a crucial part in meeting the objectives. According to Simon, the government demonstrates a complete lack of credible policy. “The transition from a hospital being heated on fossil fuels to a hospital that is completely heated and cooled on electricity is one thing. Keeping the electricity consumption in check is another matter. But at present, we can’t convince hospital managements to make this transition, when the electricity supply is uncertain.”

A long term vision for renewable energy

A clear governmental vision is required for the integration of renewable energy in hospital construction. “The Netherlands, for example, decided last summer to no longer allow gas supplies for new housing from July 1st onwards. All housing becomes electrical. For that purpose, the focus is on the development of smart grids, green electricity production, and decentralized electricity production is strongly encouraged.”

“That is the sort of policies we need in Belgium, but if the spirit is lacking, we keep running in place,” says Ossieur. “A good example was the design for a new hospital. At a certain moment, we proposed the integration of deep geothermal energy. The cost for test drillings, however, varied from 4 to 5 million euros. Which rendered this option at once impossible. It’s an issue we encounter in all of our projects. But imagine: we could have cooled and heated a hospital fully by means of geothermal energy.”

The mindset of hospital managements needs to change

The government is not the only party who can pull its weight in obtaining the needed objectives. Hospital managements also need to think beyond the horizon. “At present, the horizon is situated 20 years in the future, in function of building cost and overall budget. But looking at the investment, often amounting up to 300 million euros, we would expect that a vision is developed for the coming 50 to 60 years,” Simon goes on.

In other words, hospital managements need to be given and take the time to develop a vision in the long term, not just with regard to spatial needs, but also with regard to the energetic needs of their hospital. Only then can the means of the overall budget be applied efficiently with regard to CO2-neutral hospitals. “We often come to the conclusion that managements don’t quite grasp the issue ‘renewable energy’ in a master plan. While it is clear: each investment before 2050 that doesn’t take renewable energy into account, will be nullified. If we want to build CO2-neutral, everyone should jump on the train for renewable energy. That way, it also becomes affordable for everyone.”

This also entails that we no longer fixate on the concept of payback time, says Simon. “Too often, a too long energy payback time is called upon to cancel an investment”, Simon states.

Technical challenges

Having policymakers on board in this matter most certainly is an issue. But a large number of technical aspects also have to be looked at, if we want to put things right by 2050. “At the moment, we work back to front. We implement a co-generation installation and a BTES-field, but do not prevent a lot of energy flowing away from the building. That energy is being wasted,” tells the architect. Co-generation installations, he finds, are completely outpaced when it comes to renewability. Co-generation is mainly interesting because of the price setting difference between a kWh of electricity and a kWh of gas in the larger part of Europe.

We have to look at things the other way round. It’s a fact that everything will become electrical. “But hospitals have a lot of waste energy flows. Sanitary hot water, for example. That water is heated while it is in the building, before being flushed into the sewers. Air: a 600 to 700 beds hospital exhausts about 500,000 m³/h of ventilation air. Even with heat recuperation in the air groups, much residual energy remains. All of these opportunities are being wasted.” The long list of examples goes on: compressors produce heat, steamers of medical gasses produce cooling, etc.

The point Simon is making, is that we have to look for ways to integrate the various energy flows in a hospital. Which demands for a hospital to be maximally efficient. Only then can you install renewable energy in the form of, for example, heat pumps. “We first need to tackle the basis, the rest will follow”.

Simon is very aware he touches on some delicate matters. And though VK Architects & Engineers, as all parties in a design and construction process, too is bound by the legal framework and available budget, it doesn’t want to fail in giving a signal. To partner up with investors and governments towards a correct trajectory for a CO2-neutral Europe.

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