By Andrew Perry, Chief Operating Officer at the Active Building Centre

Wales has been at the vanguard of the response to the climate emergency – both within the UK and around the world. That has been apparent to us at the Active Building Centre since even before our organisation came into being in 2018.

We trace our origins back to the SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre. Founded at Swansea University’s College of Engineering in 2011, SPECIFIC was established to develop new energy technologies and systems for buildings. It was this world-class Welsh academic institute’s pioneering research into novel energy technologies that led to the creation of the ABC – a Welsh business with pan-national operations helping to tackle the global climate crisis.

Slow to act

Simply put, the construction industry has not adopted and commercialised the kinds of cutting-edge energy technologies developed by SPECIFIC at the pace required to slash its carbon emissions and avert climate catastrophe. The role of the ABC is to address this market failure.

While our funding comes from UK Research and Innovation, an arm of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, there has been a distinctly Welsh flavour to many of the projects we have worked on. That’s partly attributable to our Welsh origins. But the policies, people and budgets put in place by Welsh devolved and local governments have also been a major factor, laying the groundwork for progress.

Public sector role #netzero

In our experience, public-sector organisations as a whole tend to be particularly receptive to our advice on how they can deliver new buildings or retrofit existing stock to net-zero standards. They have an inbuilt advantage over private-sector organisations, who are inevitably subject to shorter-term commercial pressures, when it comes to weighing up the trade-offs between greater up-front expenditure versus future energy savings over the decades to come. And devolved and local governments specifically are directly responsible for many of the buildings that emit huge volumes of carbon into the atmosphere – be that social housing, hospitals or schools.

Welsh Government

This potential for the public sector to drive the decarbonisation of the built environment has been particularly apparent in Wales. The devolved government’s Net Zero Action Plan is targeting a net-zero public sector by 2030. Our experience working with both the Welsh Government, as well as Welsh local authorities, has demonstrated that this is not just talk. In fact, we have encountered a near-visionary willingness to embrace the risks associated with delivering buildings that perform to the very highest environmental standards. We have also seen electricity distribution network operators who work in both Wales and England calling on English local authorities to emulate the work of their Welsh counterparts.

This has allowed us to support a number of incredibly exciting, cutting-edge projects and pilot programmes in Wales in recent years. We are partnering with Carmarthenshire County Council and the Welsh Government on a low-carbon mixed-use office and industrial development at Crosshands East Business Park in Carmarthenshire, where onsite construction is set to begin in the coming months. By being brought in at the very front end of the project, we were able to influence procurement through the specification which, when combined with ongoing performance monitoring and metering, helps to ensure an energy-efficient development making use of renewable energy sources.

Retrofit challenge

Similarly, we’re funding and working with Swansea University and SPECIFIC on the retrofit of Y Twyni, a two-storey modular lecture theatre facility on Swansea University’s Bay Campus. The installation of rooftop photovoltaic solar panels, battery storage and rapid EV chargers will create an exemplar large site capable of storing renewable energy, drawing down from the grid when power is cheapest or least carbon-intensive and releasing energy to power the buildings and the university’s EV fleet during peak grid times.

ABC impact

And the ABC has made a considerable financial contribution to the Welsh Government’s Innovative Housing Programme to install energy monitoring systems in 600 homes in the social rented sector. This enables the monitoring and analysis of the various technological interventions funded by the scheme, quantifying their relative efficacy and informing future investment decisions.

These developments point the way for the future of sustainable construction in Wales – and, by extension, the rest of the world. But undoubtedly much more work remains to be done to transform how the industry operates.

Supply chain challenge

Laudably, the Welsh Government’s net-zero strategy champions a ‘Team Wales’ approach in which the public sector will optimizing the private sector and delegate distinct responsibilities and roles in the transition to each part of society. We may have the right policies, infrastructure and budgets in place, with a net-zero routemap for buildings to follow. But the supply chain remains driven by compliance with current regulations rather than an ambition for the private sector to design, build and operate net-zero buildings at scale.

The next challenge for us

That is the next frontier for the ABC. Interestingly it is not the technological challenges that constitute the biggest obstacle. Many of the individual technologies – be that heat pumps, solar panels or battery storage – already perform to extremely high standards. Scientists and engineers, both in the ABC and across countless other research centres, are constantly iterating to produce better and better solutions.

Unfortunately, however, all that progress counts for little if these advances aren’t intelligible and applicable to the people who write the cheques that fund new buildings. Hence our greatest focus is on, firstly, setting the new rules for construction, defining what good looks like and ensuring these specifications are reflected in the early stages of building procurement and design; and, secondly, making these learnings legible to people who want to apply and tailor them to their own specific projects. It will require some joined-up thinking, as many of the benefits delivered by the construction sector will accrue to the energy sector, such as alleviating stress on the grid and combatting fuel poverty.

Change people’s thinking

Lastly, we also want to change how people think about buildings at the end of construction, as well as at the beginning. Construction is a very sequential process. The commissioning phase, where the completed building is handed over to the new occupier and the design, engineering and construction teams move on to new jobs, often sees knowledge and best practice slip through the cracks. The ability to keep monitoring and continually optimizing the building’s energy and environmental performance post-completion,on behalf of the occupier, is an important piece of continuity that we will be providing at Crosshands, Y Twyni – and hopefully many more projects across Wales and beyond.

Like climate change as a whole, the prospect of transforming how an entire industry operates can seem an impossibly daunting challenge. But we have been taken aback by some of the major milestones passed in a little over three years since our inception. The coming three years will be about moving up the scale of endeavour, rolling out the kinds of projects we’re working on in Wales on a much wider basis.

Knowledge transfer

The next steps that Wales must take to remain at the forefront of decarbonising the built environment are clear. It is a matter of equipping the private sector with the knowledge that will make a Crosshands or Y Twyni the norm, rather than a cutting-edge outlier. The Welsh Government has already instigated a Regional Energy Planning initiative, where the public and private sector are joining forces regionally to review future energy demand scenarios and plan for these requirements.

If we can fix the market failures we’ve identified in the industry, enable the public to make greener and fairer choices and create prosperity for society at less cost to the planet, then we all become net beneficiaries.