#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!

#46 Active Building Technologies

The Active Building Technology Showcase is the latest document from my Toolkit soon to be uploaded to SPECIFIC’s website. This contains information on some of the technologies that would be suitable for use on an Active Building project.

While our current Active Buildings utilise solar energy, other renewable energy generating technologies can also be considered depending on site specific conditions. For example, a site in a built-up area, surrounded by taller buildings or trees and with no opportunity to incorporate south facing roofs may not yield much energy from the sun and may be more suited to other renewable energy generating technologies. Even if renewables are not an option, electrical storage with intelligent controls could still be incorporated, which would enable the building to benefit from controlled import and export of electricity to and from the grid, utilising agile tariffs and easing grid pressures. If control strategies are linked to the carbon intensity of the grid, the building could utilise low carbon electricity, without generating its own.

Feedback from my focus groups included a desire to have sight of emerging technologies that, if not ready now, could be retrofitted into a building at a later date. One such example is the PV window in our Active Classroom, developed by one of our main industry partners, NSG. This was not available at the time of building the classroom in 2016 but the first prototype of this window was installed, replacing a standard window in 2017. Another example is the combined solar thermal and PV (PVT) tubes on the Active Office, which the building was designed to incorporate. As these were not quite available at the time of building the office in June 2018, the heating system was designed to be able to operate without the system (using an ASHP instead), with the ability to add the PVT system once it was available. It was finally installed in December 2018, significantly reducing the heat pump usage, as per the original intention. Naked Energy, who manufactured and supplied the PVT system have developed an interesting case study on the installation, as well as taking part in a Q and A with SPECIFIC.

We are often asked about the embodied carbon in the technologies used on our Active Buildings and whether the proven savings in operational carbon outweigh their embodied carbon. While some of the technologies used in our buildings do have high embodied carbon currently, we have research groups within SPECIFIC developing the next generation of technologies with much reduced carbon. For example, our PV research group are developing printable PV which uses low cost, earth abundant materials, combined with low cost, low energy and low carbon manufacturing techniques, such as screen printing (the same technology used to print on t-shirts, for example).

As I become aware of new technologies, I will add these into the document. For example, I recently learned about a breakthrough in PV technology by a company called Oxford PV, who are applying the perovskite technology (one of the technologies the PV group at SPECIFIC are investigating) to traditional silicon solar panels to produce a perovskite-silicon tandem module, thereby increasing their efficiency from 20 – 22% to potentially over 30%.

We have an electrical storage group researching the life cycle analysis (LCA) of batteries, as well as new manufacturing techniques for batteries. Meanwhile, a company called Cornish Lithium have developed an environmentally sustainable way of extracting lithium using naturally occurring geothermal waters, which the company claims to have a net zero carbon footprint. Having a UK source of lithium to supply UK batteries will provide us with a more resilient battery supply as we move to decarbonise both heat and transport. By 2035, all new cars and vans will be electric, all requiring lithium-ion batteries, most of which use lithium currently sourced from South America, using energy intensive methods of extraction. As buildings decarbonise alongside transport, storing energy generated from renewable sources, the demand for lithium is soon to vastly increase. Therefore, this project is of huge significance to the UK.

Separating the Technologies from the main Design Guide into another document enables me to update it regularly as and when I come across new technologies. It also helps emphasise the fact that the Active Building concept is more about the principles, which are detailed in the Design Guide, and that a variety of different technologies could be considered in Active Building projects. The document will be uploaded to this section of our website within the next few weeks.

#45 Change Project Summary

Time for Change Sign With Led Light

Last week’s post was about the use of Engagement tools to Implement Change. Other components needed to implement change include Knowledge, Training and Compliance tools – all of which form part of my Active Building Protocol (the main output from my D.SBE change project).

A D.SBE is all about enabling a change to practice or an organisation, or both. It is divided into four modules:

  • Proposing Change – setting the context for change (modules 1 and 2)
  • Preparing for Change – designing and undertaking a pilot project (module 3)
  • Implementing Change – the main study (module 4)

I find this provides a logical framework for my research project and it has been reassuring to look back over these modules as I’ve started to produce module summaries for my final essay.

Proposing Change

The first stage in my D.SBE focused on Proposing Change, which involved setting the context for change, including documenting my own background as an architect and my work at SPECIFIC to enable the Active Building concept to be adopted by industry. Setting the context also involved undertaking grey and academic literature reviews to set the scene for the project and to help identify a gap in knowledge in an organisation (SPECIFIC) and in professional practice (in this case, architectural practice). It also included identifying applicable models of change, such as Kotter’s 8-step model. At this stage, I drew two diagrams to represent how my work fitted into Kotter’s model, as shown below and, although my project has evolved since I completed this module, the model analysis remains true to my project.

