#19 From little acorns Active Buildings grow

Read about how Active Buildings could help Architects meet climate change targets here:


#18 Sampling Strategy for Qualitative Research

One of the most challenging aspects of qualitative research is ensuring you get a suitable number of participants for your study to represent an appropriate proportion of the overall population related to your subject area. 

When I first started looking into research methods for this project, I contemplated use of well-known qualitative research methods: questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, and observations.  I quickly determined that response rates for questionnaires is typically low, particularly if questionnaires are posted or emailed to recipients.  People often need an incentive to complete a questionnaire and it is easy to ignore something that has been sent to you, as it inevitably gets lost in the sea of information we are all flooded with on a daily basis.

Interviews are more likely to guarantee responses but, given the timescales for my research project, and the sheer number of registered Architects in Wales and the UK, interviewing individual Architects in order to glean feedback to draw some meaningful conclusions for my research would take a significant amount of time.

I therefore decided focus groups would be the best method for me.  At these focus groups, I could issue questionnaires that would be collected at the end of the session and record the discussions to gain a greater depth of response, combining two data collection methods with each group of participants.  But I know how busy Architects are and the time pressures they face every day in practice and was conscious that I would be asking them to give up their valuable time simply to help me with my studies.  So I thought perhaps the best way of engaging with Architects might be to develop a mutually beneficial workshop session, where I could tell them all about Active Buildings, enhancing their knowledge of innovative technologies and sustainable practices to use in the design of buildings, while engaging them in a discussion about my developing design guidance – combining knowledge exchange with data collection.  And, it’s no secret that Architects love to talk!  They’re also generally not afraid to voice their opinions – so I anticipated that this method would be successful for my work.

All chartered members of the RIBA have to undertake 35 hours of CPD a year, half of which should be structured, in order to maintain their competence and professional standards.  Earlier on in my research, I developed a CPD session that I could offer to deliver at Architects offices as a lunchtime seminar, making it as convenient as possible for the Architects.  This tactic has been successful – Architects are always keen to learn and like the offer of free learning that doesn’t impact too much on their time.  I also realised the need to be flexible to suit their time – one architectural practice, for example, hold regular research sessions on Friday evenings, where they finish work a little earlier, and review a project or watch an architectural film over some drinks and nibbles.  They asked if I could host a workshop during one of these sessions, which I agreed to.  The relaxed nature of the session meant we had some really meaningful discussions and overall, I felt it was worthwhile for both me and them.

Finding that my strategy to develop workshops for Architects works well, I approached the RSAW (the Welsh branch of the RIBA) at the end of 2018, to discuss the possibility of linking my workshops to their CPD programme.  They are always looking for interesting topics to add to their programme, so were keen to include my workshops, offering one in Swansea and one in Cardiff during the Spring of 2019.  Interestingly and somewhat disappointingly, there was a fairly low turnout to these sessions, and I believe there could be several reasons for this:

  1. The sessions were not held in the Architect’s own offices, so meant taking more time out of their day to travel to an external venue.
  2. The sessions didn’t relate to any legal or compliance knowledge, i.e. the information they would learn in the workshops was not essential to their practice.
  3. The sessions were perhaps deemed too long, taking up a whole afternoon.

Despite the low attendance last year, the RSAW have asked me to carry out the sessions again in Spring 2020, in Swansea, Cardiff and Llandudno – it will be interesting to see whether numbers have increased since Architects declare Climate and Biodiversity Emergency and hence an increasing pressure on all to help mitigate climate change.

For my final testing stage, I intend to offer CPD sessions at architectural practices again too.

Any Architects interested in signing up to one of my workshops, please get in touch.

Life in Pieces

I borrowed the title of the hilarious family comedy, Life in Pieces, for this blog post, as I feel our lives are lived out in pieces or ‘chunks’ of time – these pieces being hours, days, weeks, months, years, or even decades.

