#37 Are we ready for the “Decade of Action”?

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by all United Nations (UN) Member States in 2015, reflected a shared vision to end poverty, save the planet and build a peaceful world by 2030. Five years on, and with just 10 years to go, we are now entering a “Decade of Action” where ambitious global efforts are needed to accelerate sustainable solutions to all the world’s biggest challenges. But are we ready for this?

In May 2020, the RIBA launched a report that affirms their commitment to the UN SDGs and implores all RIBA Members to unite in a bid to accelerate progress towards achieving the goals by 2030. This report provides an interesting insight into the connection between building designers and these global goals.

Since signing up to the commitment, the RIBA have produced several resources to help Architects embed the goals into their practice. These include: introducing Sustainability and Ethics into the Core CPD Curriculum; declaring a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency; launching the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge; publishing their Sustainable Outcomes Guide; and publishing a new Plan of Work. These resources provide Architects with the tools they need to ensure the goals become a core driver to all their projects and to educate their clients about the role buildings have to play in tackling climate change. By using this toolkit, even if Architects don’t have a conscious connection to the SDGs, they can still work towards achieving them (if other challenges don’t get in there way).

Other initiatives such as the Transforming Construction Challenge to at least halve the energy use of all new buildings by 2030, also serve to accelerate progress towards the goals.

In their report, the RIBA called on Architects to become leaders in sustainability and to implement the SDGs through sustainable building design. Another report prepared by the RIBA, entitled UN SDGs in Practice, outlines the role of Architects as uniquely positioned influencers, with a responsibility to positively affect how places are shaped, how they perform, and who is engaged in the process.

The Active Building concept provides an approach to building projects that, if followed, could help Architects achieve many of the SDGs through design and influencing clients. The Active Building Toolkit I am developing aims to provide designers with a  suite of documents that offer up-to-date knowledge on environmental design; introduce the Active Building approach to building performance optimisation; reduce time pressures by presenting research into existing and emerging low and zero carbon technologies; and provide links to other useful resources. To ensure projects align with the SDGs, the Active Building concept stipulates that clear aspirations are set at project inception and maintained through to delivery and building occupation. This is tracked through use of Checklists and by recording project progress using a standard Active Building Project Template provided in the Toolkit.

The RIBA report outlined the findings of 900 RIBA Members surveyed about their view of the Climate Emergency – of the 900 participants, 66% said they were committed to addressing the Climate Emergency, although they believed that only half of the projects undertaken by their practice are actually sustainable. The 4 top challenges to delivering sustainable projects were cited by 60 – 70% of respondents as:

  • Cost constraints
  • Client requirements
  • Lack of client engagement
  • Product substitution and value engineering

……Similar to the findings of my own research.

As we enter a period of increasing economic uncertainty, these challenges will become even more prominent and will hinder work to achieve the goals, unless we find viable solutions to address them. If we are to achieve the SDGs within this decade, solutions to overcome these challenges are urgently needed. Architects and other designers need to be armed with the facts and tools to enable them to convince clients of the urgency to reach Net Zero and the benefits this will bring to them as individuals or organisations.  Whole Life Cost benefits of sustainable design must be understood and reviewed against the downsides of taking design decisions based on capital cost alone. Lowest cost does not equal best value, particularly when assessing building performance!

More and better-quality data about building performance, product performance and technical performance would also help convince clients to take the sustainable design route. Construction suffers from a lack of robust data on building performance and a lack of desire to share lessons learnt between building projects. Generating, analysing and reporting building performance data is an essential part of the Active Building approach. Without data how could we optimise performance of building systems, develop intelligent control strategies to enable energy management between a building and the grid, or find ways to save money and reduce carbon emissions? Accurate and robust data collection and reporting must become an essential part of all building projects.

Returning to the RIBA Members Survey, 63% said they would be willing to provide performance data if there were a suitable database available, and 89% said they would reference the database in their design. Such a database would enable sustainability to be evidence-based, providing confidence to designers and contractors, and resulting in wider adoption by clients.

In my own experience, most designers passionately care about climate change and want to tackle this through sustainable design of buildings, but they are often held back by other constraints, as mentioned above.

Over the last few weeks, I have been contacted by at least half a dozen organisations wishing to improve their specifications in a bid to progress towards Net Zero goals, each faced with their own challenges to this. Part of my role at SPECIFIC is to work with such companies, review their current specifications and suggest suitable technologies or design ideas to help them achieve the aims. Ultimately, this will be packaged up into the suite of documents forming the Active Building Toolkit. While that is being developed, I will continue to work with companies offering bespoke support for individual projects, design standards and specifications. Information provided in my toolkit will be based on knowledge gaps identified as I engage with designers and developers.