Preparing for Change

Once the context was set (the first two modules), it was time to Prepare for Change, which involved designing and implementing a Pilot Project. There were two parts to this module. The first part investigated appropriate research methods to use for both the Pilot Project and the Main Study (Implementing Change).  Here I set out a theoretical framework, before describing the proposed methodology and data collection methods to be deployed. It was clear I would be using qualitative research methods, rather than quantitative, involving a mixture of observations, questionnaires, focus groups and interviews.

The second part described the implementation of the Pilot Project, which took part in two stages. For the first stage I carried out interviews and focus groups with building designers, project managers and main contractors, to identify the main challenges they face in trying to implement innovative technologies or processes within building projects. These challenges concurred with my own experience as an architect and with challenges identified in the grey and academic literature reviews discussed in the first and second modules. The second stage of the Pilot Project related to the developing design guidance (at this stage referred to as a Code of Practice), which was presented in focus groups sessions. Participants were asked to undertake a short design exercise using the design guide and to comment on the developing document by completing a questionnaire. The feedback gained helped to shaped my direction of research by identifying the sort of information required by the industry. The feedback was also used in the development of the design guidance in the main study.

Implementing Change

All this work led up to the Implementation of Change – the Active Building Protocol for SPECIFIC (organisation) and the Active Building Toolkit for designers (professional practice); thereby addressing both a change to practice and a change to an organisation – as outlined in the Proposing Change section.

To aid use of the Toolkit, I plan to develop an interactive process flow tool, which will provide a step-by-step guide through the RIBA Plan of Work Stages of a project and will look something like this:


Qualitative data can be difficult to analyse scientifically. At this stage, while I can say that the data I’ve collected from observations, my own knowledge, focus groups, interviews and questionnaires, has influenced my outputs, my next task is to analyse this data properly using recognised methods. This will then feed into my final essay.

#44 Construction Industry Engagement to Implement Change

This week I’ve focused on the ‘Engagement’ section of the Active Building Protocol (see post #43) and have been assessing the benefits in engaging with relevant stakeholders when trying to enable adoption of a new idea (such as the Active Building concept), technology or product.

In my mind, the key considerations in establishing an engagement strategy include: identifying key stakeholders or a target audience (Who?); developing information for dissemination (What?); planning communications (Why?); and engaging with stakeholders (How?):


The first step to engagement is to know and understand your target audience. SPECIFIC have several target audiences, but my focus is on the construction industry. So I started by identifying what construction industry stakeholders need to know in order to be able to adopt the Active Building concept for building projects; and to determine the best way to engage with them in a format that they are used to (the “how?”). Construction industry stakeholders must find ways to achieve Net Zero carbon in building projects going forward; they must ensure the energy consumption of buildings is reduced, whilst complying with other design requirements. They are interested in finding viable ways to achieve this. The construction industry includes a diverse range of people including designers, project managers, building contractors, installers, manufacturers, building inspectors, surveyors, cost consultants, etc, etc.


The information to be disseminated comprises the resources created or gathered in the ‘Knowledge’ section – key definitions; Active Building case studies; building performance data; design guidance; checklists; templates; examples of suitable technologies.


From my point of view, there are several reasons we need to engage with construction industry stakeholders:

  • to gain an understanding of the challenges and issues the construction industry faces in finding ways to reduce energy consumption of buildings and lower carbon emissions
  • to share knowledge of the Active Building concept, Active Building Case Studies and lessons learnt from Active Building projects
  • to gain feedback on the work I am undertaking and the documents I am preparing as a ‘toolkit’
  • to identify areas of further research, from feedback and questions asked
  • to engage with others undertaking similar work and identify collaboration opportunities
  • to make new contacts which may lead to collaborative projects with partners
  • to encourage people to adopt the Active Building concept in their own projects contribute towards decarbonising the built environment


The main methods I use to engage with the construction industry and which are detailed in the Protocol include:

  • Active Building CPD seminars and webinars
  • Presentations at networking events and conferences
  • Journal articles
  • Blogs (like this) and social media
  • Active Building tours (physical or virtual)


Webinars are particularly relevant currently, amidst restrictions imposed by the global pandemic. However, while they have increased in popularity recently to deal with the very real situation to reduce contact with others, they also prove to be an effective way to communicate without the need to travel. Hence saving on costs, time and carbon.

Whilst developing the ‘Engagement’ section this week, I presented at two webinars. The first was a presentation to 100 members of CABE, where I shared our Active Building case studies and presented my work so far in developing the Active Building Toolkit and Interactive Process Flow Diagrams. I am always interested in the questions attendees ask, finding these act as a good indicator of the issues people are interested in and the gaps in knowledge that we need to fill. Common to other webinars I have given were questions on the suitability of the Active Building concept to building retrofit; consideration of embodied energy (whole life values); end user considerations; and use of data, including artificial intelligence (AI). Answers to some of these questions can be found in our FAQ document. I was also pleased to be asked if my Toolkit and data from the buildings is available yet, demonstrating interest in use of the design tools and case studies to help deliver low energy, low carbon buildings.

