Before the Active Building Centre was established, I spent 5 years working for SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre, also led by Swansea University. Here, my role was to find ways to enable the technologies being developed at SPECIFIC and their industrial partners to be adopted on building projects.
Being an Architect, it was obvious to me that, the best way to enable this was to build our own demonstrator buildings to showcase the concept, which was then known as ‘Buildings as Power Stations’ – buildings that generate, store and release their own energy. I first designed a small garden office building, known as the Pod, which demonstrated the Buildings as Power Stations concept in one, small, off-grid building. My aim was not only to have something to show to construction industry stakeholders and potential building owners, but also to provide a building that the researchers at SPECIFIC could relate to as a home for the technologies they were working on.
This building became the catalyst for a new chapter for SPECIFIC and soon after, I was asked to design a second building – the Active Classroom – the name highlighting the fact that the building envelope had now been ‘activated’ – rather than the facades and roof being ‘passive’ elements to simply keep the weather out of a building, they were now generating heat and electricity for use in the building. Hence the term ‘Active Buildings’ was born. The Active Classroom was extremely successful in getting the work of SPECIFIC noticed within the construction industry, even winning several awards, including the prestigious ‘Project of the Year’ at the RICS Wales Awards in 2017. It was also the subject of several news and journal articles and even made it on to BBC Newsround!
Of course, I didn’t achieve this on my own. I was fortunate to work with an extremely clever and talented team of scientists and engineers at SPECIFIC who were able to ensure this building operated as intended and that data collected from the building could be used to learn about what worked and what didn’t work – lessons we would use in the design of the next building.
We had now demonstrated that it was possible for a building to produce more energy than it consumed over an annual period – classing this building as ‘energy positive’. However, as we progressed into designing the next building – the Active Office (a two-storey office building next to the Active Classroom), it became clear that achieving ‘energy positive’ is more challenging to achieve the more storeys a building has. With experience, we also realised that the capability of a building to work with the energy network, controlling when power is taken from or given to the grid (made possible through the use of energy storage and smart controls), has potential to truly transform the energy and building landscapes and is hence of more value than simply being energy positive over a year.
This concept is now also being adapted to address global energy poverty through projects such as SUNRISE, which involves the development of five solar-powered demonstrator buildings in rural India.