If anyone is interested in my work, has ideas they would like to share, or would like to contribute to my toolkit, please get in touch: joanna.r.clarke@swansea.ac.uk.

#36 Net Zero Challenges

See the source image
Source: https://www.worldgbc.org/advancing-net-zero/what-net-zero

Amongst the many challenges facing the UK construction industry as the target date to achieve Net Zero emissions from the built environment looms ever closer (2050 or sooner), are those facing developers, building users and anyone responsible for operating and maintaining buildings.

The fire safety issues of Net Zero solutions, such as structural timber, MMC and some renewable energy technologies, is very serious and there are limited statutory or British Standard guidance available to help regulators properly appraise the fire safety of Net Zero designs. This was touched upon in blog post #32 and is something that is currently under review by bodies such as MHCLG and BSI – the problem is that the industry can’t wait for new standards or regulations and urgently needs to push on with Net Zero solutions now. This week I have been considering some of the other challenges, several of which I identified in my pilot project in the context of introducing innovative technologies into construction projects. As I progress my research project, engaging with building designers and developers, I come across the same challenges time and time again, the top 6 being:

  • Knowledge
  • Risk
  • Cost
  • Maintenance worries
  • Time
  • Lack of feedback

Looking more closely at the first challenge – knowledge – this is quite an obstacle to Net Zero, not least due to the amount of mis-information designers, developers and building users are faced with when they seek low carbon solutions. I came across a good example of mis-information (or at least mis-leading) information this week, when reviewing low carbon heating solutions for housing. I found there were conflicting views on the inclusion of gas boilers that could potentially be converted to use hydrogen instead of natural gas in housing post-2025. In fact, gas boilers will be banned from new homes by 2025 and, whereas a prototype hydrogen boiler has been developed by Bosch, these are not readily available and, even if they were, there are many other challenges with using hydrogen as a low carbon heating source – these include the need to replace all the existing gas pipes with a suitable material for hydrogen distribution, the potential for leakages in the distribution pipework, the way hydrogen is generated (usually using fossil fuels) and the safety concerns around storing hydrogen in homes.

It is incredibly difficult for designers and developers to sift out good and bad information they are presented with when searching for low carbon solutions. This takes time that they generally don’t have and sometimes requires other expertise to work through the technical jargon that is sometimes used to stretch the truth about the readiness of the technology.

Cost is a barrier too. While most developers have the desire to work towards Net Zero, the reality is that they generally don’t have the capacity to increase their level of investment in developments. If you look at most current housing specifications, for example, they will include use of high-embodied carbon materials such as uPVC for windows, fascias, soffits and rainwater goods. Lower carbon alternatives, such as wood, aluminium or fibre cement board will inevitably cost more. Similarly, to replace internal finishes such as vinyl flooring with linoleum, rubber, cork or stone/ceramic tiling could add significantly to their budget. And there will be numerous other examples.

If developments cost more, there is a chance the additional costs are added to rent, which could adversely affect residents with low income and those from vulnerable groups. In Wales, the Welsh Government’s Innovative Housing Programme (IHP) grant funding has enabled some of the Regional Social Landlords (RSLs) and Local Authorities to utilise innovative ways to push their specifications towards Net Zero, by funding the inevitable uplift in costs. More of these programmes are needed, at least in the short term.

The next big challenges are risk and maintenance worries. Even when renewable energy technologies and data monitoring systems, for instance, are designed into schemes, they are often met with resistance from maintenance teams, who (quite rightly) worry about how they will be able to maintain these and how easy they are for building occupiers to use. They would, understandably, prefer to use systems they are familiar with.  This challenge can be tackled by engaging with and providing training for maintenance teams and building users as the project develops.

The cost of monitoring systems is also sometimes an issue, with sensors and data capture systems being omitted at construction stage to make cost savings. The benefits of adding monitoring systems into buildings far outweigh their initial cost – monitoring energy data can help make operational savings through fast fault detection and remediation, optimisation of systems and enabling the development of planned maintenance regimes – i.e. helping rather than hindering the maintenance teams; and addressing the feedback issue.

As we progress towards achieving Net Zero in buildings, we must be careful not to ignore these challenges, as they represent the reality that those responsible for delivering buildings face.  I hope to address some of the challenges discussed through my Active Building Toolkit, which will provide: information on low carbon technologies; checklists for ensuring critical design considerations are not overlooked; links to useful resources; case studies; training material; and a structured way to capture a project’s progress from inception to handover and use, which can be used to feedback into future projects.

