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By Jo Clarke, Head of Design

2020 promises to be an exciting year for the construction industry, particularly for architects where green and sustainable practices are rapidly starting to take root.

One such system is the ‘Active Building’ approach, pioneers by the government-backed SPECIFIC and Active Building Centre, which I have had the privilege to be involved in over the last five years. Over the course of my tenure, I’ve helped both organisations realise the vision of a structure which intuitively harnesses, stores and releases energy.

What are active buildings?

In brief, Active Buildings are a direct progression, or evolution, from a focus on singular innovative technology solutions, to a systems-based approach to sustainable housing. These buildings effectively empower the homeowner or tenant through creating a structure which is energy self-sufficient, allowing for intuitive generation, storage and use.

At our headquarters at the University of Swansea, our two flagship test sites the Active Classroom (2016) and the Active Office (2018), which I designed, are busy collecting invaluable data which makes a compelling case for incorporating Active solutions into any future build across the UK. However, it all began on a much smaller scale with what has come to be known as the Active Pod. This was a small garden office building which helped us to first demonstrate the Active Building concept.

The main purpose of the pod was to test how heat and electricity generation could be combined into one system, providing power, lighting and heating to a buildings. Equally the diminutive structure helped us to see how these systems could be controlled to enable their effective operation. 

They say there is beauty in simplicity and, although the pod used complex state-of-the-art technology, the system itself was remarkably straight forward. In essence, the building comprises a 1Kwp integrated photovoltaic (PV) roof, a novel glazed solar air collector, lead acid batteries, a resistive heating system and a clever control system, operated by an intuitive display platform.

The key challenge we faced was how to apply these valuable learnings from the small scale pod to large scale structures.  

Active building principles

Most Active Building principles are fairly straightforward but we isolated six key principles which needed to be adopted when approaching the design of the first habitable Active Buildings (what would become the Active Classroom and the Active Office). These were:

  1. Building fabric and passive design – integrated an engineering and architecture design approach. This would include consideration of orientation and massing, fabric efficiency, natural daylighting and natural ventilation. Designed for occupant comfort and low energy by following passive design principles.
  2. Energy efficient systems – intelligently controlled & energy efficient systems to minimise loads, including: HVAC, lighting, vertical transportation. This would be complemented by data capture via inbuilt monitoring & standard naming schemas to enable optimisation and refinement of predictive control strategies.
  3. On-site renewable energy generation – renewable energy generation to be incorporated where appropriate. Renewable technologies should be selected holistically, given site conditions and building load profiles.
  4. Energy storage – thermal and electrical storage should be considered to mitigate peak demand, reducing the requirement to oversize systems, and enable greater control.
  5. Electric vehicle integration – where appropriate Active Buildings should integrate electric vehicle charging. As technology develops, bi-directional charging will allow electric vehicles to deliver energy to buildings as required.
  6. Intelligently manage integration with micro-grids & national energy network – in addition to intelligent controls, Active Buildings must manage their interaction with wider energy networks, e.g. demand side response, load shifting & predictive control methods.

To summarise, the initial focus of an Active Building is on reducing the energy needed within the building through passive design, building fabric and use of controllable, energy efficient systems. Then one must consider renewable energy generation, storage and finally the development of systems which enable the intelligent integration of the building with the wider energy networks. The pod, classroom and office has showed us this potential, we are now starting to realise it. 

It’s experimental projects like these, that are gradually changing the way we architects view the built environment. Building on our work, 2020 will see the launch of the first development of active homes which have the potential to demonstrate the value this particular systems approach can offer to business and consumers alike. Offering the first public engagement with Active Buildings, it will hopefully represent an evolution in the way we design, creating buildings which are both energy efficient and, to a degree, energy self-sufficient.

Published December 2019