By Fergus Harradence, Deputy Director, Infrastructure & Construction @ Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Climate change is the single greatest challenge faced by governments and businesses in the 21st Century. The necessity of minimising and adapting to climate change has profound implications for the way we live, work, travel and produce all the products and services needed for human wellbeing. Particularly so in the built environment, encompassing infrastructure, homes, offices and other types of buildings, which accounts for around 40% of UK carbon emissions. Reducing this is essential to achieving the UK’s emissions reduction targets.

Targets

The UK has set a legally binding objective of achieving net zero carbon by 2050, with reductions of 68% of emission compared to the 1990 baseline by 2030, and 78% reductions by 2035. So there is not only an imperative for action across the economy to deliver these objectives, but also for action to be taken now. Which poses the question of what should be done, how it should be done and what is the right sequence of steps that will deliver meaningful reductions but in the most efficient way.

The particular challenges posed by the built environment are the scale at which change is required, but also the nature of the built environment, which is a complex system of systems, where changes need to be introduced into, and take account of, the impact on existing networks and systems. But the opportunities are to use the systems within the built environment to magnify the positive impact of changes, and to encourage both wider-ranging experimentation and the rapid adoption of new technologies that will reduce emissions.

Active Buildings

Active buildings, which can generate and store energy and heat, are one example of how we could adapt the built environment to improve sustainability and reduce carbon emissions. The incorporation of renewable energy technologies into buildings can cut carbon emissions and reduce fuel poverty, and well as providing cheaper energy for businesses, schools and hospitals. In future, adopting these at scale could support the creation of distributed energy generation and storage networks, reducing the need for large-scale energy generating capacity. The potential of these technologies, both in new buildings or retrofitted into the existing built environment, was the rationale for investing in the Active Building Centre through the Transforming Construction Challenge.

However, developing these technologies is insufficient. It is also vital to understand how they perform in different types of buildings, which technologies work in combination, and what improvements are required to the fabric of buildings in order for these to deliver adequate heating and hot water. As well as understanding the economics of these technologies, and how they can be made financially viable for building owners and occupiers. To deliver this, the Active Building Centre has built its capability to test, evaluate and demonstrate these technologies, and to support their deployment across a range of building types and environments, including neighbourhood scale housing, campus developments and larger buildings. As a result of this, it is already supporting the delivery of projects with a wide range of organisations in the public and private sectors, in housing, education, defence, justice and with local authorities, and has the potential to support other organisations seeking to reduce their carbon emissions, energy costs and improve their sustainability.

Time for action

In future, the intention is to build on the existing capability of the Active Building Centre to support the development and adaptation of buildings and local energy and heat networks. Work is already underway to develop the technologies that will enable homes and other types of buildings to exchange and trade energy, supporting local sustainability and energy resilience, and reducing reliance on the national grid.

The challenge of climate change demands action; in the built environment more than any other sector. But it requires that action understands what works, the networks and interfaces between different built assets, and the complex system of systems that encompasses the places where we live and work, and how to adapt this for a better future. The role of the Active Building Centre is to be at the heart of this process of change, and to make sure what we do reduces emissions, but also creates a better performing and more sustainable built environment for everyone.