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

#35 Designing for a Changing World

There have been a lot of stories in the press recently either related to the current global pandemic or unrelated, but significantly affected by the pandemic. And all with the same theme – climate change.

There has been talk about how this pandemic and the new ways of working people have found could see the death of large, energy intensive office buildings, for instance. With normally office-based workers now working from home, this not only impacts on reduced carbon emissions from transport, but also changes the daily energy load profile – lots of small amounts of power being used in dispersed areas, instead of large amounts in condensed urban areas, effectively spreading the load. Many office buildings utilise whole building heating and ventilation systems regardless of occupancy, meaning that all spaces are serviced even though they are not necessarily being used, resulting in massive energy wastage.

However, if more people are going to be working from home, the need to include solar energy generation on residential buildings becomes even more critical. Currently, without storage, any energy generated during the day is simply fed into the grid (regardless of whether the grid needs it at that time). With home working, the energy generated could be used directly during the day, reducing reliance on grid-supplied energy, while also alleviating grid stress. Consequently, smaller volumes of energy storage could be used, which would make storage more affordable and hence more viable for residential buildings.

The need for more green-infrastructure has also been in the news – those of us lucky enough to have garden spaces or access to greenery close by are in a much better position to deal with a lockdown situation than those without access to green spaces either within or outside their plot. This has flagged serious concerns about the built environment and whether it is fit for purpose for everyone. Sero Homes in Wales are currently developing schemes where the environment around dwellings is viewed as just as important as the houses themselves. Their Parc Hadau scheme is a fantastic blueprint for housing developments, incorporating low energy housing with plenty of greenery, biodiversity, shared spaces and a real sense of community for the residents.

Some European cities like Munich and Rotterdam, have allowed restaurants, cafes, bars and shops to utilise parking spaces outside their premises as an extension of their business, allowing them to reopen in line with social distance rules, as well as providing attractive spaces within the city. This demonstrates a more climate resilient approach to urban areas – offering economic, social and environmentally friendly benefits (aligned with the 3 pillars of sustainability), as well as dealing with the immediate crisis. Cardiff based company, the Urbanists, have written some excellent articles on enhancing the built environment in this way.

When climate change induced natural disasters clash with a global pandemic, this has devastating consequences for some. Globally, climate change continues to cause massive disruption to people’s lives – a devastating cyclone hit India and Bangladesh last week, caused extensive flooding, killing at least 84 people, leaving 14 million people without power and the evacuation of over 4 million people – all emergency and relief efforts severely hindered by the Covid-19 restrictions, while the number of infections and deaths related to Covid-19 continue to rise in both countries.

More positive news included reports of clearer skies globally, due to the reduction in pollution – for example, people in northern India recently saw the Himalayas for the first time in 30 years, due to the reduction in pollution levels. The question is, will this continue once the World returns to a new normal, or will we go back to where we were pre-Covid-19?

As designers, we can do our bit by focusing on our built environment and the changes we can make to the design, delivery and operation of buildings.  In a recent RIBA survey, 82% of RIBA members, although committed to climate change, believed that the Government should legislate for higher sustainability standards. But, we can’t and shouldn’t wait for the Government to legislate, especially as there are solutions available to designers now. Now is the ideal time to review the way we design our built environment and ensure that going forward we design buildings and spaces that everyone can enjoy, that enhance wellbeing, without contributing further to climate change. It is also the time to work collaboratively within and across disciplines – something I have been advocating for some time and which is particularly relevant to Active Buildings.

Active Buildings are part of the solution for dealing with a changing World. You can join SPECIFIC on World Environment Day for a virtual tour of our Active Buildings. Sign up here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/active-buildings-a-solar-technology-tour-tickets-106908147146

#34 Active Building Toolkit

This week I have been reviewing feedback from my research participants so far and reviewing my design guide documents, alongside other design guides that are used within the construction industry.

This has resulted in a complete overhaul of the documents – graphics, structure and content – triggered by the realisation that my main Design Guide was too big and had become a confused document, merging a design guide with a report (as helpfully pointed out by one of my colleagues). It was quite wordy and contained content that, while providing good background information, was not necessarily helpful to aid design – a lot of the content was more suited for inclusion in a training course. This quote from Dr Seuss sums it up nicely:

“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” Dr Seuss

I took a step back to think carefully about what information I want to share with designers, based on my own experience, that would help them to design Active Buildings. I realised that a lot of the information in my current design guide would already be known to designers, or would be available to look up, but it would be more useful to share key design considerations, challenges and lessons learnt.

