#54 Energy Flexibility for a Low Carbon Built Environment

Image source: Carbon Track

It’s been a few weeks since my last blog post, as I’ve been busy collating my research data and starting to pull my final thesis together. It’s been a busy period for addressing the climate emergency too. This week the 6th Carbon Budget was published by the Climate Change Committee (CCC), setting out a net zero pathway for buildings in the UK. This comes hot on the heels of the UK Government’s 10-point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, the launch of the Green Homes Grant (in England) and the Welsh Government’s Optimised Retrofit Programme, all of which have been announced in the last few weeks.

As they prepare for COP26, the United Nations (UN) and the UK government are hosting a Climate Ambition Summit tomorrow, which commemorate the Paris Agreement’s fifth anniversary and will offer a platform for countries to commit to more ambitious actions, such as enhanced nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and net-zero targets. Dozens of national climate commitments are expected to be unveiled as well as some new pledges from cities and businesses. Our own Prime Minister has just announced a 68% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 (below 1990 levels), which is necessary as the CCC reports that progress in delivering emissions reductions in the UK since 2015 has been slow.

I attended a Reuters Event on the Future of Renewables on Tuesday, called Preparing for COP26 – Setting the agenda now”. This brought together leaders from around the world who discussed what they would like to see as an outcome from COP26. Answers included: “humanising energy”, by making it more affordable and accessible for all; “150 countries committing to net zero by 2050”; making more people aware about what 1.5°C means and helping them understand their role in the race to zero; and increased ambition, with a suggestion that, as we’ve seen what it’s like to lose control this year, maybe we’ll act differently in the future.

The words “reduce vulnerability”, “resilience”, “adaptation”, “energy literacy”, were used – with an overriding call to focus more on people. Angela Wilkinson, Secretary General and CEO of the World Energy Council set out 4 drivers for change:

  1. Decarbonisation
  2. Digitalisation
  3. Decentralisation (renewables)
  4. Disruption (on the demand side)

She also called for “energy flexibility” – a term we use to describe the role of Active Buildings within the energy system (although she talks about it on a much larger scale); the need for diversity of solutions – not just renewables, not just electrification, but also energy storage, controls, and other solutions where appropriate. And my favourite quote from the event: “renewables need friends”.

We held an updated Active Buildings in Practice Webinar today to highlight Active Buildings as one solution to decarbonising our built environment and to help Wales and the UK meet their climate change targets for energy and carbon emission reductions.

If you want to learn more about Active Buildings, check out our Toolkit here: https://www.specific.eu.com/what-are-active-buildings/#toolkit

#53 Qualitative Research Data: How much is enough?

Mind Map of My Research Project

As I start to collate information for my final essay and a research paper, I have been revisiting my approach to determining an appropriate sample size for my research. This is particularly difficult to establish at the start of a research project when it is unknown (and hard to predict) how many participants are needed before the saturation point in data collection will be reached.

Several factors influence the sample size required to give sufficient, reliable results: the aim of the study (how focused it is); the nature of the participant group (homogenous or not); the quality of data received from participants; and how the data will be analysed.

My instincts, logic and understanding of the building design and delivery process told me that my research involves a relatively homogenous population of participants, i.e. the people involved in designing, delivering or procuring buildings. Therefore, I could reasonably suggest similar views from participants. My research aim is narrowly focused on assessing opinions of my developing design guidance. Those participating are likely to have strong views on the usefulness and style of the design guidance, as they are used to referring to design guidance whilst developing building projects – thereby providing good quality data. And my research doesn’t involve cross examining data from participants, but rather collecting data and using to identify common views to influence my final design guidance documents.

However, to give my research academic credibility, it can’t be based on my own assumptions! I have therefore used 3 methods to determine an appropriate sample size. In the research design stage, I used a table produced by a researcher in 2003 (Israel, 2003), which has been widely used in qualitative research projects since publication.

This told me that for a population of 1,127 architectural designers (architects and architectural technologists) in Wales, I should consider a sample size of 95 participants sufficient. By carrying out focus groups, this seemed a reasonable number to aim for, and in December 2019 I started to arrange face to face focus groups, designed as CPD seminars, as well as a few interviews.

Then, due to the national lockdown in March this year, I had to adapt my research method to run online focus groups instead of face to face sessions. There were pros and cons to this. One advantage was the ability to reach more people, increasing attendance at the sessions; but a downside was that this would broaden the sample group to a wider range of participants. My final study group included 242 participants, of which 61 were architectural designers (64% of the original sample size). The question was, did this matter to the study?

The second method I looked at was developed by researchers Malterud, Siersma and Guassora (2006), which they called the Information Power Method. This diagram illustrates their criteria for determining sample size:

Information Power Method, adapted from Malterud et.al. 2006

Applying the characteristics of my project to this, gave me confidence that my sample group would have high Information Power, hence a smaller sample size should be needed before the saturation level is reached within the data.

