Achieving Zero Carbon in Active Buildings

This week I’ve been looking into the whole life carbon of buildings, what’s involved in assessing whole life carbon and the different tools available to assist with this.  Reducing the carbon emissions from the UK built environment is critical in the fight to prevent global warming and combat the climate emergency. 

Earlier this year, the Committee on Climate Change, in a report entitled “Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming”, recommended the UK Government amend the Climate Change Act 2008 to mandate that the minimum percentage by which the net UK carbon account must be lower than the 1990 baseline by 2050 is increased from 80% to 100%.

Achieving net zero operational carbon is already possible, as proved by our Active Office, which has recently been assessed as having operational carbon emissions approximately 3.5 times less than those of a standard office building of the same size, backing up our Energy Performance Certificate (EPC), which shows a carbon emissions figure of -9 – something we’re keen to prove in practice.

EPC for Active Office

As the amount of carbon emitted from buildings in use (operational carbon) reduces, the proportion of carbon emitted during the manufacture, transport, construction and end of life (embodied carbon) is set to increase.

Embodied carbon is, however, a lot more difficult to achieve and prove.  The intricacies of whole life carbon assessment of buildings were presented and discussed at an excellent event I attended in Bristol recently – Just How Much Carbon are your Buildings Responsible for?, hosted by the Alliance of Sustainable Building Products (ASBP) and the Green Register.  Here, I learnt about some existing tools that have been developed to assist with the process of undertaking Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) of buildings, most of which are free to download.  These include the Inventory of Carbon and Energy (ICE) database developed by Circular Ecology – the world’s leading source of embodied energy and carbon data, using data taken from Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs).  And another free downloadable tool developed by Hawkins\Brown Architects.  Known as H\B:ERT (or Hawkins\Brown Emissions Reduction Tool), this is a Revit-based tool that enables design teams to quickly analyse and visualise the embodied carbon emissions of different building components and construction materials at any time during the design process.

At the event, I also picked up some interesting and thought-provoking facts, such as that recycled aggregate has more embodied carbon than virgin aggregate. This is mainly because when recycled aggregate is used in concrete, more cement may be needed, due to the reduced quality. Triple glazing can offer less operational carbon savings than the embodied carbon of the third pane, meaning double glazing may be a more viable choice. These examples highlight some of the challenges we are facing as an industry – the often unknown and unintended consequences of decisions we make when specifying products for use in buildings. While we may specify products for what we believe are the right environmental reasons, we may actually be causing more environmental harm.  The best way to mitigate this is perhaps to ensure LCAs are undertaken early in the design process.

Whole Life Carbon and LCAs will be detailed in Part 3 of my Design Guide, along with information on Life Cycle Costing and proving the Business Case for Active Buildings.

Design Guide Development

As I develop my Design Guide, I am reviewing other guidance documents used by Architects, such as Approved Documents used to aid compliance with the Building Regulations, British Standards, documents produced by the RIBA, etc; as well as books on design.  Here are some quick reviews of just some of the documents I have consulted:

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) have just launched a new National Design Guide. This is structured logically and includes a mix of text, photographs illustrating good practice, and diagrams.  However, there is a lot of text, which is arranged in columns on each page. I find this makes it quite difficult to read and, although the text is split into bullet points, it is not easy to identify new points, and hence may be hard to navigate through.  What I like about it is the checkpoints – “Have you considered:” – at the end of each section; and the definitions that are peppered throughout each section, highlighted in coloured text boxes.

One of the best books I have read recently is “Yes is More” by the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). Referred to as an “Archicomic”, it is structured exactly like a comic book. This makes it very easy to dip in and out of and so enjoyable to read, really bringing to life the architecture and ethos of the BIG design studio. But it isn’t just a frivolous comic book, it is packed full of content and includes loads of amazing projects designed by the practice. Bjarke Ingels himself features throughout the book as a narrator to the story, which adds to the feeling of excitement and pleasure you get from the architecture documented – it is a genius way of bringing to life the enthusiastic and innovative approach to design that seems to run through their design studio. I love it!  Here’s an extract from the book:

Another of my favourites (for different reasons) is The Environmental Design Pocketbook by Sofie Pelsmakers. This pocket-sized book is a gem, containing a huge amount of knowledge on the environmental design of buildings, presented through delightful diagrams, summary tables, checklists and loads of useful references.  It includes everything from passive design through to low and zero carbon technologies, use of water resources, flooding and biodiversity.  I really like the layout and style of the book, which means I turn to it regularly for facts and inspiration.