So, I have reorganised my work to create a suite of documents to aid the design of Active Buildings, that will form an Active Building Toolkit, consisting of:

  • Active Building Design Guide
  • Active Building Plan of Work Checklists
  • Active Building Technology Showcase
  • Active Building Case Studies:
    • Active Classroom
    • Active Office
    • + more to be added in time

I have stripped the main design guide of case studies and technologies, to make it a much clearer document that will be easier to keep up to date.  I have received comments suggesting it would be difficult to ensure the information about technologies remains current, which I had originally thought could be tackled through creating an online version of the guide. However, I feel that separating the technologies from the guide is a more sensible approach and in line with other design guides I have reviewed.

So, a designer will now be able to consult the Design Guide to obtain a list of design considerations for each of the core Active Building principles and to pick up tips to achieve the principles, as well as being signposted to other useful resources if they require more information. They can then consult the Technology Showcase for some inspiration on technologies to incorporate, and review lessons learnt from completed Active Building projects, by consulting the Case Study documents. As they work through the work stages of their project, they can use the Active Building Plan of Work Checklists to ensure all the considerations have been covered before moving onto the next stage.

I have also added a ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ section to the guide, which is categorised into themes such as Cost, Carbon, Risk, Maintenance – some of which were challenges in introducing innovation to construction identified in my pilot project, correlating nicely with my research to date.

I hope to test this toolkit out on a live project in the near future.

While I have stripped a lot of information from my Design Guide, this work is not wasted – it will be used within the Active Building training course I am also currently developing.

If anyone is interested in learning more about Active Buildings, assessing my toolkit, or trialling the toolkit on a project, please get in touch, joanna.r.clarke@swansea.ac.uk

#33 Active Building Protocol

This week I have been reviewing all my interactions with the construction industry since starting my project in April 2017. There were 2 reasons for this – firstly to start populating the 4 strands of my Active Building Protocol; and secondly for the Reflective Essay that will form part of my final submission.

When logging the work I have been involved with since April 2017, under the “Engagement” strand, I was surprised to realise that there have been at least 40 articles published in construction industry journals about Active Buildings and our building demonstrators, some of which I have authored, and some of which I have been interviewed for; including one in the RIBA Journal earlier this year.  The Active Classroom and the Active Office have won 7 construction industry awards – contributing greatly to our reputation and credibility within the industry.  I have presented my work on the Active Building demonstrators at least 75 times to construction industry groups, either whilst giving a tour of the demonstrators or during events and conferences.  Some examples include presenting at the Good Homes Alliance conference held in London in November 2019; presenting to groups of engineers at Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) events (CIBSE Build 2 Perform conference in London, and to the regional CIBSE YEN group at the Active Classroom), and a Women in Engineering Society (WES) event held at the Active Classroom, amongst many others.  Visitors to our demonstrator buildings range from school children to government officials and ministers, with lots of other interested parties between.

In terms of “Training”, I have carried out 25 events with students, ranging from housing projects with first year architecture students (as discussed previously, most recently in Blog #30), to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) events with primary school children, and taking part in mock interviews for secondary school pupils.  For my own training – or continuous professional development (CPD) – I have clocked up 175 hours through a variety of different ways – from a course on Nvivo data analysis software and short courses on Passivhaus and Net Zero Carbon buildings, to various informal CPD seminars.  I have also started developing course material for an Active Building training course to be run by one of our sister projects, the METaL project.

Under the “Knowledge” strand, I was pleased to contribute to a report on future energy storage solutions to be included in the next version of the Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) for dwellings, which one of my colleagues has just authored.   She led the SAP Industry Forum group for energy storage, to which I provided information on electrical and thermal energy storage solutions, using information from my Active Building Design Guide.  The CPD sessions I have carried out (10 so far) also contribute to knowledge sharing or knowledge transfer (although these could also fall under the “Engagement” and “Training” strands).  I am developing detailed case studies of our Active Buildings, relating them to the RIBA Work Stages, detailing my considerations at each of the stages.  One participant in my study suggested that this is all that is needed, alongside a checklist – something I am contemplating, based on feedback on my design guide to date, which leads me to the conclusion that it currently contains too much information!

Also, in terms of knowledge transfer, I am currently working with several organisations to contribute to their own building performance standards or specifications.

And, I am currently working alongside a design team for a tender bid submission for a project, where (if the bid is successful) I will be able to test my developing design guidance on a live project and ascertain how much additional information a ‘normal’ design team would need and what information would be really useful to them. I think this falls under the “Knowledge” strand and is an ideal way to test my work in a real situation.

