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BY Andrew Cameron-Smith

Ron Cowley, chief executive officer of the Active Building Centre, describes how intelligent and energy-efficient active buildings are vital to the decarbonisation of our homes.

Whatever else you’re doing today I bet you are not washing clothes in a river, or even, by hand, in a basin. Washing machines are now ubiquitous in UK homes, and you’d be considered pretty eccentric if you don’t want one. A task that could dominate a whole day is now largely automated, freeing up space for so much more.

Science and technology will change many more things in our homes over the next decades, hopefully making life easier and more fulfilling. But applying modern innovations to the places we live, work, study and play is also critical to saving the planet.

Buildings contribute 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions and it will be impossible to achieve net-zero by 2050 unless we transform our built environment.

In fact, even zero-carbon buildings won’t be sufficient to meet the UK’s emission reduction commitments. Several areas of the economy, such as agriculture and aviation, are not on track to fully decarbonise in the next three decades. Other sectors will have to pick up the slack.

This is precisely the idea behind ‘active buildings’. It is possible to turn our buildings from assets into liabilities on the balance sheet of harmful emissions. We can do this by designing and refurbishing homes, offices, hospitals and all other manner of buildings to generate at least sufficient green energy for their own needs and to then intelligently store the surplus or redistribute it into the national grid.

A range of different technologies can be employed to this end. These include renewable electricity generation, whether through ground-source heat pumps, solar, wind or hydrogen. It also entails improving the ventilation and fabric of buildings to optimise energy consumption and installing on-site battery storage.

Many of these solutions exist already – though they are being continuously refined, such as the research that our own engineers are conducting into more efficient heat pumps. But the real challenge lies in integrating them all into a single intelligent system that can successfully heat and power a building self-sufficiently and calculate when is best to store or sell back the excess energy.

There are, of course, obstacles to the roll-out of active technologies. Homeowners, housebuilders, energy distributors and policymakers need to be educated on the economic and environmental benefits of active buildings and offered practical, affordable, commercially viable solutions to the challenges of powering and heating buildings in the UK.

This is where our organisation, the Active Building Centre, comes in. We are a centre of excellence that identifies and helps integrate the best materials, designs and equipment to build homes and communities that combat climate change. We develop prototypes and proof of concept that set the standards for future buildings and act as a template of best practice for the construction and energy industries.

In many respects this is an easy case to make. The potential benefits of active buildings are huge, ranging from the macro to the micro.

On a global scale, the need to decarbonise our built environment and slow the advance of climate change is apparent to everyone.

Nationally, active buildings can ease the strain on the UK’s energy infrastructure and ultimately reduce demand for new large-scale, high-cost power stations. These are replaced in the grid by a network of millions of decentralised, local, renewable energy sources.

Within local communities, active buildings allow the generation and allocation of heat and power to be shared across homes and offices, day and night, young and old, rich and poor.

And to individual property-owners, they represent the houses of the future. The upgrades required to make a building active are set to become the defining home improvement measure of the 2020s, enabling self-sufficiency, improving quality of life and generating a tangible economic payback.

The built environment is a major contributor to the climate emergency. Without major changes in how our buildings use, store and produce energy, it will be impossible to solve this crisis. Active buildings enable the construction industry not only to decarbonise, but also to play a proactive and critical role in the UK’s journey to net-zero carbon emissions, by acting together as a large-scale producer of renewable energy and offsetting the impact of persistently carbon-intensive industries.

We are on a mission to find smart solutions, set new standards for society and prove that change makes sense for our pockets and the planet. And if we are all serious about this mission, the technology tested and deployed in our prototype buildings in Swansea and on the banks of the Severn estuary will need to be as omnipresent as the washing machine very soon.