Find out how Chris’ experience of being part of Engineers Without Borders UK University Chapter has shaped his outlook on engineering and his career to date, as he tackles the challenges of energy efficiency in National Trust properties.
Chris Hughes studied at the University of Birmingham where he was driven by an interest in renewable energy. Seeking a wider, holistic perspective of engineering, he joined the university Chapter of Engineers Without Borders UK where he was Social Secretary and then President. Since graduating, he has worked directly with the Heritage sector in the UK to tackle the challenges of energy efficiency in National Trust properties.
What inspired you to get involved with Engineers Without Borders UK?
I went to university with a desire to pursue renewable energy and so had chosen a Civil Engineering course with plenty of renewable energy modules. But I felt that I was missing out on a wider social perspective of engineering. The Birmingham University Chapter of Engineers Without Borders UK had an amazing President at that time and I was attracted to the fact they were a society that was really doing things rather than just going to pubs! Suddenly, I was able to get a whole new view of engineering and how it can be applied with context to communities around the world. It massively opened my eyes. When I was President, I helped run a project called Rural Energy in the Global South which was a real culmination of this learning experience and definitely set me on my current career path.
What have you worked on in the Heritage sector?
The National Trust had the ambition to cut emissions in their properties by 50% by 2021 and approached the consultancy I worked for to source solutions. Heritage sites are often significant polluters due to the age of the buildings, dated heating systems and significant restraints on structural changes due to the historical importance of the sites. I worked on four properties – Nymans, Nuffield Place, Osterley Park, and The Vyne – looking at feasible alternatives to fossil fuels including water source and ground source heat pumps, biomass boilers, and solar power.
What are the main challenges to implementing green energy in the Heritage Sector?
With these kinds of properties, there are so many stakeholders to consider for each separate location – from the finance team to the property managers and the volunteers. We had to find ways to reduce emissions without compromising the historical integrity of the structure and setting – which often meant hidden solutions like heat pumps. It’s also important to recognise the long timelines that the sector works to. They are thinking about 10, 20 years down the line – not next month or even next year. This means the most important consideration, funding, can be a challenge. In this way, the sector isn’t too different from renewable energy as a whole – we need guaranteed long-term investments if the public and private sector are to act now. The technology is there, but there needs to be a shift from ‘what’s the minimum we can get away with to meet quotas’ to ‘what’s the most effective option’?
Why is globally responsible engineering so important?
Perspective – it allows you to see the whole picture and the impact your work can have. It provides a more holistic approach which results in more socially aware solutions. Something that is easy to forget as an engineer is that you are not simply creating a building or service. What you are engineering is an environment that needs to function for the people who will use it. For example, when I was providing report feedback (for the Efficiency For Access Design Challenge) on a stove design to be used in areas without access to mains gas or electricity, I noted that the engineer needed to consider what was going to be cooked on it and for how long? What would the conditions be? Would the intended user have access to the required fuel? Before I got involved in Engineers Without Borders UK, I’m not sure I would have considered all of those surrounding factors.
What advice would you give to student engineers to ensure they are serving people and the planet?
Get involved in placements and societies, and seek out companies that align with your values. Above all, get as much experience as you can to broaden your perspective and ensure that you never see your engineering in isolation.
Chris Hughes: Senior Building Services Engineer in the heritage sector