The importance and relevance of my project in the current climate, is demonstrated by the interest in my work – from the initial 228 people who signed up for my recent webinar and numerous requests to run it again; to those asking me to work with them on specific projects or on developing the standards they will be setting for building designs of the future.  This highlights the desire from the construction industry to find viable Net Zero solutions for our built environment.

The “Compliance” strand is less developed, although I have been involved in early discussions with bodies to determine the process of developing an Active Building Standard; and a possible addition to one of the well-established environmental assessment methods used by the industry. It is too early to take these discussions further at the moment but, I anticipate once the design guide is ready for publication and, as we gather more evidence from our buildings, we will be able to develop this strand in time.

So, the first three strands of my protocol are quite well advanced. My next task is to bring these together into a step-by-step guide. I also plan to focus on developing a series of checklists for different disciplines and different project stages, using our case study Active Buildings as examples, and, from those, determine additional information needed.

#32 Cross-Discipline Collaboration

Never before has the need for cross-discipline collaboration been more urgent – not only as great minds get together to find ways to combat the virulent and aggressive Covid-19 pandemic, but also as we strive to find Net Zero solutions for our built environment.

Since joining SPECIFIC in 2013, I have been championing the need for cross-discipline working – something I could really see the benefits of, being an Architect working in an engineering department.  One of my former modules discussed early collaboration between the whole project delivery team as one way to help reduce the carbon we use in the built environment.  If the whole team work together collaboratively right from a project outset, there is more chance the building delivered will operate as designed, thereby using less energy and emitting less carbon. 

The importance of cross-discipline collaboration has cropped up several times this week. Firstly, when working with a Fire Engineer on a joint presentation about Net Zero solutions for the built environment and their implications for fire safety.  Gaining insight from different disciplines encourages us to stop and think about the wider implications of our work.  Working with the Fire Engineer, for example, made me realise that it is very easy for us to push forward with Net Zero solutions with the best intentions, promoting ideas that could potentially reduce carbon in buildings, without properly considering the implications these have on overall building safety. For instance, I have for some time had reservations about the drive for off-site construction, about pushing forward with sometimes immature products or systems. Just from my own experience on our Active Buildings, there are issues I’ve noticed with their construction, that have been confirmed through thermography testing, which highlighted areas of thermal bridging mainly around junctions – which not only works against what we are striving to achieve with Active Buildings, but also, if heat can get through gaps in building fabric, then so could potentially fire and/or smoke.  This needs further investigation through some collaborative research projects – something I have been discussing with my supervisor at Cardiff Metropolitan University, Dr John Littlewood, who has significant experience in this area.

Being a member of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee (BRAC) for the UK offers an opportunity to broaden my thinking around my work, gaining a different perspective on new technologies and other Net Zero solutions.  Even “greening” on or around buildings can present a fire hazard if not properly thought out. 

It also struck me that my interactions with built environment professionals, either through BRAC, professional bodies such as Construction Excellence Wales (CEW), the Royal Society of Architects in Wales (RSAW) and, more recently, the Chartered Association for Building Engineers (CABE), as well as my cross-discipline CPD seminars, have benefits to SPECIFIC as an organisation, in that they enable me to bring issues identified by others back to the team, so that we can concentrate efforts on resolving them. Being aware of the potential risks associated with Net Zero solutions is the first step to combatting the issues and ensuring we deliver safe, low carbon buildings.

The message of cross-discipline collaboration was further emphasised later in the week when, on Thursday, I attended a Webinar entitled “Why the industry must collaborate to achieve 100% net carbon zero”, where the presenters all spoke about the importance of cross-discipline collaboration, whilst emphasising that we cannot wait for a perfect solution that all groups agree with, before acting to reduce carbon from buildings. To quote Sarah Ratcliffe, CEO of the Better Buildings Partnership, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good”, which she said to stress that we need to act now and, while we should aim for consistency across disciplines, we should not let it stop action. Keith Clarke, Chair of the Active Building Centre, also stated that we cannot wait for perfection, but should act now and offer Net Zero solutions to clients now.  This aligns with our philosophy at SPECIFIC – we do not claim that our demonstrator buildings are perfect, but they act to show the intent and the capabilities of technologies available at the time of designing and constructing each demonstrator. We use our demonstrators to learn by doing, adopting the “fail fast, learn quickly” methodology and evolving our work as the technologies improve.

And I finished off the week by attending a free online course run by University of West England (UWE) – an Introduction to Zero Carbon Buildings, which was aimed at all disciplines and talked about the role everyone in the industry has to play in achieving Net Zero.

The overarching message is that while collaboration and integrated project delivery teams have always been needed, there is now a new imperative – the need to drive down carbon, the need to embed carbon as a primary driver and a primary design parameter in all building projects.