The second webinar was organised by Constructing Excellence and was entitled “Circular economy, whole life approaches and MMC”. This comprised two short presentations – the first by Dr Flavie Lowres from the BRE, who gave a fascinating presentation on a project called BAMB, which focused on enabling a circular economy building industry; and the second by me, where I discussed whole life values from my experience of our Active Buildings. The presentations were followed by a group discussion session, where the most appropriate ways to enable and measure whole life values in building projects were debated – the conclusion was that another session is needed to continue the discussions!

One thing that is always clear from such events is that there are many variables and complications to enabling a net zero built environment; and, while there is appetite to find solutions, the industry has a long way to go before net zero is the ‘norm’.

#43 Active Building Protocol Progress

This week I have been progressing my Active Building Protocol, which will detail the steps SPECIFIC have taken to enabling the construction industry to adopt new technologies and  the Active Building concept, outlining the enabling methods used and providing information that can be utilised to enable the adoption of any new concept or technology.

The Protocol documents the journey from SPECIFIC’s origins in functional coatings to its current work in developing Active Building demonstrator projects. It’s been good to look back and review the process the centre has been through and it is clear to see how crucial building demonstrators have been to the furthering of research around technologies that would eventually be used in building projects. Without the buildings, it would not have been possible to test how new technologies would perform once embedded into building fabric and connected to control systems and other more conventional building services.

The Protocol is set out in 6 sections, related to the strands discussed in previous blogs:

1FoundationsEstablishment of the IKC, setting aims and objectives, targets, a project plan and building a team
2KnowledgeDeveloping material to share with industry and academic partners, building owners, building design and delivery teams, general public
3EngagementEngaging with internal and external stakeholders to share knowledge, research and experience
4TrainingCapturing data from emerging technologies and building demonstrators and using this data to learn from and to train others in designing, delivering and operating Active Buildings
5ComplianceDeveloping ways to measure compliance with the Active Building concept through following checklists, setting standards and through certification schemes
6Implementation & ReviewImplementing the Active Protocol, reviewing progress and using feedback to further develop the protocol and make future improvements

It was interesting looking back on how SPECIFIC has evolved since it was established in 2011. Whilst the evolution seemingly took place in an unstructured manner, setting it out in a structured document shows how the progression from developing individual technologies (based on fundamental research) to developing full-scale building demonstrators and assessing building performance has occurred naturally over time. The progression has actually been very logical and has taken place in an iterative way, where key learnings are consistently fed back into the investigation of technologies, including learning how these can be integrated effectively into buildings. I think this is mainly due to the fact that most of the researchers at SPECIFIC have a scientific background and are hence used to learning from their experiments, which in our case are buildings – their background influences their behaviour and their ability to see buildings as experiments. This is key to building performance evaluation and is something that is often (usually) missing from building projects.

The performance gap is well-documented and to date has been rarely addressed because we just don’t collect enough data from buildings. And when data monitoring is in place, it is rarely analysed and even more rarely used to optimise building performance and to learn from when embarking on the next building project. As we have progressed through our building demonstrator programme, the need for robust data and analytics in buildings has become ever more apparent in our bid to reduce the energy consumption of buildings. In our Active Office, for example, due to data capture and use of that data to optimise performance, we were able to reduce our energy consumption by 3MWh (or 12%) from the first year of occupancy to the second. Some of the interventions made to enable this were quite straightforward – the main contributing factors to issues we experienced were with the heating and ventilation systems, where most of the savings were made. The contributing factors to performance issues included:

  • Mechanical and Electrical Design
  • Commissioning Errors
  • Equipment Failure
  • Lack of rigour in checking equipment supplied against specifications, e.g. 10kW of heating from 45⁰C heat source = Design; 10kW of heating from 80⁰C heat source = As installed
  • Use of different subcontractors for a holistic building services strategy

Writing the protocol has also highlighted to me the importance of a multi-disciplinary team. For the first two years of SPECIFIC’s operation, the team didn’t include anyone with construction industry knowledge and expertise, and also included only limited marketing and communications experience. These were clear gaps, but perhaps weren’t needed in the early days. As the centre gained traction and technologies developed, an Architect (me) and people with communications expertise were employed – both of which were instrumental in advancing the centre and establishing what was needed in order to engage with the construction industry. From my point of view, it was clear we needed facts about performance of technologies and how they perform in a building, not just in isolation. Therefore, we needed a building, where we could test technologies in a real world situation and how they integrated into building systems. Once we had at least one building, we could then start to gather performance data and develop case studies to provide evidence on their performance and share key learnings.