This was validated during my data analysis when examining the data and setting out to determine the saturation point, i.e. the point at which no new data was found – in this case, when no new themes emerged from the data. The results are shown in this table and graph, where FG = Focus Group and Int = Interview:

It is clear from these results that, after just 5 sessions (focus groups or interviews) no new themes emerged, despite the number of themes present in the data and regardless of the number of participants. This suggests that a relatively small sample size would have provided sufficient data for this narrowly focused study. The wider range of individual participants did not have an impact on the data, with the same themes being discussed in each group, regardless of whether they were architectural designers, engineers, surveyors, building control officers, or project managers. This makes sense as the information I have put together in the design guidance (the Toolkit) is relevant to all involved in building projects.

Hopefully, this information will be useful to others involved in qualitative research.

[I will be running another webinar on 11th December. Please contact me for further details: joanna.r.clarke@swansea.ac.uk]

#52 A Week of Action for Climate Change

This week should have seen the UK host the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26 (now due to be held next year in Glasgow).  Wales marked the week by hosting Wales Climate Week, with a programme of talks focused on some of the most urgent climate issues, such as energy resilience and protecting our natural resources; along with solutions, including the role of society, net zero vehicles, net zero buildings, and how to procure for sustainability. On Friday the Welsh Government (WG) announced the launch of their £20m Optimised Retrofit Programme (ORP), part of the 4th year of their Innovative Housing Programme (IHP) to help upgrade social homes in Wales through energy efficient materials and technologies.

It was great to hear from Sero Homes about their approach to Net Zero and optimised retrofit. The WG IHP has helped accelerate the move to low carbon solutions for new housing developments in the UK. Tackling the existing housing stock is a bigger challenge, but Sero are proposing a sensible approach to this by acknowledging that each home is unique and should be considered according to their individual characteristics.

SPECIFIC’s Heat Week

To compliment this, SPECIFIC held an online campaign called “Heat Week”, which focused on challenges around decarbonising heating in the UK; showcased some of the available low-carbon solutions; and introduced some of the innovative emerging solutions that we and our collaborative partners are investigating.

Launch of the Active Building Toolkit

During this week, we launched my Active Building Toolkit, developed to share learnings from our projects and provide design guidance to help deliver net zero buildings. I have written about the Toolkit I’ve been developing in several blog posts, but was pleased that it was officially launched by SPECIFIC this week as an enabler for low carbon building design. It was nice to see this covered by an article in the Environmental Journal too!

I plan to run another webinar on the design of Active Buildings in December, where people can provide feedback on the toolkit and its usefulness.

British Construction Industry Awards

Also this week was the British Construction Industry Awards (BCIA). Our Active Office was up for an award for “Climate Resilience Project of the Year” – which recognises projects that are mitigating the impact of extreme weather and climate change on people, properties and business – a big ask for a small building in Swansea! We were one of 5 projects shortlisted in this category, amongst 2 flood management schemes and 2 coastal management schemes. The Awards ceremony took place virtually yesterday and we were thrilled to be awarded with ‘Highly Commended’ in our category. The winner was the Bacton-Walcott Coastal Management (Sandscaping) Scheme, Norfolk – a huge engineering scheme that “placed more than a Wembley stadium full of sand on a Norfolk beach” allowing the area to adapt to coastal change – a very worthy winner!

But why enter Awards?

I find there’s real value in the process of entering awards, whether we’re successful or not, as we learn from the questions asked of us, the categories, and the views of the judges. The whole process provides insight into the challenges the industry is trying to tackle, which is evident from the judging criteria and the need to prove we had addressed issues such as use of digital technologies, reduced carbon, collaborative working, and impact for change.


On Tuesday, the BCIA hosted a panel discussion with three of the judges discussing what they found to be the most important aspects of delivering a successful project. Unsurprisingly, good collaboration between design and delivery teams, clients, communities, and building users, was thought to be at the heart of successful projects.

And one of the key points made was about having a Vision, understanding what success looks like and the purpose of the building project. This struck me as something to reflect on. We are often self-critical about our buildings – they’re not perfect, we know all the flaws they have, what works well, what doesn’t work so well. We can spot all the problems with them and could provide quite a list! But, going back to our Vision, our reason for the buildings, their purpose was to demonstrate innovation, to trial technologies and systems that had not been used before, to test, to de-risk, to gather data, to learn. That was our Vision. Our buildings are not meant to be perfect, they provide a platform for experimentation and non-biased learning.