#31 Active Buildings Webinar Review

To mark the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day on 22nd April 2020, we held our first Active Buildings in Practice Webinar (as discussed in blog post #29). For me, this was an opportunity to test out a different way of collecting data for my research – carrying out a focus group session online, instead of face-to-face as I have been doing to date. For SPECIFIC, it would trial a new form of engagement, which could also be used to disseminate information on other ongoing research projects within SPECIFIC.

This was slightly different to the usual webinars, as we were asking people to take part in research and to provide feedback on my developing design guide. This meant that, rather than simply signing up and joining the webinar at the set time, there were a few stages to the sign up process:

  1. Once people had signed up, we then asked them to complete a consent form, before we could send them the documents to review and the joining instructions;
  2. We then sent out reminders to the sign ups, during the week leading up to the session;
  3. Those who completed the consent form were then given access to the design guide documents, a questionnaire and the joining instructions;
  4. After the webinar, we allowed participants a further day to complete the questionnaire;
  5. We then issued a copy of the presentation and will follow up with a summary of responses to questions that were asked during the session.

As anticipated, this process meant that not all the people who originally signed up, ended up attending and even fewer completed the questionnaire! (We may be able to find a simpler process next time) 

Here is a graph showing the drop-off rate from those who originally signed up to those that took part and then to those that completed the questionnaire:

This concurs with some of my earlier research which found that, when asking people to complete questionnaires remotely (via email or post), the response rate is significantly lower than when asking them to complete in a face-to-face setting.  When I carry out my face-to-face focus groups, participants are asked to complete the questionnaire before they leave, which guarantees a 100% response rate. So, while disappointing, this wasn’t unexpected.

Another interesting aspect was the different professional backgrounds of the participants, which was quite wide ranging.  I only captured this information on the questionnaire, so don’t have a full picture of all participants. In hindsight, it would have been good to capture this information from all attendees. 

While it is of course beneficial to gain feedback from different disciplines within the construction industry, I need to ensure my sample group is as homogenous as possible, if I am to complete my research within a reasonable timeframe.  Therefore, I have limited my main sample group to architectural designers in Wales and, to date, have targeted my focus groups at architectural practices.  However, when advertising publicly for an online seminar, I realised that not all of the participants would be from the architectural profession.  Here is a graph showing the occupations of those who completed the questionnaire (34 participants):

And, as also expected, those attending were from not all from Wales:

Again, it would have been useful to have this information from all attendees.

In total, I had feedback from 7 architectural designers in Wales, taking the proportion of my research completed up to 41% of my target sample size. 

I feel this has formed an extremely useful part of my research, as it has provided me with an alternative way to collect data at a time when it was not possible to host face-to-face sessions.  I now intend to offer this format to individual architectural practices, during this lockdown period and beyond, if desired.

One positive I will take away is the large number of initial sign ups which, I think indicates that, as designers and other construction industry professionals, strive for new ways to meet climate emergency targets, there is growing interest in the Active Building concept and the design guide I am developing.  I have also received a number of requests by people who missed the session to run it again, so looks like we’ll be repeating in the near future!

#30 Home of 2030 Young Person’s Design Challenge Update

The shortlisted team presenting their scheme to their tutor and colleagues prior to competition entry submission

A bit of good news I heard this week was that one of the groups of first year architecture students at UWTSD that I worked with on entries for the Home of 2030 Young Person’s Design Challenge have been shortlisted for the next stage of the project!  This is an incredible achievement for the group as, being a high profile, National Design Competition, they were up against some stiff opposition.  The winning team – Aneurin James, Steffan Phillips, Hollie Parsons and Blaine Smith – called their scheme “Fl-Hex”, reflecting the adaptable, hexagonal forms that they combined to create communities of climate responsive dwellings.   Feedback from the judging panel was that both the standard and volume of entries was extremely high, so they should be very proud of their efforts.

The students will now be invited to a grand final showcase to be held hopefully later this year, where they will have a chance to present their scheme to innovators within the industry, including George Clarke and Mark Farmer. 

Steffan Phillips presenting

This is not only a great achievement for the students, but also for the relatively newly established School of Architecture in Swansea; and reflects the high standard of teaching and mentoring the students received from their tutor, Ian Standen, himself an experienced, hugely talented and passionate Architect.

All four groups of students submitted imaginative designs, all responding to climate change, and incorporating renewable energy generation as well as responding to the current climate issue of flooding which, at the time of the project (January to March 2020), was very much dominating the news.  As first year students, just starting out on their architecture journey, it was impressive to see the creativity they showed in developing their climate responsive schemes.

I have seen some criticism of the Home of 2030 competition recently, with some claiming it favours technology solutions to reduce operational carbon, rather than adopting a whole building and embodied carbon approach.  People have also accused the government of setting up this competition rather than dealing with the real issues of procurement and regulations that need to change to truly embrace the zero-carbon agenda.  I think this is criticism is unnecessary. While I agree, there are definitely issues with procurement and regulations that need to be addressed, and will take time to get right, I don’t see the harm in opening people’s minds to seek or develop new solutions to tackle the carbon and energy problems we face now.  What the competition does very well is raise the importance of climate change and encourages designers (both practising and students) to elevate it in their own agendas. 

Congratulations to the team from UWTSD School of Architecture!

#29 Taking Action for Earth Day through Active Buildings

Amidst the current Covid-19 crisis, Earth Day marks its 50th Anniversary on 22nd April 2020, with “climate change” as its main theme; and all events arranged to mark the occasion will now be carried out digitally, due to the global pandemic.  What better way for SPECIFIC to help mark this important day than to hold an Active Building webinar.

A bit about Earth Day: On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans — 10% of the U.S. population at the time — took to the streets, college campuses and cities to protest environmental ignorance and demand a new way forward for our planet.  The first Earth Day is credited with launching the modern environmental movement and is now recognized as the planet’s largest civic event. Definitely a day worth commemorating!

As well as celebrating this historic date, a webinar on Active Buildings provides us with a new way to promote the work we are doing at SPECIFIC to a potentially wider audience than would be possible without the use of technology, with the added benefit of there being no need to travel, thereby saving CO2 emissions, costs and precious time.

It also enables me to trial a new method of data collection for my research – use of electronic focus groups instead of the more traditional face-to-face focus groups.  This brings with it some new challenges, but also lots of positive outcomes.

After a bit of digging into whether or not online focus groups have been used as a research method before, I found some interesting papers on this – incidentally, all of which were from healthcare research (I’m not sure if this is significant, but I haven’t found any related to architectural research yet). Also, I haven’t found any examples where a webinar has been used together with a discussion (focus group) session and questionnaire yet; just examples where chat rooms have been used for discussions.  Most of the results found in previous research were positive in favour of online or electronic focus groups and I found very few downsides.  As I have already carried out some face-to-face focus groups (and may in time carry out more of these), and now an electronic focus group, I will be able to directly compare the two methods for myself.

I plan to use both asynchronous and synchronous methods to do this – I will be issuing participants with samples of my design guide and the questionnaire in advance of the webinar to be reviewed in their own time (asynchronous); but the participants will then come together for the webinar simultaneously at the prearranged time of 10.00 on 22nd April 2020 (synchronous), where they will be given a presentation on Active Buildings, followed by a discussion on the developing design guide.

Anticipated benefits of an electronic focus group session/webinar include:

  • Anonymity may lead to more honest, thoughtful, open responses, and maybe more criticism, which can be good to generate ideas.
  • More equality as those less likely to ask questions in a face-to-face session may feel more comfortable posing questions/responding via the chat facility.
  • Issuing the design guide and questionnaire beforehand may elicit more detailed responses as participants have more time for consideration.

Other obvious benefits include the fact that offering the session online enables me to reach a wider audience and to reach those less able to travel due to financial or time constraints, being sole practitioners, or working in remote rural areas, for example. There will be no geographical restrictions and no travel costs.  So, I might expect a higher attendance rate than the face-to-face sessions, due to the convenience, time and cost aspects, but also particularly at this time where people have fewer human interactions.  Time will tell.

Wider environmental benefits include:

  • No travel = no fuel consumption, no emissions
  • No catering = no food waste
  • No printed material = no paper, ink or power for printing used

Potential downsides could include less interactions between participants, less discussions, less engagement and less ability to build up a rapport with participants.  These may or may not impact the results significantly.

Of course, these are just anticipated outcomes, based on other research and my own expectations – once I analyse the results from both my face-to-face focus groups and my electronic focus groups, I will be able to make my own conclusions.

If you’d like to join me for this session, you can sign up here:  https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/active-buildings-in-practice-tickets-102074573798

In the meantime, enjoy the Easter weekend as best you can under these trying circumstances.

#28 A time to reflect

I have been using some of my time during this period of staying home to reflect on my doctoral project so far, to recap on my journey from the start in April 2017, to where I am today; how my project has evolved during that time; the different avenues I have explored; and the varied topics of research considered (these range from architecture and the built environment, to general sustainability, energy, collaborative working methods, procurement, product design, change management, and research methods).

