Journal London

The Building Centre, London W1

I was recently at a very useful workshop/conference for local authorities and industry who are at the forefront of Combined Heat & Power, heat networks and Energy Services Companies. It was a very full day – from 9am to 5pm – so I had to leave Tottenham at 8am and head for Warren Street on the Victoria Line. At least I was able to get a decent coffee and croissant at Coffee Republic before heading over to Bloomsbury for the Building Centre – the venue for the event.

Quality timber front door and window
Quality timber front door and window

I used to visit the Building Centre now again when I was working at Southwark Council; it is essentially a giant bookstore with everything you could possibly want in relation to architecture, construction, planning, urban design and so forth. I used it mainly to get up-to-date and authoritative information on sustainable construction methods and materials, but also building services technologies – solar thermal, PV, biomass heating, thermal stores, etc.

It always was more than just a bookstore, with a permanent exhibition of materials and technologies – there is nothing quite like seeing these things in the flesh rather than reading about them as some futuristic possibility in specialist journals and glossy brochures. The exhibition space has improved enormously and is well worth a visit, not just for the building/building services professional, but also for regular people who want to see what is possible rather than what B&Q and Homebase have to offer, which can often lack quality and functionality. Above all, you can see what is possible with natural materials and how cool otherwise dull objects like radiators can look.

Efficient heating
Efficient heating

I only had a few minutes to dash around a few of the displays and take some rather fuzzy snaps with my iphone. The timber windows, doors and conservatories were particularly attractive – of course. Why anyone would want UPVC – a product which looks exactly like what it is – cheap and nasty – I can never understand. It’s not just that UPVC windows look dreadful, but they are, of course, very damaging for the environment (and human health during manufacture). But even if we set aside disagreements over UPVC, just put a timber window up against a UPVC one and ask the customer to choose. I think I know what 90% will say.

I took a few snaps of relatively new technologies – at least for the UK; they were taken on my iPhone 4 so not brilliant quality I’m afraid. Solar thermal combi boilers for example; I installed some Dutch systems in Peckham in 2002 but the mantra in Britain is still that if you have a combi boiler you cannot have a solar hot water system, which is essentially true. However, there are some products available that get over the problem of hot water storage – and here they are for all to see.

Timber radiator - are you serious?!
Timber radiator – are you serious?!

I had to take a photo of timber-clad radiators – they look beautiful (yes, not a word generally associated with radiators) but are they for real? I know must heat from a radiator is through convection but some is radiated; does not the timber dampen the amount of radiation? I’ll have to investigate this further.

Finally, I’ve always had an ambiguous attitude towards these German hybrid electric systems that are rather like night storage heaters except that they will provide heat whenever it is required. I don’t doubt that they are better than night storage heaters, but that’s not saying very much at all. Electric heating is hugely more expensive than gas. Period. However, in off-gas areas and as a replacement for night storage systems these could be very useful.

Can electric heating ever be supported?
Can electric heating ever be supported?

So, if you’re in London add the Building Centre to your list of places to visit; it’s just off Tottenham Court Road and quite close to Heal’s, Habitat and other similar places you might like to visit if your outfitting a home – and you’re into style and quality.

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