The final section of the protocol – implementation and review – really describes my doctoral research project, where I have reviewed the level of information we currently have, and the engagement activities that currently take place; identified challenges, such as the need for data, lack of awareness, perceived risk and maintenance worries, etc; and examined “enablers of change”, such as compliance tools, more knowledge and training. The development of an Active Building Toolkit is my proposed solution to addressing challenges identified and providing a suite of clear documentation and tools to aid the conception, design, delivery and operation of Active Buildings. This brings together much of the work SPECIFIC has already been doing, but sets it out in a clear, structured way.

#42 Active Buildings – A Flexible Approach

Buildings come in all shapes and sizes, and must respond to different environmental conditions, different site characteristics, different client aspirations, individual user needs, local and regional planning policies, etc, etc. It is for this reason that the key principles associated with Active Buildings are deliberately not prescriptive – the Active Building concept is based more on an approach, or process, for delivering low energy buildings, rather than focusing on particular technologies.

To reflect this, the Active Building Toolkit I am developing will be underpinned by an interactive process flow diagram that will provide a step by step guide to designing and delivering Active Buildings in relation to the RIBA work stages. I plan to develop this using the Integrated DEFinition Method (IDEFØ), which is  designed to model the decisions, actions, and activities of an organization or system – in this case the RIBA work stages for the design and delivery of building projects. This, alongside the documents within the Toolkit, will describe the considerations that should be made at each of the stages.  

Active Building Interactive Process Flow Diagram

The starting point for an Active Building is an efficient building fabric and optimised passive design to reduce operational energy. Regulated loads are further minimised using energy efficient systems.  Where practicable building loads are met using building integrated or onsite renewables. In addition to reducing peak loads, and preventing oversizing of plant, the inclusion of electrical (including electric vehicles) and thermal storage allows interaction with micro-grids and the national energy network to be managed. Intelligent control is essential for an Active Building, both for the control of building systems and to manage interaction and trading with the grid. Ongoing and consistent data capture will enable analytics and insight to feedback into the Active Building design process, and optimisation and refinement of predictive control strategies.

One of the documents I have been working on this week is an Active Building Technology Showcase, which provides information on the sorts of technologies that could potentially be used to deliver low energy, low carbon solutions. Feedback from my focus groups suggested a need for information on available technologies, including the more innovative, emerging technologies that designers and contractors rarely have time to explore – having these set out in one handy document will help encourage innovation and use of low carbon technologies in building projects. The technologies included in this document are based on those I have knowledge and/or some experience of and certainly isn’t exhaustive.

When developing the energy strategy for a building, as well as taking into consideration site constraints and opportunities, talking to those responsible for ensuring the building operates effectively is critical. Residential, educational, commercial, industrial building types all have very different requirements and are operated very differently. For example, clear feedback from those operating school buildings is that, unless someone else is paying for it, schools often don’t want renewable energy generation on their buildings.  Understandably, they don’t want the extra financial or maintenance burden of PV roofs.  Community energy schemes, such as SCEES in Swansea, which install and manage PV installations on school buildings, can be a solution here.

The energy strategy must of course be developed in conjunction with other key design decisions. Large windows overlooking playing fields in school buildings, for instance, are not generally favoured by teachers as they can be a distraction for pupils. If relying on the natural light from those large windows as part of the lighting design within the energy strategy, this is an important factor. In this situation, to focus pupil’s attention on the class in hand, teachers will pull the blinds down and switch the lights on, negating the original design intention of the windows to flood the classroom with natural daylight.  Unless large overhangs or pergolas are provided on south facades, blinds are drawn whenever the sun is shining to avoid overheating and glare in classrooms. North lights are more suitable for classrooms, as they provide good levels of natural daylight, without the overheating and glare issues.  However, there needs to be a good balance between providing natural daylight and providing a thermally efficient building envelope to minimise energy for heating – Every design decision impacts the energy strategy! Glazing on east and west facades is the most difficult to control, so schools are often designed on an east-west access to enable north and south glazing only, which is easier to control. This also works well if including solar energy generation on the building.

I have recently been involved with the design of an off-grid classroom, which presents a different set of challenges.  The site is located at high altitude and is often shrouded in low lying cloud cover, so use of solar energy alone cannot be relied on to supply all of the energy demand for the building, especially in winter, even with battery storage. The occupancy of the building will be intermittent, and the building will have minimal use in the winter months, due to the location. However, some space heating and hot water provision is required, and systems suited to the site, occupancy and operation must be carefully selected. Other fairly large power requirements include water treatment and pumps for distributing harvested rainwater. As there is no option to connect to the grid, energy demand will be minimised as far as possible through the building design and it may be necessary to accept that in the depths of winter, it could be a struggle to heat the building to temperature levels people are used to in buildings.