In progressing my doctorate, I find it necessary to adopt a structured approach to each and every day.  I’ve been reading a fascinating book called Identity Leadership, by Stedman Graham (husband of Oprah Winfrey), bought for me by one of my sisters, and one I highly recommend.  The book is written in a really accessible way and nicely structured – the type of book you can just dip in and out of. In one chapter, Graham talks about how Identity Leaders plan and organise their lives around what’s important to them, suggesting we should all make the most of our twenty-four hours, as successful people do.  This, he says, not only helps you focus on your own development and goals, but also helps balance the priorities in your life. 

I am a huge fan of this mantra! And use it when finding ways to fit everything into my life.  I believe that there is no such thing as “not enough time”, although we are all guilty of uttering those words from time to time.  It is easy to dismiss a lack of progress by saying “I haven’t had time” but, the truth is, you can make time for whatever you want to do in life, if you plan carefully enough. 

When I started my doctorate in April 2017, my only hesitation in doing so was the amount of time it would take up and whether I was willing to sacrifice other things in my life for however long the doctorate would take me, as it would inevitably take over my life for at least the next 4 years (it is a part-time doctorate). I was 42 years old, with an already busy work life – did I really need to put extra pressure on myself?  Almost 3 years on, I am very glad I ignored those doubts and decided to go ahead… 

…My decision to embark on this research project was mainly based on my fairly unique position of being an Architect working in an innovation centre within a College of Engineering at a University.  This was an opportunity to collate and connect my different areas of work, capturing the breadth of my experience first as an Architect in practice and more latterly in my role at SPECIFIC and the Active Building Centre, where I am tasked with finding ways to enable the UK construction industry to adopt innovative technologies and concepts to create more environmentally responsible buildings; a chance to consider how my current role draws on my architectural skills, knowledge and experience to help achieve the goals of the innovation centre, to design and deliver more Active Buildings across the UK, that are more energy efficient and utilise renewable energy sources – hence helping to mitigate climate change.

So back to my life in pieces, how do I manage to carry out my research project without compromising too much on other aspects of my life?  Well, I must admit, it does help that my research project is directly aligned to my job, so that with a bit of careful planning, I have been able to steer my project and my day job in the same direction, so that what I do within my project can be used to aid my job and vice versa, my day-to-day job work can feed my research.

But, dividing my days into sections also helps and is necessary to achieve the balance I want.  So, I haven’t had to give up too much. I still fit in walks with my sister or husband; shopping with my mum; family excursions; spending quality time with my husband and family; cooking healthy meals; attending pilates classes; reading; holidays; etc, etc [insert here all the things you love doing!] – you get the picture – all of the things that enrich my life.  I also find that the recreational activities help me focus when I do settle down to my work and help reduce my stress levels.  As, Graham says, to succeed, it is important to make the most of every minute of every day.  During the week, I work hard all day (trying to fit in a lunchtime walk whenever I can), usually fit in some exercise after work, and then work some more in the evening, always aiming to finish by 9pm for some unwinding time before bed.  Weekends are split into similar chunks of time; and being organised about planning your time really does mean you can fit more into every day.  Of course, I don’t always follow this structured way and I don’t worry about any lapses – we all need a break, rest, or to deal with unplanned events. But, it’s a good strategy to at least try to follow.

I am also an advocate of “To Do” lists and make these all the time. Even if I don’t always follow them to the letter (or get to the bottom of them!), writing down all the things I hope to achieve in a day or week, helps me feel calmer – I’ve recently discovered the merits of writing these lists in a planner, so that the lists relate to targeted dates when things have to be achieved by.

This to me describes life in pieces – a combination of dividing time into manageable chunks and setting realistic goals to achieve in those chunks of time.  To anyone thinking of embarking on a doctorate, or any other challenge, I would say, just give it a go. You may be surprised by what you can cram into a day.