During my pilot project, I tested an early version of the Design Guide with Architects, which provided feedback on the type and format of information Architects prefer – i.e. diagrams, images, case studies, technology comparison tables, concise text and references. I was reminded that Architects don’t necessarily like reading lots of text and don’t always have the time to read lengthy documents – being visual people, they are more likely to absorb facts displayed in diagrams and images. Seeing real case study examples is also helpful in enabling decisions to be made on what technologies or practices to deploy in their designs.  The Design Guide now under development responds to this feedback. Here is a preview of some of the pages so far:

It has taken a few iterations to decide on the final structure, but I think I am there now.  The document is split into 5 parts – the first part provides context and background; the second (main body) is structured around the 6 core principles of Active Buildings; the third focuses on implementation of the Active Building concept, including the business case and data collection to provide feedback; the fourth is all about learning, with case study examples; and the last section contains an Active Building checklist, terms and definitions, and further suggested reading.

To help develop the main body of text on the technologies, I will of course be tapping into the technical expertise of the teams at both SPECIFIC and the ABC to ensure accuracy of the technical content.

What design guides do you currently use? Do you have any examples of good design guides? Please share your favourites!

What would you like to see in the Active Building Design Guide? What do you think of the format so far? All comments/suggestions welcome 😊

Climate Change and Active Buildings

The context for my work to develop design guidance for low energy, climate resilient, Active Buildings has never been more relevant.  While I continue to develop my guidance document and support partners in the design of Active Buildings, it’s been another busy week for climate change news. Here are my highlights:

In a Wales Online article on 11th October, the top 20 solutions to climate change, identified by an organisation called Project Drawdown, were listed. Maybe surprisingly, refrigerant management was the top solution, while onshore wind-turbines featured as the second and solar rooftops as number ten in the list.  Number four was to eat a plant-rich diet.  An interesting statistic was quoted from Earthday.org as “skipping a steak dinner once a week with your family would be the equivalent of taking your car off the road for nearly three months.”, suggesting that even a small change to our lifestyles can make a difference. Me and my husband have cut down on the amount of meat we eat with very little effort and enjoy trying out different tasty vegetable-based recipes!

On Monday 14th October, I watched a BBC Panorama programme entitled “Climate Change: What can we do?”, which again focused on changes we can all make to our everyday lives to help mitigate climate change.  Suggestions included swapping beefburgers for insect burgers (a little too far for me!), as well as cutting down on travel, switching to electric vehicles, using public transport or walking wherever possible.

The programme featured a retrofit scheme of council houses in Nottingham, being undertaken by Melius Homes, with a jaw dropping statistic that 29 million homes need to become carbon free to meet the Net Zero targets set by the UK Government.  To do this, the need for more financial incentives was highlighted – the Nottingham scheme cost £80,000 per house to retrofit.

Despite reporting that currently 47% of the UK’s energy supply is still fossil fuel based, on the same day, the Guardian reported that renewable electricity overtook fossil fuels in the UK for the first time over the last quarter.  This quarter was reported as being the first time since 1882 that electricity from British windfarms, solar panels and biomass plants has surpassed fossil fuels.  This fact means we are on track to meet the National Grid’s prediction “that 2019 will be the first year since the Industrial Revolution that zero-carbon electricity overtakes gas and coal-fired power”.

Meanwhile climate strikes continued to dominate news headlines across the globe, as people ask their governments to do more.  But, on a trip to London this week, I couldn’t help thinking about the irony of the unintended consequences of these climate strikes.  While large groups of protesters adorned Trafalgar Square, others lay down in the streets, climbed atop tube trains, and even stuck themselves to a Docklands Light Railway (DLR) train, two helicopters circled constantly and swarms of police vans sat with their engines idling, only contributing to the poor air quality that the workers and inhabitants of London endure daily and to the very emissions at the heart of the protests!  As a result of road closures and disruptions to the Jubilee Line and the DLR, which were both partially shut down, traffic build-up increased on surrounding roads, as people sought alternative routes or even alternative modes of transport, such as taxis – again only adding to air pollution in the city.  While we all agree we’re in the throws of a climate emergency, we might question whether this level of disruption simply adds to the problem, rather than having any positive affect.

So, we will continue our mission to decarbonise the built environment, safe in the knowledge that this work will have a real impact in mitigating against climate change.

Also, check out the Future Homes Standard Consultation released earlier this month, which will require all new build homes to be future-proofed with low carbon heating and world-leading levels of energy efficiency, due to be introduced by 2025.

UK Construction Week and Grand Designs Live 2019

Sam Stacey, Transforming Construction Challenge Director

This week I spent two days at #UKCW2019 and #GDLive in Birmingham NEC.