Retrofit of existing buildings poses different challenges again, requiring careful thought and consideration to the most appropriate energy efficiency measures to deploy. The UK Government recently announced £80m of funding for green technologies (such as renewables, heat pumps), heat networks and insulation measures to upgrade the existing building stock in England. However, not all existing buildings are suited to solutions such as external wall insulation (EWI) and the unintended consequences of applying the same measures to all buildings can result in (and has resulted in the past) detrimentally affecting the fabric of existing buildings. A flexible approach to retrofit is needed that will enable measures to be adopted appropriate to individual situations. This was discussed in a recent blog post by the Active Building Centre, where in some instances a technology approach may be more appropriate than improving fabric efficiency.

I am hoping the Active Building Toolkit will prove a useful set of information for those embarking on low energy buildings of all types, as well as describing a clear process for achieving low energy aims and objectives.

Active Building DocumentDescription
Code of ConductA document to accompany contractual documents that sets out the drivers for any Active Building project and commitments for all stakeholders involved in a project
GlossaryKey terms and definitions associated with Active Buildings
Design GuideDescribes Active Building concept, the 6 key principles and key design considerations to help achieve each of the principles, data collection, LCA and WLC
Frequently Asked QuestionsA collection of frequently asked questions categorised into headings linked to the challenges identified in the Pilot Project
Technology ShowcaseA selection of technology options for possible inclusion in an Active Building project, including emerging technologies
Project TemplateA structured way to record a project from RIBA Stage 0 to 7, including key decisions made, information exchanges, photographs, etc – this will become a Case Study post project completion
Case StudiesStep-by-step record of the design, delivery and operation of an Active Building, linked to RIBA stages, including lessons learnt (based on Active Building Project Template) – current case studies show the development of this idea, from the Active Classroom to the Active Office to the Project Template
RIBA Plan of Work ChecklistsKey checks at each of the RIBA work stages to comment on – whether they were achieved or not, including explanations – to be completed before moving to next stage
InductionA 15 – 30 minutes presentation that all people working on an Active Building project must watch before they commence their involvement.

#41 A Sustainable Built Environment

Clockwise from top left: Design District, Greenwich; Parc Hadau, Pontardawe; Townhill Campus, Swansea; Gwynfaen, Penyrheol

While my research work is focused on Active Buildings and the development of a process to enable adoption of the Active Building concept in building projects (a process that can be applied to any new concept by the way), my doctorate is in the Sustainable Built Environment (D.SBE). So, I have been reviewing how Active Buildings fit into this wider context.

An Active Building is an environmentally responsive building, responding to:

The Natural Environment: through use of passive and active solar energy and/or other renewable energy sources; through its relationship with the site it occupies – wind direction; shading provided by vegetation; use of natural site features for cooling, noise attenuation, provision of energy, or protection from pollutants

The Built Environment: creating communities of connected buildings that can share resources, such as energy generated by the buildings, or green spaces between them; improving air quality in and around buildings through less emissions; and providing a sense of community

The Energy Environment: the energy network the building connects to – balancing supply with demand, controlling export and import of energy to and from the grid, to ease grid pressures; connecting electric vehicles, which can help balance energy supply and demand through use of smart charging regimes

Owner occupiers of Active Buildings will have lower operational costs; lower carbon footprints; better visibility of their energy use; and improved building performance (due to the collection and use of data), which in turn will help them to remain in the building and use the cost savings for other areas of their lifestyles.

All buildings are interventions into the environment and into communities; and considering them in this way will help ensure that they not only utilise their environment, but actually enhance it. They should not be a burden on any aspect of their environment, whether natural, built or energy. In terms of the energy environment, I came across an interesting article this week which put low energy buildings and local energy generation at the heart of a Net Zero ready reformed electricity system, illustrated as an Energy Onion, which starts with consumers and works out to the wider electricity network.

As we recover from the global pandemic, we must use the knowledge and experience we have encountered over the last 3 months to change the way we think about the built environment. We must not return to the ‘business as usual’ approach of designs based on what we have done previously. We have an opportunity now to reset and to think about how the built environment should look in the future, the importance of good quality green spaces around buildings, embracing the natural environment and working with it, not against it.

I recently watched an interesting podcast about designing for the future. The interviewee, Architect and Urban Planner, Hannah Corlett (founder of architectural firm HNNA) made an excellent point that routine makes us robotic and prevents us from stepping out of our comfort zone, instead allowing us to keep doing things we’ve always been doing. This is so true in construction where designers often design projects based on previous ones that are perceived to have been successful. We have been given time to think differently, to reset, and to use this as an opportunity to live our lives better and to build back better. While the disruption to our routines was unexpected and due to a devastating virus, we are now faced with the opportunity to change our future. We are still not meeting climate change targets (and won’t unless we seriously reduce carbon emissions and find ways to sequester carbon), so desperately need to change the way we live, to look after the planet more. To quote Corlett, we should “think ahead, while questioning what’s in front of you.”

