#59 Celebrating 10 years of SPECIFIC

The near completion of my doctorate coincides with SPECIFIC celebrating their 10th Anniversary!

Celebrations began in April, with a review of the fundamental scientific research into novel energy generation and storage technologies, including the next generation of printable PV cells and inter-seasonal heat storage. In May, the support we have provided to businesses was reviewed. And the celebrations culminated this month, by showcasing our work in the built environment – really highlighting the influence our building demonstrators have had on the trajectory of SPECIFIC since I joined the team almost 8 years ago.

  • Our first demonstrator, the Active Pod, illustrated the Active Building concept in a small, garden office building, showing how generate, store and release technologies could work together to provide the energy needs of a building, with less reliance on the grid;
  • We then constructed the Active Classroom in 2016, which demonstrated the concept on a larger building that would be used for teaching, and hosting meetings and workshops, while providing a platform for trialling new technologies and systems. This enabled us to collect data on the performance of emerging technologies when installed on or in a building, rather than in a controlled environment, such as a laboratory;
  • This was followed by the Active Office in 2018, which showed that it was possible to connect emerging technologies to well-established building energy systems, and allows us to experiment with different demand management strategies.
The Active Buildings

Also this month, we added to the Active Building Toolkit that was launched in November 2020, with a further case study on our retrofit industrial building, aptly named the SHED (Solar Heat Energy Demonstrator). This was actually our first building demonstrator and has been used to demonstrate different technologies since 2011, at the very beginning of SPECIFIC, before I joined in 2013. This case study gives a brief overview of 10 separate demonstration projects housed in or outside the SHED. These include: thermal storage connected to solar thermal systems, a PV and solar thermal test rig, and an Active Rail Shelter; and we’ll be expanding on these in further case studies as we collect more data from them.

Other additions to the website during this month included a recording of my Active Buildings in Practice webinar, which you can view here; and a Vlog on the ongoing data monitoring of our Active Office by our Technology Director, Dr Justin Searle.

It’s been great to look back on how SPECIFIC has grown as a centre since 2011 and exciting to start making plans for the future and hopefully the next 10 years.

As we gain more experience from our own building demonstrators, we are able to share our knowledge with the construction industry and encourage the development of more Active Building projects. Later this year, the first Active Classroom demonstrator for rural Indian villages will be constructed, providing a solution for rural villages with limited and unreliable access to grid electricity. This is being funded through our sister project, SUNRISE.

We have quite a few other exciting projects in the pipeline too, which will keep us busy for the foreseeable future.

#58 Changing Energy: The Challenges and Solutions

This week I took part in a panel discussion for an event called Everything Change, which involved a series of online discussions, talks, and events looking at the role of creativity, adaptive thinking and storytelling in overcoming the challenges of the climate and ecological crises.  I was in the Changing Energy discussion, one of seven societal areas of change inspired by Wales’s Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015) being explored during this programme of events. To kick off the session we were each asked to talk about what we believe to be the biggest challenges for a changing energy landscape.

Sticking to what I know, I focused on the energy used in the built environment. In this area, I think one of the most significant challenge we face is the decarbonisation of energy used for heating our buildings, particularly homes, and particularly when dealing with the existing housing stock in the UK. According to the Energy Savings Trust, 22% of total carbon emissions in the UK come from our homes – that includes energy used to provide hot water and powering our appliances and devices, as well as heating and cooling.

Decarbonising heating is especially challenging for us here in Wales, as we have the oldest housing stock in the UK – 26% of Welsh housing dates pre-1919; and this means that retrofitting much of our existing housing stock is difficult or in some cases unviable, either due to excessive costs or the nature of the buildings.

The Climate Change Committee has recommended that all homes should have an energy performance certificate (or EPC) rating of C or above from 2028, in order for us to reach our net zero target by 2050. A recent article on this, stated that almost 1.7 million homes in England and Wales with a current EPC rating between D and G cannot be improved to reach a C rating. In Gwynedd in Wales, over 77% of homes have a rating of D or below, and the same research predicted this could only be reduced to about 22% if the recommended improvements were made.

There are many challenges to switching to low carbon energy, such as: costs – like the costs in replacing all gas boilers and oil heating systems with low carbon alternatives, consumer behaviour, skills, supply chain issues (e.g. are there are enough heat pumps to replace gas boilers currently, or enough skilled installers?).

What can we do to address this challenge?

I think one of the most impactful solutions we can take is to adopt an “energy flexibility” approach, which combines local renewable energy generation and energy storage with smart control strategies to enable buildings to have a flexible relationship with the grid, and to maximise the amount of low carbon renewable energy that can be used; while also easing pressures on the existing grid infrastructure, and reducing the need for costly and disruptive grid upgrades.