#16 Home of 2030 Young Person’s Design Challenge

First Year Architecture Students from UWTSD and their tutor, Ian Standen, outside the Active Office

I am a firm believer that if we’re going to enable an industry to adopt new concepts for buildings – Active Buildings, that generate energy and manage their interactions with local and national grid networks – it is critical that we engage with the next generation of designers and constructors.  This time last year, I worked with first year architectural students at a local architecture school in Swansea (UWTSD) to design a modern house as part of their technology module, where the students were asked to design an Active House. The students were issued with a first draft of my developing design guide as well as supplementary information as they progressed through the 10-week project.  At the end of the project, they had all increased their awareness of how to design climate-resilient buildings that make the most of passive design and renewable energy, learnings they could take on to their next projects and use throughout their career.

Due to the success of this project, I was asked to return this year to repeat the project with the next cohort of students.  The timescales for the module fitted in very well with the timescales of a “Young Person’s Design Challenge”, part of the UK Government funded, Home of 2030 project, which has a deadline of 28th February 2020.  So, we decided to align our project with the competition criteria and give the students the opportunity to enter a national design competition. The project will have three purposes for the students: to complete their technology module; to test my Design Guide; and to enter a national design competition.

Today we had our kick-off meeting for the 8-week project.  The group of students visited the Active Classroom and the Active Office, where I gave them a short presentation on Active Buildings, the impact of buildings on climate, an introduction to the project and a tour of the buildings.  The students were issued with an “Active Building Student Guide” (version 1, i.e. a first draft) and an “Active Building Worked Example” (a case study of the Active Classroom linked to the RIBA Plan of Work Stages), as well as the project brief.  I asked the students to complete a questionnaire at the start of the workshop, before they received any detail on the project, to determine their level of knowledge at the project outset.

The students completing their questionnaire

I will assess their knowledge throughout the project and will ask for their feedback on my Design Guide – Does it contain enough information? Is all the information relevant? Is the information pitched at the right level? Is it easy to understand? What about the structure of the guide? The visual appearance? Is it easy to use? etc, etc. At the end of the project, the students will not only have worked together on their competition entry, they will have considered the important factors for a Home of 2030, they will have learnt to incorporate renewable energy and passive design elements into their designs, they will think of buildings as being a part of the energy network, with the use of smart controls, energy storage and electric vehicles…and hopefully will have enjoyed the experience! 

I will post updates throughout.

A review of 2019

Amidst the many challenges presented to us in our everyday working lives, it’s easy to forget how far we have come in a year and interesting to reflect back on our achievements.  This was brought home to me a few weeks ago when I attended an inaugural lecture by Professor David Penney.  Dave gave a witty and informative presentation on his life since embarking on a degree in material science over 20 years ago, including reflections on both his personal and professional lives and what has driven him to succeed in his career.  This was an event packed with positivity and friendship, demonstrating the importance of building successful relationships with colleagues and I think made everyone who attended stop to reflect on their own journeys and achievements.

Part of my doctorate involves reflective practice, so I thought it would be worthwhile to review my year.

In January, I started working for the Active Building Centre, the newly established centre set up to enable the roll out of the Active Building concept across the UK built environment.  My role here is to find ways to enable the construction industry to adopt the concept and, as I wrote in last week’s blog, I have identified several ways to do this, as illustrated in this diagram.

(The tools I will be developing as part of my project are the ones in dark blue)

This year, I have been busy addressing three of the sections of the protocol – knowledge sharing, engagement and education – through different methods, including workshops, presentations, student projects, and journal articles.

I started the year with a student project at UWTSD School of Architecture, where first year Architecture students designed an Active House using my developing design guide. Then in March, I hosted a few workshops with Architects where I introduced them to Active Buildings and asked them to review my guide from their perspective of whether it would be a document they could see themselves using.

In April, I was interviewed for an article for the RIBA Journal and featured in the Construction Wales Innovation Index.  As mentioned last week, I presented a paper at an international academic conference in Budapest, in July.  Also, during the year, I have had the opportunity to speak at Grand Designs Live, at a Good Homes Alliance conference, and given a lecture for the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), as well as hosting numerous visits to our Active Buildings.