Highlights for me included a few interesting seminars on the Main Stage – firstly, a talk by Mark Farmer where he spoke about the need for the construction industry to improve.  One example he discussed was his view that public procurement should change to reflect “best value” instead of “lowest price” and to recognise that these are very different drivers. Current public procurement methods perpetuate the mission to drive down costs, resulting in low value buildings, rather than encouraging the industry to strive to achieve the best value for their clients.  He also stated the need to urgently change the make up of the built environment workforce, “to attract a new generation of technology enabled workers with different personal values in all areas”, which he categorised as:

  • market regulators including politicians
  • developers, procurers, funders, insurers and key influencers
  • land and building economists
  • designers
  • planners
  • digital technologists
  • manufacturers
  • precision craftsmen
  • assemblers and integrators
  • asset managers

….and the need for new holistic design skills. Designing for the whole building must involve a collaborative approach, with design teams designing for safety; resilience; sustainability; whole life performance; feasibility; end of life; local jobs and economic growth; community creation; and beauty.

Modern Methods of Construction (or MMC) was a hot topic for the event.  Farmer summarised the MMC process in one neat equation:

Higher pre-manufactured value + new outcome led value culture + robust technical accreditation and regulatory system + digital design and manufacturing + digital assembly and site integration + all wrapped in new integrated delivery models = Better assured outcomes

Following a keynote speech by Nahim Zahawi MP, UK Construction Minister, who mentioned the Active Building Centre as “enabling innovation in construction to create a clean, green and prosperous society”, the Transforming Construction Challenge Director, Sam Stacey, continued the MMC discussion, speaking about the benefits in terms of minimising waste which is significant on traditional construction sites and occurs in all areas, including: materials, energy, time, double handling, movement of people, excess inventory and unused talent.

Stacey then described the Transforming Construction Challenge and how the Active Building Centre fits into the agenda to transform the UK construction sector to reduce the energy consumption of buildings, working alongside other partners, such as the Construction Innovation Hub (CIH).

This led nicely into the next session which centred around the risks and opportunities for construction that climate change presents.  The Head of Engagement at the Active Building Centre, Simon McWhirter, eloquently explained how Active Buildings use data to enable buildings to interact with the energy networks, choosing where energy should be directed at any one time, depending on factors such as energy prices, carbon intensity of the grid, weather predictions and occupancy patterns.  Collecting data on energy generation and consumption of a building enables controlled import and export of energy to support the energy networks as necessary.

Head of Engagement for Active Building Centre, Simon McWhirter, describing #ActiveBuildings

On the second day, I took part in two discussion groups at #GDLive – the first on MMC and the second entitled “A Road Map to Self-Build”.  It was easy to talk about the benefits of MMC from a climate change perspective.  As well as minimising waste, as discussed above, MMC buildings tend to be lightweight in construction, reducing materials such as concrete used in foundations, for example, hence reducing embodied carbon.  If executed well, use of MMC ensures a better-quality building envelope with less likelihood of thermal bridging and higher levels of air-tightness, which in turn will reduce the amount of energy needed to operate a building.  Quality control is easier in a factory environment too, which should result in less snagging issues on site.

The conversation on self-build focused on acquiring plots, obtaining funding and navigating through the planning process. Although I mentioned the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recommendation that no new homes should connect to the gas grid after 2025 (meaning anyone developing a new house should be considering low-carbon heating systems, such as heat pumps and low-carbon heat networks), energy wasn’t high on the audience’s agenda. In a way this was surprising, but it is understandable that funding is the main priority for anyone embarking on their own house project I suppose. I stressed that energy should not be ignored early in the design process though!

All-in-all an interesting few days.  Good to know that my work is linked so well into current UK and global issues to tackle #climatechange.

An Architect in Research

I started my doctoral research project back in April 2017, while working at SPECIFIC, based on the work I had been involved with so far to develop the Active Building concept.  My main aim at this time was to develop a piece of work that linked up my architectural experience with the experience I had gained since working at SPECIFIC and the knowledge I had built up on renewable energy technologies and their integration into buildings.

As I progress my doctorate, undertaking literature reviews and identifying challenges and barriers to the adoption of the Active Building concept, and to implementing changes of any kind within the construction industry, I have continued to engage with construction industry stakeholders.  I do this through delivering workshops and CPD seminars; hosting innovation visits to Active Building demonstration projects; contributing to journal articles; and presenting at conferences and other events, where I share knowledge on Active Buildings and how they could help meet the UK Government mission to at least halve the energy use of all new buildings by 2030. 

Other important activities I take part in include collecting evidence from demonstration buildings I have either designed or influenced the design of and providing project support to partners developing Active Building projects of their own, both of which will help mitigate some of the challenges.  Data collection is essential to build up an evidence base that can be used to support the transformation of the construction industry to meet the goals set out in Construction 2025.