As an example, many designers, who have traditionally occupied offices, often paying high rents to be in the optimum urban location, have now realised that they don’t need to pay for an office building for all of the time, but could rent space according to their needs at different times. This would not only free up money that would have otherwise been spent on long-term rental agreements but would reduce stress and could stimulate creativity by offering a variety of different work environments. A new community of uniquely designed internal and external spaces, known as the Design District is currently being constructed in Greenwich, which has just this model. As well as creating a vibrant, shared community of spaces, it will offer flexible spaces for people to use as and when they desire, providing opportunities to share resources, such as equipment or even staff – promoting sharing, collaborative working, creativity and innovation. Companies will be able to support each other, collaborate, and be more flexible, which will ultimately aid and nurture creativity and cross-disciplinary working practices.

Creating these sorts of cooperative spaces would also lead to reductions in energy consumption (spaces would only be heated, cooled and powered when occupied); reduce transport (if there are a variety of these spaces within communities, people would no longer need to commute sometimes long distances into a central office space); and potentially reduce waste, from reduced consumption due to shared resources. Without the restrictions of rent and commuting, designers (sticking with this example) could spend more time on what they should and want to be doing, they will be less stressed, have more time for family and more time for health and wellbeing.

Combining the Active Building approach with this cooperative thinking would create a truly sustainable built environment, where the buildings would also share energy, alleviating pressures on the surrounding energy network as well as the building owners, who could choose to either donate excess energy they generate to their neighbours when they don’t need it, or sell it back to the grid as another income generator. Let’s hope we see this model being used more in the future, to provide more of these shared, resource efficient spaces, not only for designers, but for all industries.

A sustainable built environment must balance economic, social and environmental issues – the three pillars of sustainability – for the benefit of all and it is encouraging to see schemes like the Design District doing just that. Other examples include residential schemes currently under development in Wales by Sero Homes, Coastal Housing and Pobl, all of whom are leading the way in Net Zero housing.

#40 A Vision for 2040

This week’s blog post continues the theme of designing for our future, as discussed last week, with a review of an inspiring film I watched on Wednesday.

In a week which saw an announcement that the city of Sydney is now powered entirely by renewable energy and Kate Raworth discussed her work with the local government in Amsterdam to realise her theory of “Doughnut Economics” as part of a Covid-19 recovery; the film, 2040, by Australian filmmaker, Damon Gameau, really caught my attention.  The film presents an insightful view of how the world could look in 2040, using only techniques and knowledge that we have today. Hopeful as his vision is, it will of course only become reality if there is a global effort to tackle the climate issues that we have created over a relatively short period of time (approximately 250 years). It requires all the world leaders to realise how money could be better diverted for the benefit of the planet and all its inhabitants.  

Gameau began by looking at energy and the first part of his journey sees him travelling to Bangladesh, which I learned has the biggest Solar Home System in the World, using a platform called SOLshare. Access to electricity per head of population in Bangladesh is amongst the lowest in the world, with no existing distributed grid network. This provides an opportunity to build a grid from the bottom up, starting with individual homes, interconnecting homes within villages, then connecting individual villages together. With the Solar Home System, homeowners with solar panels and battery storage can purchase a box that allows them to buy and sell energy between homes. And, even if they can’t afford the solar and batteries, they can still buy the box, which allows them to buy energy when they need it. This decentralised, community energy micro-grid, interconnecting homes and villages means homes become the energy grid (or power station) for the whole country; offering many benefits for the community beyond reliable power supply – it means energy becomes democratic and far more efficient, money generated stays within the community, energy is consumed at the point of generation, communities are more resilient to increasingly extreme weather events.

The impact of localised energy generation is widespread throughout communities; for example, allowing local bazaars to operate into the evening, so improving wealth; and enabling children to study into the night, so improving their education;  all without the need to burn expensive and polluting kerosene oil, their only viable alternative.  The microgrid business model means that the value created is shared more equally with those that created it; and demonstrates that, in a future energy landscape, all homes could become part of a microgrid that helps power the economy.

It is possible for many countries to become close to running on 100% renewable energy by 2040. The point made in this film is that we have everything we need now on both a small and large scale to achieve 100% renewable status. As well as improving economies, society and the environment, this would also make us much more resilient to natural disasters, which are predicted to increase in intensity with climate change.

However, if we want to take serious steps towards achieving this, funding and support from governments are desperately needed to provide the necessary training and skills. It was suggested that the $10 million/minute currently spent on subsidising fossil fuels could perhaps be diverted to the cause!

Other concepts explored in the film included: driverless electric vehicles – to replace car ownership, reducing pollution, reducing stress and freeing up land within cities, which could be used for parklands or urban food farms; Regenerative Agriculture, to improve soil quality and its ability to sequester carbon; Marine Permaculture – simply growing more seaweed beds that can sequester carbon, provide habitats for sea life and food to replace some of the meat in our diets; and creating Environmental Dashboards within communities to connect people to their carbon and energy usage – In the city of Oberlin in Ohio, for example, a project to set up an Environmental Dashboard was designed to engage, educate, motivate and empower the community to make informed choices that conserve resources. It tested the principle that connecting people to their environment and their energy use has the potential to change behaviour. This is a similar concept to our Active Office Dashboard, which displays energy consumption and generation, alongside the carbon intensity of the energy being used.

