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By Simon McWhirter, Head of Engagement

At the start of each year it’s customary to make resolutions for the year ahead which, it is hoped, will encourage positive changes.

Of course, for all the best intentions, after a few days, weeks or (occasionally) months, these commitments have either been broken or fallen by the wayside, forgotten amid the chaos of modern life. However, I believe UK architects to be made of tougher stuff. After all, aren’t these the professionals who strive daily to make our built environment a better place?

Architects should take an ‘Active’ approach to their designs

If I were to encourage architects to make one resolution to stick to this year, I would encourage them to take a more ‘Active’ approach to their designs wherever possible. As we come to rely more and more on electricity to assist our daily lives, it will become inevitable that we need to look at generating energy from as many sources as possible. Equally, as we move away from damaging fossil fuels to green generation, we will need to think smarter about which methods will best deliver what we need, when we need it.

Currently the National Grid lacks the capacity for the transition and would implode if we banned oil, gas and other fossil fuels overnight. There are even questions as to whether it’s able to meet the recent, modest increase in EV adoption and the switch from gas to electric boilers. 2020 presents an opportunity for architects to address this challenge head on, without a radical rethink. This is where the concept of ‘Active Buildings’ dovetails nicely.

The new government has nailed its colours firmly to the mast in terms of sustainability. Committed to reducing net-zero by 2050, it has also pledged a raft of policy to increase green energy solutions and infrastructure to reduce emissions. Part of this push will see the promotion and encouragement of environmentally friendly buildings, supported by green infrastructure. It’s a good start, but we need to have the resolve to build in this way on a grand scale.

Modern methods of construction (MMC) are not enough on their own; anyone can put up a modular building, but it doesn’t mean it’s either carbon neutral or energy efficient. Even if the materials used are high-performance, it doesn’t answer the capacity conundrum.

What we need is a more systems-based approach, looking beyond the existing passive model, past the bricks and mortar to see how a structure can directly contribute to generating energy sustainably, rather than merely using it in varying degrees.

What are the benefits of Active Buildings?

Buildings designed with an Active approach have the answer, as they are designed not only to generate energy, but also store and use it intuitively. The more we design in this way, the lower the demand on the grid, the easier it becomes to meet our carbon neutral targets, perhaps sooner than 2050.

Unlike most resolutions it’s easier to achieve than one may, at first, think. Solar power generation, for example, has advanced considerably in last decade to become a viable solution and the latest photovoltaic (PV) panels are far less cumbersome and unattractive than was once the case. Equally, new technology is providing the ability to store energy in the building fabric long-term and smart systems with the ability to release it when required. Effectively, by developing an Active Building you are simultaneously empowering the owner/occupier as you are enabling the switch to renewable energy to move at a faster pace.

By resolving to build with an Active approach, architects can significantly benefit society. More often than not, it’s small, simple ideas such as this which have the greatest long-term impact. So, if you are currently sitting down to write your vision for 2020 and beyond, I invite you to think carefully about Active Buildings and how they might feature within your future business.

Article originally published in Architects Data File

Published January 2020