Energy storage is the key to this, as it enables electricity to be drawn from the grid at times of lower carbon intensity, for example (that is, when the grid energy mix is largely coming from renewables such as wind and solar); for use at a later time of day when the carbon intensity may be higher. Conversely, energy storage can be programmed to export energy to the grid, when the grid carbon intensity would otherwise be high.

So, when energy is consumed is becoming almost as important as how much energy is used.

The approach we need to take, and what the Active Building concept aims to achieve, is to reduce the amount of energy we use and, at the same time, reduce the carbon intensity of that energy, through a combination of actions:

  • construct thermally efficient and airtight buildings;
  • adopt a flexible approach to maximise use of low carbon energy;
  • ensure use of efficient building services equipment;
  • install and commission building systems properly;
  • monitor our building energy performance and use energy and comfort data to drive best operation and optimisation;
  • ensure building users understand how a building should operate;
  • and make sure building users have an awareness of their energy consumption and how their individual behaviours can impact on their energy usage.

We are seeing an increasing number of demand response solutions now that, combined with a growing number of distributed energy resources, such as rooftop PV, battery storage and electric vehicles, are creating new opportunities for residential buildings to act as virtual power plants (VPPs).

The UK’s biggest domestic demand side response (DSR) pilot project, called “Flatline”, has just been completed in Wales. This was led by Sero and PassivSystems and demonstrated a 25% reduction in energy bills, as well as significant savings in carbon emissions.

We have been involved in several projects which aim to facilitate DSR strategies, to change when energy is consumed through energy storage and controls; and simplified energy trading systems enabling buildings to act as VPPs. Two of the companies we are currently working with include Measurable and CarbonTrack. For both companies, we are using our Active Building demonstrators as test-beds for their new technologies, providing valuable data to enable them to refine their products to develop commercial offerings. We were also recently involved in another demonstration project called FRED, which tested similar strategies.

And a recent Carbon Trust report, called “Flexibility in Great Britain”, published last month, claimed that a flexible approach is critical to decarbonising energy – an approach incorporating demand side response, energy storage and a mix of low carbon energy sources. The report states that embedding flexibility in the UK electricity system could deliver up to £16.7 billion in savings each year by 2050, so we have a massive opportunity to save money as well as carbon using this approach.

If you want more details on DSR, this video produced by SPECIFIC provides a really clear explanation.

#57 Research Project Reflections …….

Although challenging at times (as you’d expect!), I have found writing up my final thesis hugely rewarding and generally a good experience. My thesis is a culmination of the work I have undertaken during my 8 years at SPECIFIC, combined with my previous 10 years’ experience in architectural practice. It documents how I have used my background as an architect to influence the direction of an organisation and contribute to changing architectural practice, through development of the project outputs described below.

I have found determining a clear way to describe my project to someone unfamiliar with my work to be one of the biggest challenges in writing up my thesis. But, doing so, has helped provide clarity to my project and resulted in a better piece of work. For me, this was a particular challenge due to the fact that my main project output – the Active Building Toolkit – is just part of another main output – the Active Building Protocol, as this diagram attempts to explain:

Some of the work described in the Protocol was developed before starting this research project, some has taken place during the project, and some is proposed as post-doctoral work, as highlighted in the diagram.

Then the Toolkit itself has evolved from earlier iterations – first called a Code of Practice, then a Design Guide, before finally being refined into a Toolkit of several documents:

So when writing up, I have had to be very careful that when talking about the ABDG or AB Code of Practice, these could be linked to the AB Toolkit. Otherwise, I risk confusing my examiners, which will in turn make it very difficult for them to assess my work.

In addition, I have developed two further outputs: this blog, which is intended to explain my research work to a non-scientific audience (like myself); and an Active Buildings in Practice CPD seminar, which I used as a format for my focus group sessions.

One of the main benefits in undertaking my doctoral research project is that it has allowed me to document my journey from architectural practice to a research organisation; and to summarise the impact I have had on both an organisation and in some way, architectural practice. If it wasn’t for this project, I may not have realised that developing an AB Toolkit would provide an ideal platform for SPECIFIC to share their work with the wider construction industry and to enable the development of more AB projects. This diagram illustrates how my project addressed both organisational and professional practice:

The culmination of my work in the AB Toolkit illustrates how I have met the aim of influencing both organisational and professional practice:

  • Organisational practice, as it provides a way for SPECIFIC to share their work with the construction industry and to help achieve their aim to facilitate the design of ABs across the UK;
  • Professional practice, as it provides information for use by design teams in their own low energy, low carbon building projects, hopefully reducing their research time too, by providing all the information they need in one place.