Feedback Loop

And that ties in with another subject of discussion, which was the fact that we don’t learn enough from our buildings and really need more shared learnings for improved building performance and reduced energy consumption. This is one of the critical aspects of our work, we share our learnings (good and bad) and use them to optimise building performance and inform the next building. You may remember my “Active Learning Loop” (Blog Post #11) – this continuous loop of learning is critical to delivering successful projects and in giving us any chance of meeting our 2030 and 2050 targets. For a “warts and all” review of our Active Building projects, check out our detailed case studies for the Active Classroom and the Active Office.

Finally, if you’re interested in listening to some fascinating conversations around future homes solutions, I can recommend listening to the WoodBUILD 2020 Autumn series of podcasts by Wood Knowledge Wales – excellent conversation between Fionn Stevenson and Rob Wheaton on the performance of homes.

#51 A Spotlight on Heat

According to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the heating of homes accounts for 13% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions – comparable to the emissions of all the diesel and petrol powered cars in the UK (Net Zero – Technical Report). In March 2019, the UK government announced plans to introduce a Future Homes Standard, mandating the end of fossil-fuel heating systems in all new homes from 2025. This is necessary as we move towards a net-zero carbon target by 2050, but is it enough and how will it be achieved in reality?

Earlier this month, a policy briefing produced by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) was published, and warned that “significant” changes to the UK’s domestic heat policy framework are needed if the UK is to meet its 2050 net-zero target. The Clean Heat Grant (replacing the Renewable Heat Incentive) will offer support for heat pumps and some biomass, but is currently set up to support only 12,500 homes per year, just a fraction of the anticipated installations needed.

Meanwhile, an article in the Guardian reported that under current plans it will take the UK 700 years to move to low carbon heating!

So, what are the low-carbon solutions available for heating homes now?

Next week SPECIFIC are holding a “Heat Week” focused around 3 main themes:

  • building design
  • low-carbon heating technologies
  • the future of heating

We will share our research work on heating and are asking for others to share their examples of low carbon building design, low carbon technologies and heat research. This coincides with the Wales Climate Week, which has a programme packed with content on decarbonising buildings and transport in Wales, leading the way for the rest of the UK.

Some of the key challenges to delivering low carbon heating solutions for the UK include the capacity of the supply chains to deliver these new solutions, as well as the availability of supply of technologies such as heat pumps. There is a need for training and upskilling of the current workforce, a need to train up more installers, and a need for increased manufacturing of low carbon solutions.

Costs are another factor – at the moment, gas is still the cheapest form of heating. However, updated regulations, such as the new Future Homes Standard (England) and revisions to Part L of the Buildings Regulations (for England and the devolved administrations in the UK), will help accelerate the move to low carbon heating solutions,

There are viable solutions available for low-carbon heating of homes right now. These include air-source or ground-source heat pumps; combined heat and power (CHP) systems; low carbon heat networks; combined solar-thermal with heat pumps; or electric boilers.

If you’re interested in learning more about low carbon heating, including some of the emerging solutions, such as inter-seasonal heat storage, tune in to our Heat Week!

#50 The Active Building Story

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.

Building Demonstration

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.

The Active Pod (2014), the Active Classroom (2016) and the Active Office (2018)

Addressing Challenges

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.

#49 Sharing Knowledge and Lessons Learnt

In many of the seminars and conferences I attend, conversations around the challenges the UK construction industry faces in improving performance of buildings or the need to consider whole life values of buildings, often comes around to discussing the importance of sharing information amongst the industry and learning from each other. There is a vast amount of knowledge and experience available within the industry, but we still don’t seem to share learnings and best practice enough. There are, of course, barriers to this – clients may not want to share information about their projects, it takes time to pull together detailed case studies, and there needs to be a central location to share such information. Some sharing platforms exist, such as Carbonbuzz, and UKGBC Net Zero Case Study Catalogue, for example, but gaining a true understanding of how buildings are actually performing can be difficult. If we don’t gather data, we won’t have the evidence to give clients and won’t be able to provide assurances about the strategy they should take when procuring a new low energy, low carbon, building.

Our Active Buildings are by no means perfect and have many of their own challenges but what the people I present to in my own seminars appreciate is the honesty around what works and what doesn’t work so well. By the very nature of innovation, of trying new things, pushing the boundaries, setting challenges, investigating new technologies, we are bound to make mistakes along the way. The important part is learning from these, adapting to develop new solutions, finding ways to improve in a continuous loop of learning. We might try things on one building and then tweak the solution for the next, or use a completely different solution, ever evolving to better solutions along the way. But if we don’t try new things we will never improve.

Someone this week referred to the famous Einstein quote: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – arguing that this is something we do constantly in the construction industry. If we want our buildings to perform better, use less energy, have lower carbon emissions, provide better whole life value, we can’t continue to use the same procurement routes, the same business models, the same mechanisms for delivering buildings, that we’ve used in the past and that we know will never enable us to reach our net zero carbon and energy reduction targets. Yet we have been talking about doing things differently since the Latham Report, published almost 30 years ago – the construction industry is very slow to change!