My research has taken me in some unexpected directions too.  I have spent some time researching how to ensure my design guide is accessible to all and written clearly, reading documents such as How to write in plain English.  I have also had to get to grips with statistics to determine the sample size I need for testing my guide.  Early calculations indicate I probably need 90 – 100 participants to gain a true representation of Architects in Wales. So, if anyone is interested in participating through a workshop, please get in touch. 

An article, published yesterday in online magazine, “Building, Construction, Design”, details my work on Active Buildings.

And, to finish off the year, last night I attended a fascinating IET South Wales Christmas Lecture entitled “Electrifying Transport – The Battery Challenge”, at which, amongst other speakers, SPECIFIC’s very own Dr Jenny Baker did an excellent job of explaining the history of electric vehicles and demonstrating the difference between liquid and solid state batteries, with the help of the next generation of scientists and engineers and some unlikely ingredients, such as marmite, jam and cheese!

All in all a busy year!  With the current climate emergency we are experiencing across the globe, I think 2020 will bring lots of new challenges and opportunities to ‘green’ our building stock.

Merry Christmas everyone and thank you for taking the time to read my blog.

My Doctorate progress so far

Earlier this week, I gave my latest ‘Reflective Presentation’ to my supervisors, Dr John Littlewood and Professor George Karani, both of Cardiff Metropolitan University.  This was part of my doctoral research project assessment, and entailed looking back over the last module and identifying key challenges I faced and skills I developed during completion of the module.  I always find it useful to look back at where I have come from in terms of my knowledge and skills, and how my project has evolved.  When I started this module about this time last year, I hadn’t yet found a focus for my project and hadn’t decided on a suitable output.  As well as finding a clear direction as I worked through the module, I also had to get to grips with the theoretical framework for my research, including looking at the type of data I would be collecting (qualitative) and how I could analyse this data. 

It was useful to look back at the start of my Active Building journey too, which I summarised in this slide:

A professional doctorate focuses on proposing change to organisations or practise. In my case, I helped change the course of SPECIFIC by steering the research towards building demonstrators and then developed mechanisms to share this information with the construction industry and to enable the design of further Active Buildings through developing design guidance.  My supervisors pointed out that I am not just developing a Design Guide but more of an Active Building Protocol, which can be implemented through a suite of guides, including: an Active Building Design Guide for Architects; an Active Building Design Guide for Students; Active Building teaching modules; an Active Building Overlay to the RIBA Plan of Work; Active Building CPD seminars; Active Building Case Studies; and Active Building support information for projects – all of which I am currently working on.  Eventually there could be Active Building Design Guides for different building types and for retrofit, as well as an Active Building Standard and Certification perhaps (although these will be outside of my scope of work as part of this project).

One thing I like about the professional doctorate is that it is divided into modules, each individually assessed as you progress through your research project.  This table shows the modules and the ones I have passed so far (ticked in red).

Just the big module to go now!

Another skill I have developed significantly during the last couple of years is academic writing.  I was pleased to present a paper entitled ‘Active Buildings in Practice’ at the eleventh International Conference on Sustainability in Energy and Buildings, SEB-19, earlier this year in the beautiful city of Budapest.  This has since been published online in Vol 163 of the Springer Smart Innovation, Systems and Technologies book series as a book chapter: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-32-9868-2_47. I plan to submit a paper for SEB-20 next year.  As well as improving my writing skills, having my work peer reviewed and finding ways to present it to others has helped me to be clear about my research aims and outcomes. I also like seeing how others present their work at conferences.

If you’re interested in a professional doctorate, have a look here.

Active Building Design Workshops

This afternoon I hosted a workshop with Scott Brownrigg Architects at their Cardiff office, where we discussed my developing Active Building Design Guide – I was looking for feedback on its structure, aesthetics, clarity and technical content.  This was the first of several workshops I will be holding with Architects as my Design Guide develops, helping to ensure the final guidance document is one that Architects will genuinely find useful.  Here they are, getting stuck into my guide.

It was a good session and provoked some interesting discussions. One thing that’s becoming clear is that most Architects don’t like reading!