As a Professional Doctorate is split into four modules, by the time it came to documenting my Main Study, in the fourth and final module, I had already passed the first three modules, which described the context to my project, the research methods I proposed using to achieve my aim and objectives and the results of a Pilot Study undertaken to aid the design of the Main Study. The Main Study involved testing the developing design guidance with architectural practitioners, evaluating the results of the testing process and using this analysis to inform my main project output – the AB Toolkit. In the process of completing my project, I also produced the AB Protocol (summarising the work I have done to link the research work at SPECIFIC to the construction industry), an Active Buildings in Practice CPD seminar (used for my focus groups), and this blog, which I have used as a way to talk about my research to a non-scientific audience.

When documenting the methods I used to develop the design guidance, I also created an 8-step plan for others to follow in developing their own design guidance:

I have thoroughly enjoyed this research project. I have learnt so much along the way and the process has encouraged me to challenge myself. It has been a good way to capture my work and the career path I have ended up taking. I never set out to leave architectural practice and I certainly never intended on undertaking a doctoral research project. It wasn’t on my radar, I didn’t even think I was capable. I now realise, at the end of my four year experience, that with hard work and the right support, it is possible to achieve whatever we set our minds to.

My tips for anyone embarking on a similar journey:

  • be willing to challenge yourself and work hard;
  • listen to advice, learn how to take criticism positively and use to improve your work;
  • be ready to defend your work;
  • ensure you can evidence what you are saying;
  • and if you find something difficult to put into words, draw a diagram!
(Taken from “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” by Charlie Mackesy)

#56 Active Building Data Monitoring

Why Monitor Building Energy Performance?

A critical element of an Active Building is the energy performance monitoring for true building performance evaluation (BPE). Data collected from the individual systems integral to the operation of the Active Building are used to monitor performance. This enables rapid fault detection and remediation; the development of predictive control strategies; and development of planned maintenance regimes.

Historically, robust BPE has not been carried out routinely on building projects, often only taking place to gain environmental credits, or to satisfy funding criteria, for example. The reasons for this lack of BPE vary, but include: anticipated costs; time; reluctance to uncover issues that may be difficult to resolve; or simply due to a lack of understanding of the value of BPE and the potential energy, carbon and cost savings that could be made through simply identifying problem areas.

We have been able to make significant reductions in the energy consumption of our Active Office through BPE using data captured from our monitoring system, saving as much as 1 MWh in energy consumption from the first year of occupation to the next! Hence, we believe it should form an essential component of all building projects, particularly as we strive to reach a net zero carbon society.

Active Building Monitoring

We are currently developing monitoring specifications for different building typologies and these will set out the key components to monitor, how to monitor them, and how to use the data collected.

Before developing a monitoring strategy for a particular building, some of the questions we might ask include:

  • The purpose – what will the monitored data be used for?
  • Which loads should be captured?
  • What granularity of data is required?
  • What instruments are needed to capture the required data?
  • How will the data be stored?
  • How will the data be managed?

Answering these questions will enable the development of a focused strategy tailored to meet particular needs and to suit budgetary constraints. The management of data collected from a building should not be underestimated. There is no point in collecting data unless it is managed and used to improve building performance.

The main goals of data monitoring for an Active Building project include:

  1. To understand how energy is used within the building
  2. To ensure the building meets energy performance targets as set out in the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge, and can be considered an Active Building
  3. To monitor performance and use data collected to improve/optimise performance
  4. To enable development of control strategies
  5. To reduce energy consumption and associated carbon emissions

The Future of Building Performance Evaluation (BPE)

The good news is that the benefits of undertaking BPE are being increasingly recognised as we all seek ways to decarbonise the built environment. Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE), which forms part of the BPE process, is already recommended within the RIBA Plan of Work and Government Soft Landings, but full BPE is still not mandated on most projects.

While BPE can be an expensive and time-consuming process, which has undoubtedly contributed to its poor uptake, some exciting new tools, methods and equipment that can significantly reduce the costs and time taken to undertake it are emerging. A great example is Build Test Solutions who will be trialling some of their methods within the Welsh Government’s Optimised Retrofit Programme in Wales; and have recently had their Pulse test for airtightness testing approved as a suitable way to prove compliance with the new Future Homes Standard and Part L of the Building Regulations. This offers a simpler and cost effective alternative to the traditional door blower test usually used for testing airtightness. They are also developing simple and cost effective ways to measure thermal performance of building envelopes. Definitely worth checking out.