As an Innovation and Knowledge Centre, SPECIFIC are ideally placed to trial new things and it is our duty to share lessons learnt with others. So, in the spirit of sharing knowledge, I released two very detailed case studies of our Active Buildings that I have been working on as part of my Active Building Toolkit this week – the Active Classroom and the Active Office. These case studies are set out in relation to the RIBA Plan of Work Stages, detailing key decisions made at each stage and documenting the whole process of designing, delivering and operating the buildings from RIBA Stages 0 – 7.

At the same time, I published an Active Building Design Guide and an Active Building Induction, to accompany the previously published Active Building Technology Showcase, Code of Conduct, FAQs and Glossary.

These documents form part of a Toolkit to aid the design of Active Buildings that I am developing as the main output from my doctoral research project. Two other documents will complete the Toolkit – RIBA Plan of Work Checklists and a Project Template. These won’t be published until I have trialled them on at least one project to determine how useful they are and how easy they are to use. The purpose of the template is to provide a simple way of documenting a building project from start to completion, in a format that can then be used to form a case study, and could also accompany handover documents. It will include progress photographs, key information exchanges, and the reasons behind key decisions, which will be useful for maintenance and adaptation of the building in future.

If you have any comments on my documents or can think of any other information that would be useful, please contact me: joanna.r.clarke@swansea.ac.uk

#48 Analysing Focus Group Data

Analysing qualitative data can be tricky as there are no agreed methods, as there are for quantitative data, and there is no right or wrong way of analysing the data – analysis is subjective, based on the researchers own background and perspectives. There are, however, different recognised approaches that can be taken and for my data the most appropriate approach seems to be Thematic Analysis. This involves identifying themes that emerge from the data collected.

When I carried out my focus groups, I combined them with questionnaires, which were split into themes, based on my research aims. These would form the Upper Level Themes to which Lower Level Themes could be added once derived from the data collected. The main outcomes I hoped to achieve from my focus groups were to establish whether a design guide for Active Buildings would be useful, what sort of information it should include, how such a guide should be structured and how the information should be presented. The Upper Level Themes are described in the table below:

DescriptionTo determine whether participants find the design guide is clearly structured; and whether it is easy to find the information they need
DescriptionTo determine participants opinion on the overall visual appearance of the document; the use of diagrams and their ability to explain principles; the balance of text and diagrams; whether they like the use of photographs, diagrams and drawings; how aesthetics could be improved
ThemeActive Building Explanation
DescriptionTo determine whether the main aim of the Active Building concept is clear; whether it is clear what is meant by an Active Building; is it clear how Active Buildings fit into the overall UK government strategies for tackling climate change; is it clear how Active Buildings relate to other policies and regulations; what could be improved to make the concept clearer
ThemeTechnical Content
DescriptionTo determine whether the process to follow in designing an Active Building is clear; is the level of technical information provided sufficient; is it clear where to find additional information if required; is the use of case studies helpful in explaining the principles; would more case studies be helpful; will the information provided reduce research time when embarking on an Active Building project; would any additional information be helpful
ThemeGeneral Impression
DescriptionTo determine whether the design guide has influenced ideas for low energy, climate resilient buildings; would having all the information on Active Buildings in one document make it easier to adopt the concept; should the guide contain more or less information on anything; what would a useful addition be; what are the best and worst features

From these themes, I was then able to identify the Lower Level Themes, by examining the questionnaire results and the transcripts of the focus groups. This helped to identify the most important factors to participants when faced with a design guidance document. These are the themes I identified:

The conclusion was that participants definitely felt some sort of Active Building design guidance would be useful. A few in each session, including the online focus groups run as webinars, asked when it would be available. The most important factors were:

  • There was too much text – use of bullet points and graphics preferred
  • The document should have a consistent format, with clearly laid out pages
  • It should be easy to access information for quick reference
  • The need to maintain relevance of information – an online document would help
  • The amount of technical detail – mixed responses here. Some preferred more technical detail, while others preferred less
  • Case studies were useful
  • The document was long – splitting it into separate documents could help navigation and to maintain relevance, particularly of information on technologies.

This testing was carried out on version 2 of my design guide. Having reviewed this feedback, I took the decision to split the document into several separate documents to form a Toolkit, as I’ve discussed in previous blogs. This will make it easier to access information; the documents are shorter, so more easy to digest; and it will be easier to ensure the information in them is kept up to date. I have also simplified the layout of the documents, so they are now of a clear, consistent format, structured in a logical way. The Toolkit can be accessed here.

#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.

%d bloggers like this: