#39 Building Design for the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#38 Data Capture for Improved Building Performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#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!

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