Every building tells a story, or rather a collection of overlapping stories. I have always been fascinated by what buildings reveal about how we have valued and used energy over the centuries. For example, we can thank the Victorians' reliance on coal-fired steam locomotion - and specifically its effusive emissions - for the spectacular vaulted roofs of their railway stations, a design feature that regrettably became superfluous in the dull diesel age of Euston and Birmingham New Street.
The grandeur of Victorian buildings is also a celebration of the power and prosperity that the industrial harnessing of energy brought to 19th-century Britain. As this is rarely made explicit, I was intrigued last week to see the façade of the newly refurbished Shoreditch Town Hall ( www.shoreditch townhall.org.uk). The building has been renovated before: the gracious original structure of 1865 was given a late-Victorian, uber-imperial makeover in 1901 with a bombastic tower and a heavy classical trim.
Half way up the tower, the zeitgeist of the era is concisely expressed with the word "Progress", perfectly complementing the borough's crest, which proclaims the motto "More Light, More Power". In 1901, these words were meant literally, but their metaphorical conjunction is intriguing: if local authorities have a responsibility to enlighten their citizens, is this enabled or inhibited by their pursuit of power?
The relationship between light and power is also interesting on a practical level, since modern Britain will only maintain its growth and meets its responsibility to cut carbon emissions if we insist that more light always goes hand in hand with less power. This is an example of the oft-neglected distinction between energy and energy services. Energy policy in the UK is still dominated by questions of energy supply, despite the fact that consumers do not want energy. Consumers want warmth, light, hot dinners and celebrity entertainment, all of which are a function of how energy is used rather than of its supply.
Energy service companies (Escos) focus on meeting human needs rather than just supplying energy, but there are so few of them. An Esco typically enters into a contract with its customers to provide basic energy services, which they then deliver through a combination of energy supply and home improvements, such as installing insulation and power-saving lights and appliances. If every energy provider worked to this model, we would dramatically cut our carbon emissions in no time.
All energy suppliers have a responsibility to promote energy efficiency, thanks to the Energy Efficiency Commitment. Ask what they can offer you. You are likely to be sent a survey, but this may lead to support for home improvements ranging from lightbulbs to cavity-wall insulation. When you get an energy bill, think about how you can improve your own energy services while also cutting the size of your bills.
To be fair to the aldermen of Shoreditch, the adoption of "More Light, More Power" as a civic motto was a response to the success of a local renewable-energy project. Local refuse collectors delivered their rubbish to a power station in Hoxton Market that provided heat for the public baths and power for the borough's advanced street lighting. But Hackney Council, the inheritors of Shoreditch Town Hall, would do well to hire a stonemason to make a few small adjustments: "More Light, Less Power" is a great motto for the 21st century.
* GREAT WEBSITE
The Energy Saving Trust's website ( www.est.org.uk/myhome) is the first place to look for advice about grants for energy-saving home improvements.
* GREAT BUY
The third edition of The Green Building Bible is now available (£19.90 including P&P; 01559 370 798; www.newbuilder.co.uk). Essential reading.