#25 Defining Active Buildings

Last week I was asked on two occasions, “What differentiates an Active Building from another “green” building?” – once during one of my Active Buildings in Practice workshops and once by a reviewer of a paper submission.  This made me think that perhaps I need to clarify this.

In 2019, during the establishment of the Active Building Centre (ABC), I undertook some research with the ABC team to define an Active Building, the outcome of which was a simple (and not too prescriptive) definition: “a building that supports the wider grid network by intelligently integrating renewable energy technologies for heat, power and transport.”, with 6 core principles:

  • Building Fabric and Passive Design
  • Energy Efficient Systems
  • On-site Renewable Energy Generation
  • Energy Storage
  • Electric Vehicle Integration
  • Intelligently manage integration with micro-grids & national energy network

There are already many different “green” labels and environmental assessment methods for buildings, but the question I set out to answer is: How do Active Buildings differ from these?  What makes Active Buildings unique?

I had researched some of the most commonly used rating systems in one of my earlier modules, but thought I’d revisit this to make the differentiation clearer:

  • There are methods that consider the whole building, including its site and location, such as BREEAM (est. 1990), LEED (est. 2000), and the Living Building Challenge (est. 2006).
  • Green Globes (est. 2004) provides personalised improvements to organisations for the design, construction and operation of their buildings.
  • Some methods focus on health and wellbeing of building occupants. These include the WELL Building Standard (est. 2014) and Active House (est. 2010).Passivhaus (est. 1991) focuses on reducing the heating demand of buildings.
  • Ska (est. 2005) was developed by the RICS for fit outs of non-domestic buildings.
  • And there are others developed for particular countries, such as Green Star and NABERS in Australia; and Estidama, developed specifically for the Middle East.

While Active Buildings would meet compliance with most of these methods, there are several things for me that make an Active Building stand out from other “green” buildings:

Firstly, the way an Active Building interacts with local and national grid networks, such that the building presents a flat load profile to the grid – taking out the spikes and troughs in usage, to smooth the building’s energy profile. This is illustrated in the graphs below taken from the display screen in the Active Office on 3rd March 2020. While the loads of the building reached 20kW at one point (when EVs were plugged in) and were less than 5kW at other points in the day, the load presented to the grid never exceeded 5kW.  Imagine if all buildings managed their energy import and export in this way – this could save huge amounts of expensive and disruptive grid upgrades that will be needed to cope with the increase in electricity loads, as heating and transport are decarbonised over the next 5-10 years.

Secondly, the level of data collection from an Active Building, the management of that data, and the way it is fed back into the building’s operating system to optimise building performance by:

  • enabling fast fault detection;
  • providing information to educate building users on their energy consumption and generation, influencing behaviour change;
  • development of planned maintenance regimes;
  • development of predictive control strategies.  At the Active Office we are developing control strategies that link the BMS to weather forecasts, calendars, geotabs on EVs and the carbon intensity (CI) of the electricity grid, to steer decisions on energy flows.  An example of the level of control is illustrated in this flow diagram:

And thirdly, the use of integrated energy storage for both heat and power, utilising battery storage and electric vehicles (EVs) for electricity; and either latent or thermochemical storage for storing thermal energy.  Currently latent (water) storage is used in our buildings, but ongoing research into thermochemical storage at SPECIFIC will see us replacing water tanks with this new, much denser, storage material in the near future.

In addition, combine the work we are doing at SPECIFIC in collaborating with:

  • start-up companies/SMEs with new technologies (e.g. Naked Energy, BIPVCo);
  • multi-national supply chain partners, such as Tata, NSG and Akzo Nobel;
  • building contractors and installers;
  • project design teams;
  • building owner/occupiers;

to construct building demonstrators, which are then used:

  • to test new methods of designing, constructing and using buildings;
  • to provide installers with knowledge and experience of working with new technologies;
  • to develop case studies for use by building owners, designers and contractors;
  • for training purposes;
  • to produce design guidance;

…and you have a unique concept that I haven’t come across anywhere else – a concept that recognises the need for unbiassed evidence on the actual performance of systems and technologies; and for knowledge dissemination, guidance and education – all of which, in my mind, are needed if we are to truly Transform Construction.

In a recent workshop I delivered for the RSAW, one of the participants asked when my Design Guide will be available, stating that designers need these tools now.  The urgency of the climate emergency has elevated sustainability to the top of everyone’s agendas, but when designers are faced with the everyday pressures of delivering building projects for their clients within tight budgets and to challenging programmes, they are left with very little time to go out and explore new technologies and processes to help them deliver truly climate resilient buildings for their clients. Having access to detailed case studies of Active Buildings, such as the Active Classroom and the Active Office, which expose both successes and failures; and signposts to technical information from manufacturers and other sources; would be hugely beneficial to designers, not only saving them time, but providing them with the knowledge they need to convince their clients to try something new. This is what my Active Building Design Guide sets out to do.

So, in summary, I think Active Buildings and the Active Building approach to the design, construction and operation of buildings, does bring an added dimension to the existing environmental assessment methods and, from my recent experience, there is a growing desire amongst building designers and estate managers for some clear guidance on how to deliver Active Buildings. 

If you’re interested in learning more about Active Buildings and my developing Active Building Design Guide, please get in touch: joanna.r.clarke@swansea.ac.uk.

Published by jorclarke

I am an Architect, currently working at SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre, Swansea University, and studying for a Doctorate in Sustainable Built Environment (D.SBE), which is focused on developing an Active Building Design Guide.

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