But it has become clear to me that if we are to successfully enable the industry to adopt the Active Building concept, we need to provide some sort of guidance – guidance which sets out the core principles of an Active Building and suggested ways to achieve these principles. 

What we need is an Active Building Design Guide!

This is now the focus for my doctorate project – to develop an Active Building Design Guide, which will provide specific guidance to assist the design of Active Buildings, while also providing a means of assessing projects against Active Building criteria.

Probably the most challenging aspect of my research project so far has been the need to hone my academic writing skills, writing papers for presentation at International academic conferences, such as Sustainable Energy in Buildings. I am lucky to have the support of an excellent supervisor at Cardiff Metropolitan University, @Dr_JrLittlewood, who assists me with this, as well as support from Swansea University, who are funding my Doctorate.

From SPECIFIC to Active Building Centre

Before the Active Building Centre was established, I spent 5 years working for SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre, also led by Swansea University.  Here, my role was to find ways to enable the technologies being developed at SPECIFIC and their industrial partners to be adopted on building projects.

Being an Architect, it was obvious to me that, the best way to enable this was to build our own demonstrator buildings to showcase the concept, which was then known as ‘Buildings as Power Stations’ – buildings that generate, store and release their own energy.  I first designed a small garden office building, known as the Pod, which demonstrated the Buildings as Power Stations concept in one, small, off-grid building. My aim was not only to have something to show to construction industry stakeholders and potential building owners, but also to provide a building that the researchers at SPECIFIC could relate to as a home for the technologies they were working on. 

This building became the catalyst for a new chapter for SPECIFIC and soon after, I was asked to design a second building – the Active Classroom – the name highlighting the fact that the building envelope had now been ‘activated’ – rather than the facades and roof being ‘passive’ elements to simply keep the weather out of a building, they were now generating heat and electricity for use in the building.  Hence the term ‘Active Buildings’ was born.  The Active Classroom was extremely successful in getting the work of SPECIFIC noticed within the construction industry, even winning several awards, including the prestigious ‘Project of the Year’ at the RICS Wales Awards in 2017. It was also the subject of several news and journal articles and even made it on to BBC Newsround!

Of course, I didn’t achieve this on my own.  I was fortunate to work with an extremely clever and talented team of scientists and engineers at SPECIFIC who were able to ensure this building operated as intended and that data collected from the building could be used to learn about what worked and what didn’t work – lessons we would use in the design of the next building.

We had now demonstrated that it was possible for a building to produce more energy than it consumed over an annual period – classing this building as ‘energy positive’.  However, as we progressed into designing the next building – the Active Office (a two-storey office building next to the Active Classroom), it became clear that achieving ‘energy positive’ is more challenging to achieve the more storeys a building has.  With experience, we also realised that the capability of a building to work with the energy network, controlling when power is taken from or given to the grid (made possible through the use of energy storage and smart controls), has potential to truly transform the energy and building landscapes and is hence of more value than simply being energy positive over a year.

This concept is now also being adapted to address global energy poverty through projects such as SUNRISE, which involves the development of five solar-powered demonstrator buildings in rural India.

Introduction to my blog

My name is Joanna Clarke and I am an Architect, currently employed as Design Manager at SPECIFIC, Swansea University, and currently pursuing a Professional Doctorate in the Sustainable Built Environment (D.SBE), enrolled at Cardiff Metropolitan University and supported by Swansea University.  The title of my Doctorate is “Developing and Validating a Design Guide for Active Buildings”.

The reason for my blog is that a large part of both my job and my research involves engaging with the construction industry to share knowledge about my work in designing Active Buildings, to find partners to work with to develop more Active Buildings and to gain feedback on the guidance I am developing.

So, what is an Active Building? 

The definition of an Active Building is a building which “supports the energy network by intelligently integrating renewable energy technologies for heat, power and transport.”

I will be writing about the importance of Active Buildings and their role in Transforming Construction and tackling the climate crisis. My particular focus will be on the design of Active Buildings – I will share my own experiences of designing Active Buildings and the development of my toolkit to assist anyone designing an Active Building.

I would love to connect with anyone interested in developing an Active Building project or simply learning more about Active Buildings.  My main aim is to change the way buildings are designed, delivered and operated, to create a built environment that works in harmony with the natural environment as far as possible, utilising clean, renewable energy as its main source of energy and contributing to a low carbon society. 

Picture a world where all buildings generate their own energy and manage this energy carefully, sharing energy without stressing the energy network, selecting when to import and export energy for optimum grid performance, using the lowest carbon energy sources possible, with negligible energy bills, and healthy, happy occupants…………….

…………..that is a world full of Active Buildings

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