The main purpose of the Design Guide is to help enable the construction industry to adopt the Active Building concept as one of the goals of the Transforming Construction Challenge.  My aim is that the Design Guide acts as a knowledge repository on Active Buildings, providing all the necessary information to enable their design, including: the context; the key principles; innovative renewable energy technologies available for use in Active Buildings; Active Building case studies; lessons learnt; Life Cycle Cost Assessment (LCCA) and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) considerations; and links to other relevant documents.

My idea to develop a Design Guide for Active Buildings stems from research I undertook as part of the pilot stage of my doctorate, where I questioned Architects on the challenges they could see with trying to introduce any kind of innovation into construction projects.  This slide I used in the workshop highlights some of the challenges identified and those circled are the ones my Design Guide hopes to address:

The main body of the document will be structured around the key principles. At the moment, the structure looks like this:

I also plan to develop a version for students, which I will be testing with architectural students in 2020.

If you’re interested in taking part in a workshop, check out the RSAW Spring Programme, or  get in touch with me directly to arrange a separate workshop, either at your premises or in our Active Classroom, at a time to suit you and your colleagues.

Contact details: joanna.r.clarke@swansea.ac.uk, or joanna@activebuildingcentre.com

The Importance of Building Performance Evaluation (BPE)

Building Performance Evaluation (BPE) is the process of evaluating the performance of new, existing and refurbished buildings, to help the delivery of effective and efficient buildings, by informing project development, enhancing delivery, optimising performance and providing feedback.  Unfortunately, however, BPE is not carried out enough and, when it does, lessons are seldom fed back into the design process for the next building. 

I recently purchased an excellent book called Housing fit for Purpose by Fionn Stevenson, which, while focusing on domestic buildings, identifies challenges, and provides valuable information that can be applied to all building types.  I have drawn myself a diagram illustrating the process to follow when undertaking BPE, as described in the book, which I hope to utilise for building projects I am involved with:

My illustration of the steps required in the BPE process, as detailed by Fionn Stevenson

For BPE to be effective, it is critical that the list of auditing documents is shared early in a project to ensure the project design and delivery teams consider all relevant elements from the outset.  This is a crucial point as, knowing this information is needed at the start of a project will provide focus for the production of thorough project information and good detailing.  Raising awareness of the elements subject to evaluation at the project outset, will ensure more attention is paid to the quality of construction details.  Anyone working on a building should have an oversight of the BPE process at project inception.

In this hugely informative book, Stevenson suggests that longitudinal BPE studies can be built into planned maintenance regimes and linked to selling or rental transactions, where they can provide real value.  Embedding BPE into existing mechanisms, such as maintenance regimes, is a good way of ensuring it will happen without it being viewed as an additional activity. There is evidence that BPE has been used in this way by some housing associations to create an organisational action plan for future improvements.

One of the challenges we face in improving the performance of buildings and reducing their energy consumption, highlighted by Stevenson, is that people often choose aesthetics over building performance or energy efficiency measures.  This is a behaviour that needs to change, if we are to reach net-zero emission targets.

Another issue is that houses are often assessed as having a 60-year lifespan, but this doesn’t always reflect reality where houses can often last for hundreds of years.  This point was also made by Robyn Pender of English Heritage in a recent presentation I saw, who (when discussing carbon in buildings) talked about traditionally built houses that were designed with good environmental design principles, such as natural ventilation, thermal mass and protection from glare and overheating; and were constructed using local materials in vernacular styles – i.e. offering low carbon solutions for buildings. She stated that we can learn a lot of lessons from historic buildings and finished her presentation with a quote: “The future lies in lessons of the past”, and a warning that we are perhaps overcomplicating our modern buildings with the inclusion of too many services and controls.  Something for us all to think about.

Another element discussed in the book is the need to create a virtuous circle of learning through participatory action research, where building occupants take part in informing the BPE process. This is akin to my ‘Active Learning Loop’, which I developed in an earlier doctorate module to illustrate the need for continuous learning in the successful roll out of Active Buildings.  Or Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle, used in manufacturing.

