For my 50th blog post, I thought I would look back at the story behind my research, which links to plans for a journal paper that I’ve been forming this week. To help frame the reason the Active Building concept was developed and why design guidance to enable the adoption of the concept, supporting a low/zero carbon built environment, is needed, it’s important to set my work within the wider energy, built environment and climate context.
Energy, Built Environment and Climate Context
In its Industrial Strategy, published in 2017, the UK Government committed to at least halve the energy consumption of all new buildings by 2030. Allied to this commitment, the Climate Change Act (2008) was amended in 2019 to set a target to reduce carbon emissions in the UK by 100% below 1990 levels instead of the previous 90% commitment. To meet these commitments, new approaches to environmental and sustainable decision making for reducing energy consumption and associated carbon emissions in the built environment are needed in order to embed climate change resilience into building design.
Background to SPECIFIC
SPECIFIC was established by Swansea University in 2011 – an academic and industry collaboration, set up to develop low carbon solutions for energy use in buildings, with a particular focus on solar energy. Research groups within SPECIFIC are investigating novel types of photovoltaics, electrical storage, and thermal storage, amongst other technologies. When it was originally established, the team at SPECIFIC consisted of mainly chemists, material scientists and process engineers. I joined SPECIFIC in 2013, where my main role was to liaise between the researchers and the construction industry and encourage construction industry professionals to deploy the innovative technologies under investigation on their own building projects.
While the ultimate aim of the research underway at SPECIFIC was to deploy innovative solar energy and energy storage technologies on buildings, in 2013 these technologies were yet to be demonstrated on a building as part of the energy system. As an architect, I recognised the need to demonstrate technologies on buildings in order to prove their efficacy and demonstrate how they worked together as part of the overall building energy system. The concept, then referred to as “Buildings as Power Stations”, and later evolving to the now termed “Active Building” concept, needed to be demonstrated on full-scale buildings.
Between 2013 and 2016 two single storey buildings were designed and constructed to demonstrate the Active Building concept – the Active Pod (2014) and the Active Classroom (2016). A third building, the Active Office, was designed and constructed in 2018, demonstrating the concept on a two storey building. These buildings are used to test new to market, innovative technologies in combination with readily available, more “mature” technologies, enabling us to assess how the different technologies can work together towards the same goal – increased building performance efficiency, lower energy consumption and providing support to the energy grids.
Having designed these buildings; collected and analysed data from them; and engaged with the industry to talk about them; I then decided to explore the challenges around introducing new concepts and technologies into the construction industry. I carried out some interviews and focus groups with building designers and contractors and found that most of the challenges they identified focused on risk:
The best way I could see to address these challenges and reduce the risk for building designers was to develop a suite of documents that would provide knowledge, reduce their research time, help convince clients, and show examples of how we designed and delivered our own Active Buildings, including suitable procurement routes. This now forms the Active Building Toolkit, which was discussed in last week’s blog and can be found here.
Consensus from those I have tested this with so far is that it is useful to have all this information in one place and that this will provide a useful resource when designing low energy Active Buildings. This is now to be tested on some live projects with partner organisations.
The next stage, once the Toolkit is fully developed, will be to consider creating an Active Building Standard and certification scheme to enable compliance.