Yesterday I presented my research at the SPECIFIC bi-monthly meeting (virtually of course), at which there were 49 attendees.  Preparing for this presentation forced me to recap on my project, and to describe the professional doctorate (in my case a Doctorate in Sustainable Built Environment, D.SBE) process to the researchers at SPECIFIC who are more familiar with PhD and EngD schemes.  I used the following diagram to illustrate the modular nature of the D.SBE and what each module entailed for me:

It is quite good to see it illustrated in this way as it shows I am nearing completion!

One of the comments made after my presentation was that it was good to see that, although my research is very different to the scientific and engineering research undertaken by most of the people working within the SPECIFIC project, I am still following the same structured approach and established research methods.  Also, the importance of questioning the value of my research by testing it with those it is aimed at, is critical and helps to ground the work we are doing at SPECIFIC within the construction industry it targets.

Also acknowledged was that the work I am doing, although not as technical or ground-breaking as most of the work underway at SPECIFIC, is deemed of benefit to the group, as it provides a different way for SPECIFIC to interact with other organisations – this was discussed in blog post #25.

I have also been reading a book called “Achieving your professional doctorate” (Smith, 2009) which has similarly encouraged me to reflect on my work so far and to question its originality.

In the book, Smith notes that modern-day practice is in a constant state of change for many professionals, which I think is particularly true in architectural practice, as designers embrace themselves in a whole host of different projects, which require different skills and different types of information to be produced at each of the project stages. In addition, practitioners are often under pressure to respond rapidly and sometimes reactively rather than proactively.  This concurs with my own experience and understanding of architectural practice. I would say that most of an architect’s work is based on reacting to changing situations, such as evolving client’s briefs, additional design considerations from other disciplines, site challenges that could not have been anticipated, planning requirements, etc, etc. And there is always the need for rapid responses to meet deadlines, or to ensure site works are not held up, for example.  All these factors leave architects with very little time to consider different ways of doing things, or to explore new technologies available to them.  This is one of the areas I hope to tackle by producing a comprehensive Active Building Design Guide.

On originality, the work I have been doing since I joined SPECIFIC in 2013, to connect the scientific research into solar energy technologies to the construction industry, puts me in a fairly unique position. I initially set about enabling this connection by producing information that could be understood by the construction industry, in the form of case studies of technologies, seminars, presentations and more recently the building demonstrators, which my work now centres around.  Crucially for me, when starting my doctorate, I had experience as both a practitioner and researcher.  Some of the early case studies I put together (pre-building demonstrators) are shown here:

When I started my doctorate, the original plan was to undertake quantitative research, and would have involved testing and validating the technologies used on the Active Buildings I had designed.  However, I very soon learned that my skills and areas of expertise were more concerned with the process of bringing the technologies together into a building, the challenges associated with enabling the construction industry to adopt the new Active Building concept, exploring ways to enable an industry to adopt any form of change (change models), where the effort needs to be placed, and what would help designers convince their clients to try a different route, i.e. what information should designers be armed with in order to steer a project down a particular route.  This was best explored through qualitative research.

Within my research project, I have been looking into change models related to enabling organisational change within individual companies and how those change models could be applied to the construction industry. I have also tailored well-established data collection methods, such as focus groups and questionnaires, into Continuous Professional Development (CPD) workshops, related to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Core CPD Curriculum. In other words, rather than setting up focus groups purely to gain results for my research and being of little benefit to architects, I have turned this around to ensure there is something in it for those attending as well as for me and my research. So, while reviewing my developing design guide, architects also learn something new – I am contributing to their knowledge and providing them with potential solutions to adopt in their own building designs, while also gaining CPD points (architects must undertake a minimum of 35 hours CPD each year). 

While not a new concept, I am also promoting use of a feedback loop in construction, as used in the manufacturing industry, where it is referred to as the Plan-Do-Check-Act model.  Although this is advocated in construction through use of data capture platforms like Carbonbuzz, and undertaking Building Performance Evaluation (BPE) of building projects, feedback and continuous improvement are not usually mandatory in construction and are often deemed as additional works, with additional costs, which clients tend to be unwilling to pay for. What architects need is to be armed with a list of considerations for inclusion in Active Building projects (including a feedback loop), alongside the benefits these will bring to clients.

So, by combining the Active Building concept with tools and methods used in other industries, I believe we can enable the construction industry to meet the climate change targets it must urgently work towards. This provides the main focus for my work.

We will be holding an online seminar on the design of Active Buildings in practice later this month, so please get in touch if you would like details of this, joanna.r.clarke@swansea.ac.uk

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