#47 Active Building Scalability

I was asked this week if the Active Building concept is scalable?

My first instinct was to say “yes, it is definitely scalable”. The technologies exist, we are starting to gather good evidence from our demonstrator buildings to indicate the wider benefits of aggregating more than one Active Building, and extensive data monitoring is enabling optimisation of building performance to reduce energy consumption and operational carbon emissions.

However, the answer is not that simple, and we mustn’t ignore the real challenges facing the industry in rolling out this and other low energy or low carbon concepts. While we know it is possible, there are many issues that impact the scalability of new solutions, such as the Active Building concept, to reduce energy consumption and decarbonise heating in buildings, as well as supporting the decarbonisation of transport. Pushing forward with low carbon solutions requires a balance between aspirations for zero carbon and availability of skills, understanding and the supply of technologies or equipment.

Part of the scalability issue is dealt with through my Toolkit – the whole purpose of which is to enable the industry to adopt the Active Building concept. But there are also many other aspects that need to be resolved before we are able to meet net zero carbon targets within the built environment.

Take heat pumps (probably the preferred low carbon heating solution currently) as an example. There are several issues that currently prevent all new homes and many existing homes having heat pump installations:

  • Availability of heat pump equipment
  • Initial cost of heat pumps (although their running costs are low, and they are eligible for the domestic renewable heat incentive (RHI))
  • Skills and labour needed to install and maintain heat pumps
  • Knowledge and understanding by building users on how they operate – as oppose to gas boilers, for example, heat pumps are more effective if run continuously
  • Ability of DNOs (Distribution Network Operators) to respond to the increase in demand for electricity – electricity grid capacity issues – network distribution upgrades will be required (most existing housing estates have a single phase electricity connection, sized to suit current electricity demand – not the additional power needed to run heat pumps. There is a similar issue with EV chargers in homes)

Other unintended consequences of shifting to a heat pump solution for buildings include acoustic implications (fans running continuously), so location and acoustic buffering are important design considerations; and the type of heating utilised within a building (heat pumps are more efficient when used in conjunction with low temperature heating systems, such as underfloor heating).

These issues are of course outweighed by the fact that they do offer a low carbon solution, which will also cost less over time. However, such technologies must be fully understood by designers, contractors and building users if they are to be installed and operated effectively.

Another factor affecting scalability is the way most projects are currently procured in the UK. Particularly in the housing sector, the predominant form of procurement is Design and Build, which tends to be preferred by clients to provide cost and time certainty for a project. However, this form of contract does not usually nurture the collaborative mindset that is required for successful implementation of an Active Building project, and is often used to deliver buildings at the lowest cost possible. Active Building projects require buy-in from the whole team right from the project outset.

Local authorities and regulators also have their part to play as, often it takes policy or regulation to enforce change. We know that this approach will currently cost more, so how do we convince clients it is the right thing to do. We are at a time when most organisations in the UK construction sector, whether design professionals or contractors, recognise the need to do things differently if we are to mitigate climate change and meet energy and carbon reduction targets. I certainly receive a lot of interest in the work I am doing to promote the Active Building concept as a way forward for buildings. So, I believe the time is right to ensure the Active Building concept is scalable and I see this as our main role at SPECIFIC.

Check out the Toolkit here. Any comments or feedback welcome!

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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