In the meantime, if you would like more information on Active Building Monitoring Specifications, please get in touch, info_specific@swansea.ac.uk.

#55 Implementing the Active Building Toolkit


In November 2020, the first version of my Active Building Toolkit was launched on the SPECIFIC website. The main reason I developed the toolkit was to share our experiences of designing, delivering and operating Active Buildings; highlight the key design considerations for an Active Building; and showcase some of the available and emerging technologies that could be included in an Active Building project.

I developed the Toolkit as one of the outputs from my doctoral research project, following testing of the documents with the anticipated end users – mainly architectural designers – through focus groups, undertaken during my main study. The results of this testing helped me determine the type of information designers need when embarking on an Active Building project and their preferred format for such guidance. This inevitably involved identifying key challenges they may encounter in introducing an innovative concept to a building project – key challenges such as fear of the unknown, perceived risk, lack of data, knowledge, time, costs, etc.

The Toolkit was designed to address some of these challenges, for example, by providing evidence from our own Active Building demonstrators. We could also save research time for designers by providing information on technologies, key design considerations and key learning points.

While the focus groups held with the end users were hugely beneficial in developing this first draft, the real test comes from attempting to use the guidance on live projects. This is where the opportunity to refine the documents comes in.

The Toolkit in Action

Active Building RIBA Plan of Work Checklists

I intend to create Active Building Checklists as part of the Toolkit to provide a method to track the main design considerations and key decisions taken at each of the RIBA Work Stages, as an Active Building project progresses – the idea being that this will ensure the Active Building principles are properly considered throughout the project, in turn guaranteeing that the completed project is an Active Building. However, the only way to truly test this document is to trial it on a live project, working with the project team to ensure the checklists are achievable and align with other project requirements.

In January 2021, I was invited to join a design team for a commercial building project, which the client has stipulated must be an Active Building, providing an ideal opportunity to trial the Toolkit. The design team have welcomed the use of the Active Building RIBA Plan of Work Checklists and agree they would be of real benefit to the project, enabling all parties to work together to capture critical design decisions relating to the Active Building brief at each RIBA Work Stage, and to present this to the client as the project progresses, demonstrating their efforts to achieve Active Building status.

As well as tracking progress, these checklists will also be useful when making decisions that may affect the project budget; and can be used to gain client sign-off at the different stages.

It is exciting to be working with the architects to evolve this set of checklists further, which will then be included in our Toolkit for use on other commercial building projects.

Sample pages from the developing Active Building RIBA Plan of Work Checklists

Active Building Monitoring Specifications

While the Active Building Design Guide provides some information on data monitoring expectations for an Active Building, we are now starting to develop monitoring specifications bespoke to different building typologies. The first we have developed is for a commercial building, again using the above project as a case study. We developed this in collaboration with the Active Building Centre Research and Technology Organisation (ABC RTO), who are part funding the project. SPECIFC are supporting the design team, while the ABC RTO are part of the client team – by working together in this way, we can ensure the building delivered at the end of the project will be an exemplar Active Building, and the ABC RTO will monitor and evaluate data collected from the building in use to validate this. Involving colleagues from both SPECIFIC and the ABC RTO enables me to harness their expertise to ensure the document is beneficial to Active Building projects.

Energy Dashboard Specification

Our Energy Dashboards have proved extremely popular with visitors to our Active Buildings, showing at a glance how much energy we are generating and consuming at any time of the day, and relating our generation and consumption data to current environmental conditions.  Data from our vast database is illustrated in a series of clear diagrams, easily understood by visitors and building occupants of all ages and from all backgrounds.

Although we are by no means experts in this, we feel our recipe for energy dashboards should be shared with others, so that they might create their own dashboards. As we move forward to decarbonise our buildings and embrace a more flexible relationship between buildings and the energy grids, we all need a certain amount of energy literacy. Energy dashboards provide an ideal way to start the process of engaging with our energy consumption patterns in a more considered way than we have been used to in the past.

A screenshot from the Energy Dashboard in our Active Office

Technology Showcase

This document provides some examples of technologies we have either used in our own Active Building demonstrators, or have identified as having the potential to enable the Active Building principles to be achieved. It also highlights some emerging technologies, such as our own inter-seasonal heat storage.

We will add to this document as and when we discover further relevant technologies. We have already been approached by companies wishing to include their technologies in the document, and as we work with more companies on collaborative projects, we will find more products and technologies to include.

If you are interested in trialling any of our documents on your own projects, of any building type, please get in touch, joanna.r.clarke@swansea.ac.uk

And, if you have suggestions for guidance documents you would find useful if embarking on an Active Building project, ideas are always welcome!

#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.

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