The film was truly inspirational. By showing what is possible now and the impact even relatively small changes could make to climate change, it provided hope that it isn’t too late to make some informed choices now that will ensure a more secure, equal and resilient future for all.

#39 Building Design for the Future

When presenting during a Webinar this week, I was asked how the Active Building concept considers the challenges of pandemics, given that the occurrence of pandemics is becoming a recurring issue. This is not something I had considered to date, but something clearly all building designers must consider going forward.

Designing for a post-pandemic world is not a new phenomenon, as an article written for The Guardian in April explains – since the 19th century, diseases such as cholera, the bubonic plague and tuberculosis have all helped shape the built environment we know and live in today.  Design responses to these diseases included changes to door thresholds, building foundations, sewage systems, street grids and materials within buildings such as tiling and brass doorknobs. The article suggests that in post-Covid buildings we may expect to see wider corridors, wider doorways and more staircases, as some of the measures against diseases.

The main way Active Buildings can respond to pandemics is through ensuring buildings are well-ventilated and maintain good indoor air quality (IAQ). Active Buildings promote provision of good IAQ through high levels of controlled ventilation and monitoring of HVAC equipment, to ensure air handling systems are always operating efficiently and effectively. In an Active Building natural ventilation, mechanical ventilation, or mixed-mode ventilation strategies can be adopted, depending on factors such as building type, location, activities within a building, or storey height. Mechanical ventilation systems can be highly effective in forcing large amounts of air through a building, but it is critical that such systems are maintained properly, and filters changed regularly, to minimise pollutants and spread of germs. This can be factored into planned maintenance strategies, and assisted by robust data monitoring, which will flag up any issues with ventilation levels and provide reminders for changing filters or servicing equipment.

Careful consideration of the places formed in the spaces between buildings also has a critical role in designing a resilient built environment. External spaces on or around buildings should incorporate as much green or blue spaces as possible – grass, trees and other vegetation; and water features – to benefit physical and psychological wellbeing, improve air quality, and ensure the built environment is resilient to climate change and associated extreme weather events. Links between communities of buildings should be pedestrian and cyclist friendly, providing ample opportunities for local exercise and access to local facilities.

There are plenty of other ways that the design of buildings and the wider built environment can help shape a post-pandemic recovery. Here are just some ideas:

  • Doors and windows:
    • Minimise the number of doors (doors to publicly accessed toilets have already been eliminated in many places like train stations and shopping centres); provide wider door openings; change door opening mechanisms to minimise physical touch; specify door handles that can be operated without hands
    • Always provide openable windows, even if mechanical ventilation system in place
    • Provide plenty of links to outdoor spaces – both visual links and physical where possible
  • Sanitary accommodation:
    • Provide lever taps, that can be operated with arms instead of hands; sensor-controlled taps and toilet flushes; knee or foot-operated taps (particularly in public buildings).
    • Provide more sensor-controlled hand sanitizing stations in public buildings
  • Layout:
    • Intuitive building layouts that avoid the need to open more doors than necessary
    • In some hospitals, waiting rooms (spaces subject to high numbers of potentially infectious people) have been replaced with “waiting nooks” scattered around the building, using RFID technology to track and alert patients. This has the added advantage of reducing stress levels in patients – instead of waiting alongside other sick patients, with nothing to do, they could perhaps wait in a therapeutic garden, library, or other quiet space until they are called up
  • Adaptability:
    • Design flexible spaces that can be adapted to accommodate a change of use with minimal interventions
  • Smart technology:
    • Use of touch-less technology such as automatic doors; voice-activated or mobile phone-controlled lifts, hotel room entry, lights, ventilation, blinds, temperature control; use of facial recognition for entry.
  • Interior design:
    • Specify anti-bacterial, or easy-to-clean, materials, fittings, surfaces
    • Minimise the number of flat surfaces where germs can sit, e.g. high-level ledges or window cills that are not easily reached for regular cleaning
    • Flush fitting electrical and data sockets where possible
    • Provide greenery indoors – species that are known to absorb pollutants – for improved IAQ, as well as the health and wellbeing benefits
    • Consider indoor water features – calming effect, cooling, improved IAQ
  • External spaces:
    • Provide better public realm spaces in and around buildings, which will encourage people to spread out; provide pleasant environments that enable social distancing; consider placement of street furniture to assist social distancing, while encouraging use of outdoor spaces
    • Provide local food production spaces

Designing pandemic-ready places in this way will also ensure a sustainable and accessible built environment, that responds to social, economic and environmental issues. Added advantages of simplifying designs and adding a level of automation include reducing the amount of materials used and helping reduce energy consumption, thereby resulting in lower carbon emissions from buildings – helping progress towards a Net Zero Carbon built environment.