The Active Learning Loop

BPE should be mandated on all building projects and, importantly, the data collected during BPE must be used to learn from and to make improvements.  This is a fundamental part of the work we are doing at SPECIFIC and the Active Building Centre, where we are constantly learning from the plethora of data we collect from our Active Building demonstrators; and using the learning to improve both the existing buildings and the knowledge we impart to others for future building projects.

Spreading the word about Active Buildings

I believe that sharing knowledge on the research work being undertaken at SPECIFIC and the Active Building Centre, and the work I am doing to develop Active Building design guidance, is a critical part of the journey to enabling the construction industry to deliver climate resilient, net zero buildings.  I do this through several ways: writing or contributing to journal articles; presenting at conferences; delivering lectures; delivering workshops and CPD seminars; providing innovation support on building projects; getting involved in student projects; and developing training modules, based on my developing Active Building Design Guide.

Last week, I gave a lecture for the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) South West Cluster.  The Women’s Engineering Society is a charity and professional network of women engineers, scientists and technologists, and has just celebrated 100 years of supporting and promoting women in engineering.  Most of their activities take place in London or other large cities and my colleague, Dr Jenny Baker, organised this event to help the society gain more of a presence in Swansea.  We were pleased that the event was well-attended with an interested and engaging audience – both at the physical event and through our pilot livestreaming of the event!

We are all increasingly aware of our carbon footprint and the need to reduce our travel as part of this, so when somebody asked via twitter whether this would be streamed online, our ever helpful and super clever Smart Systems Engineer, Tom Griffiths, got on the case to make this happen.  Spreading the word and cutting carbon!

Of course, offering the lecture online has the added advantage of enabling us to reach a wider audience – those who may not be able to travel due to family or other commitments, or simply live too far away (we had one attendee from California!).  Working with Alun from the Welsh Video Network, Tom set up a livestream from the Active Classroom and online participants were able to submit questions, which were asked at the end of the lecture.  While I was the guinea pig, this is something we will strive to offer for as many of our events as possible going forward.

As I write this, I am on a train on my way back from a Good Homes Alliance (GHA) conference in London, at which I presented my work on Active Buildings, amongst some excellent speakers, talking about how to deliver Net Zero and Future Homes.  The jam-packed day included presentations on policy changes, as well as many case studies of projects striving for net zero. These included the Building for 2050 project, monitoring 4 low energy projects, including Active Homes Neath; work of the Carbon Free Group on their low carbon developments; a Climate Innovation District in Sheffield, by Citu; and the Stirling Prize winning passivhaus project, Goldsmith Street, Norwich, by Mikhail Riches Architects; amongst others.

We also heard about a fantastic new tool for identifying and mitigating overheating risks in new homes at an early stage in the design process that the GHA launched in July this year.  This is a simple tool, free to download, that could really impact on the design of houses if used in the early design stages, as intended.

So what’s next?  Well, earlier this year, I delivered workshops for the Royal Society of Architects in Wales (RSAW), to test my developing Active Building Design Guide, with Architects in practice. I have been asked to repeat these workshops in the RSAW Spring Programme for 2020, which I am really looking forward to. My Design Guide has progressed significantly from the first iteration, so it will be great to test this again and get more valuable feedback.

Also this year, I ran a project with 1st year architecture students at University of Wales Trinity St David’s relatively new (3 years) School of Architecture. This project involved students designing an Active House using my developing Design Guide and supplementary guidance I provided throughout the 10-week project.  At the request of the architecture tutor, I will be repeating this project with the next group of 1st year students after Christmas. Have I influenced the education of (at least some of) the next generation of architects? If so, this is a really positive achievement for my doctorate project, the Active Building Centre and the overall UK Government’s aim to transform construction.  I plan to interview the tutor and some of the students to find out…

And finally, the BRE, MOBIE and the Design Council are running a competition called Home of 2030, which includes a Young Persons’ Design Challenge for students from 11 – 25 to take part in. Deadline is 28th February. This is an ideal opportunity to excite the younger generation into construction, so I am hoping to get involved with some of these projects.

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