Going green

painter smallGavin Willis looks at clean energy options and explains how you can build a fully functioning dental practice without excessive energy bills

As long as you’re prepared to plan from the outset and step away from conventional forms of energy (gas fired boilers and radiators), you can avoid uncomfortable conditions and power-hungry air conditioning to reduce your energy bills.
If you’re willing to go the whole nine yards, you’ll be able to wear an environmentally friendly badge with pride. In the short term, this badge can be a great public relations opportunity for any practice – while in the long term, you’ll have a very cost effective building.


The upsides

In the near future, the government will insist on all new houses and commercial properties to conform to strict low carbon standards. If you’re considering a new build practice, there’s an opportunity to get ahead of the game and build a property that will meet, or even surpass, the new standards.
Although such a build will initially incur higher construction costs, and funding can be slightly more difficult, there are a great many more upsides:

  • Extremely low running costs, typically using 75% less energy
  • High resale value
  • Higher rental fees for future tenants, as running costs are so low
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Government funding for renewable technologies offering a very good investment.

Passive house

Back in the early 1990s, Professors Bo Adamson of Sweden, and Wolfgang Feist of Germany, created a standard that has been adopted all over the world, with more than 30,000 buildings converted to the ‘Passivhaus’ (or passive house) standard.
A Passivhaus is a building for which thermal comfort can be achieved solely by post-heating or post-cooling of the fresh air mass, providing the necessary indoor air quality without the need for additional recirculation of air.
The key to the success of this type of project is to have a ‘fabric first’ approach. This requires first-class insulation and an airtight building to stop any unheated or uncooled air entering from outside. Low carbon energy sources will deliver the remaining, albeit low, heating or cooling energy needed. A mechanical ventilation heat recovery (MVHR) system can then deliver the necessary ventilation to maintain the indoor air quality and utilise high efficiency heat recovery to avoid energy waste.
There will always be a requirement for electricity, but this can be offset using onsite generation, such as solar or wind power. Any additional energy generated, when the site demands are low, can be sold back to the grid using the government’s ‘feed-in tariff’, resulting in lower bills across the year.
Passivhaus is an internationally recognised standard and sits alongside the usual building regulations. There are no half measures: a building must meet specific energy performance targets in order to have an authentic Passivhaus plaque.
It isn’t as easy to make an old building green as it is to build one from scratch, but it is still possible. A great deal of attention would need to be paid to the building’s shell to achieve the required insulation standards and air tightness.

Clean energy sources

All new buildings will need to embrace ‘clean energy’ sources. There are grants for all sorts of clean energy systems, but as they are an ever-changing feast, research at the time of application is key. Some of the available choices include the following systems.
Solar photovoltaic (PV)
These units convert sunlight into electricity. The price has come down a great deal recently and there are generous incentives from the government, with the price paid for power returned to the grid, making them an attractive option. We’ve all seen the ugly black panels retro fitted to existing buildings, but there are ways to make these panels look like they belong where they are, and there are even roof tiles made out of PV units that can mask their identity. The angle of the roof is important and, of course, the ideal pitch will vary according to where you are in the country, but this is easy to calculate.

Solar thermal

Solar thermal collectors capture the radiant heat of the sun and heat water to augment other types of water heating, even in the winter.

Heat exchanger

Capturing the energy in the waste water leaving the building and any hot air inside the building is an obvious way to re-use energy. The drains and required ventilation fan from a local disinfection unit (LDU) will be the first target in a dental practice. Considering the concentrated use of energy in these rooms, imagine how much of your energy is simply discarded at the moment. Some washer disinfectors will have a reduced cycle time if you feed warm or hot water into them. If this warm water has been obtained using low carbon, low cost energy sources, it will provide savings.

Air source heat pumps

Air source heat pumps are ‘air to air’ or ‘air to liquid’ systems that use the indoor and outdoor temperature differentials to provide heating, both for indoor temperature control and hot water generation. They act like a refrigerator in reverse. Although not as efficient as energy sourced from the ground, if your plot is small they may become an important part of your energy provision.

Ground source heat pumps

With ground source heat pumps, pipes are buried in the ground, either straight down or horizontally (under the car park) to use the constant underground temperature of the earth as a heat sink. As with the air source heat pump, these use differentials between the indoor and below ground temperatures for heating applications. Due to the constant temperature of the earth, they are more energy efficient than air source heat pumps. Both will need electricity to run but provide excellent efficiencies compared to typical boiler installations.

Waste not, want not

Whether you’re building a Passivhaus or not, future regulations may require you to harvest and store rainwater, typically underground. This stored water will be used for flushing toilets and anywhere where chlorinated tap water is not required. The required pump will need electricity to lift the water from the reservoir to where it will be used, but other than that, the water is free and great for plants.
There’s a host of new ways to construct walls: you can still use bricks on the outside but there must not be any ‘cold spots’ created at intersections or fixings. Thick, fibrous materials and wood are currently in vogue, sometimes combined with high-tech reflective surfaces built into the walls.
Triple glazing is increasingly popular and provides significant energy savings, and it’s always good to have a way of shading the southern elevation windows in the summer to limit any unwanted heat.

Making it work

Many of the technologies discussed here appear expensive at the point of capital cost, however, they will provide sufficient savings in energy to pay for themselves in a relatively short time. If you’re considering a new build, the rewards could be enormous; simply by turning your back on old fashioned ‘bricks and mortar’ building practices and embracing the new technology that will become the norm in the near future will give you the edge over existing properties that are energy hungry.
If you’re unable to stretch to a complete new build, but want to make substantial improvements to your existing practice, one option to consider is to take out a loan like those provided by payment plan specialists such as Denplan.
Denplan offers Evolve loans for up to £15,000 towards the refurbishment of areas in your practice most in need of a makeover, and it has negotiated competitive interest rates for its key clients to support investment for a better patient experience, to help you grow your patient numbers. Whether you have a burning ambition to post a Passivhaus plaque on your practice entrance or not, the opportunity to create a landmark practice is very exciting.


Gavin Willis is head of Paradigm Design Solutions Ltd, specialists in dental surgery architecture and design. With special thanks for technical input from Guy Willis-Robb and Dean Timms of Consulting Engineers Henderson Green Ltd.

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