At a time when we’ve all had the opportunity to stand back and re-think the way we live and the decisions we make, designing a sustainable built environment for all and balancing socio-economic inequalities exposed during this crisis, I think will be a priority for all designers as we strive to build back better.

#38 Data Capture for Improved Building Performance

One of the simplest and most cost-effective ways of improving a building’s performance (once passive design measures and building fabric have ensured reduced energy load) is to install accessible data monitoring equipment.  If reviewed regularly, the data collected can help ensure energy systems are working as expected and if not, determine why. So, what prevents data monitoring equipment from being installed in construction projects?  

The perceived additional cost remains a big obstacle, meaning monitoring systems are often ‘value-engineered’ out of projects at construction stage (a reminder that ‘value-engineering’ is not always about achieving best value, but more a way to reduce construction costs!). This will continue to be an issue until clients can be persuaded of the importance of incorporating a robust data monitoring system in their building, how it can provide greater insight and optimisation of a building’s true performance for both energy and cost savings. Data monitoring is a victim of the focus on capital costs in building projects, instead of taking a long term view and considering operational costs over the building’s lifetime, which are much more important in practice, but are often not necessarily understood at design and construction stage.

In its first year of operation, our Active Office consumed 26MWh of electricity – not vastly more than it generated, but enough to prevent it from claiming to be energy positive. Like with most buildings, commissioning continued well into the first year and beyond. However, unlike many buildings, we did install a substantial amount of data monitoring, which enabled us to identify issues that increased the energy consumption in operation from our design estimations. After some fairly simple tweaks, we were able to reduce the annual energy consumption to 23MWh in its second year, a 3MWh saving, and there is still more to do. Changes so far have included installing larger heater batteries in the air-handling units (as originally specified) and adjustments to the time clock operation – not particularly complicated matters, but it was the data that enabled us to identify reasons for excessive energy use, which could then be remedied.

In addition to improving building performance, capturing and analysing data from building energy systems can also be used as evidence to prove or disprove the effectiveness of different systems.

LETI, who have recently become built environment leaders in working towards a zero carbon future for the UK, make suggestions for data capture and disclosure in their Climate Emergency Design Guide:

  • Ensure total building energy consumption is metered and recorded securely and reliably
  • Submeter renewables, heating fuel and special uses separately
  • Carry out an annual Display Energy Certificate (DEC) for non-domestic buildings and include as part of annual reporting
  • Upload five years of data to the CarbonBuzz online platform.

DECs (mandated on all public buildings larger than 250m2 since January 2013) display the actual energy performance of a building for 12 months of operation, and rate a building between A and G, where A is highly efficient and G is the least efficient. However, DECs are not mandatory for all buildings and are not commonly displayed.

But displaying energy consumption is also an excellent way of connecting building users to the energy they use and acting as a nudge to change behaviours towards reducing energy consumption.

Perhaps, there should be an even simpler energy display mechanism for all non-residential buildings, akin to the well-recognised Food Hygiene Rating, displayed prominently in catering facilities across the UK.  This could be reviewed annually based on actual data from a building and would have the benefit of acting as a quick engagement tool easily recognised by all. It would look something like this:

Similar to a DEC, this would enable the building owner/occupier to review their energy consumption and determine the most appropriate approaches to improve building energy management and building services, thereby reducing energy consumption, energy costs and CO2 emissions.

There are, of course, issues with this. If a building is rated 0 – 2, for instance, it might not be easy to make the necessary improvements, as it may be difficult to trace exactly where the faults lie (unless extensive metering and data capture are incorporated) and, once identified, it could be difficult to put right. Contractual arrangements with project delivery teams tend to stop after the construction defects period, leaving building owners without support. To mitigate this, there would need to be contracts in place with BMS controllers, or a Facilities Manager who has full access to all the systems. But, both of these options come with their own challenges.

The display screen we have in the entrance foyer of our Active Office has proved to be an effective way of increasing occupant engagement and awareness of energy consumption; identifying patterns in energy behaviour; promoting thinking about how to match their demand to the building’s generation, or shifting their energy demand to times of day when grid supplied energy is cheaper or has a low carbon intensity factor. The simple diagrams used to depict the building’s energy consumption and generation provide a clear picture of energy flows, easily understandable to all.

It is our job as designers to influence clients to understand the importance of data capture for improved building performance. If a project budget doesn’t stretch to anything else, incorporating data monitoring equipment should be prioritised, to enable identification of faults and to target areas for improvement in the most cost-effective way, as well as reducing operational carbon.

For more information, please get in touch: joanna.r.clarke@swansea.ac.uk

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