The Butterfly Effect - The creation of innovative new software...

  • Date: 05/11/2010

Inside Housing Magazine: The creation of innovative new software is set to change the way social landlords develop sustainable housing. Nick Duxbury explains how.

‘Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?’ This was the title of a 1970 science paper that eventually coined the phrase: ‘the butterfly effect’. Without tumbling down a rabbit hole of quantum physics and chaos theory, the gist of the ‘effect’ is that even the slightest change can trigger a chain of events that could lead to other, much bigger changes down the line.

At a guess, most housing association sustainability heads have little to no interest in either chaos theory or butterflies. However, their interest in influencing the long-term carbon emissions of homes through the materials they use to build them means this could soon change.

Building insurer BLP is developing a tool it hopes will impact on approaches to development. And like most of the real changers of social behaviour - Facebook and Twitter being just two examples - it is an online form.

The aptly named ‘Butterfly’ is a lifecycle costing tool that will allow landlords and developers to assess not only a scheme’s carbon impact over its lifetime, but also their cost and long-term durability of the products and materials used. The £1.25 million government-backed project is part-funded by the Technology Strategy Board and should allow developing associations to compare the carbon impact of a vast array of product combinations over lifetimes of 60 and 100 years.

Butterfly is based on an existing online software called Life Cycle Costing which allows housing providers to ensure their chosen materials and development plans meet Homes and Communities Agency criteria for durability when applying for grant funding. BLP, which has collated archives of data in order to judge insurance risk of products and schemes, is adapting the LCC model to also take into account lifecycle, fabric, embodied and operational energy, carbon metrics and a code for sustainable homes calculator in one package.

‘For too long people have been distracted by the initial upfront cost [of a scheme],’ says Simon Main, managing director at BLP. ‘The question that Butterfly asks is: is the scheme economically sustainable? To know this, you have to be able to work out how long a scheme will last. Butterfly will provide the first holistic look at value and cost in its full carbon context.’

Providers will be able to input the proposed scheme details, select from a library of structural options and products, and incorporate factors such as the direction buildings face before then modeling for different code levels. Furthermore they will be able to tackle the neglected problem of carbon embedded in build products - a feature that could have a real impact on behavioral approaches.

‘When people talk about zero carbon, they mean operational carbon,’ explains Peter Mayer, BLP’s research and development manager. ‘You also have to consider embedded carbon which becomes a greater problem when you reduce the operating carbon levels. Part of this is the amount of carbon being put into energy saving technology. Imported goods aren’t counted in embodied carbon counts; Butterfly allows us to take it into account.’ 

To do this, the tool will also need to show the source of each product - ‘a scary task’ that is being aided by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Sustainable Development, University College London Energy Institute and Willmott Dixon Housing.

The software will encourage a more holistic, long-term approach to sustainability, crucially not just in new build schemes. Given its emphasis on reducing both embodied and operational carbon, Butterfly could have an equally big impact when it is applied to retrofitting - an area that is set to boom, creating a £7 billion a year industry on the back of the government’s ‘green deal’. This will arrive at the same time as Butterfly first spreads its wings in 2012.

‘Retrofitting will be really interesting,’ says Mr Main. ‘When you look from a life cycle perspective, it shows the value of insulating - which lasts for decades - before investing in renewables - which often don’t even last 20 years.’

The software might not make a tornado-sized impact a la of Facebook, but social landlords would do well to keep an eye out for the Butterfly effect. 

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