Designing Active Buildings

Designing Active Buildings


This series of articles is a partnership between the Active Building Centre, SPECIFIC and SUNRISE. We each work with academic, industry and community partners to drive change in the construction industry. Our projects have distinct objectives and approaches but our shared message is simple: buildings don’t have to cost the Earth.

Our vision for transformation comes with many challenges across technical, political, social and economic norms. In this series we will share some of the work we’re doing to address each of these.

By Jo Clarke, Head of Design

The first Active Buildings were developed using the fail fast and learn quickly mantra used by innovative leaders from Thomas Edison to Bill Gates


Whilst working in SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre, I was asked to design two Active Buildings*. I designed the Active Classroom in 2016 and the Active Office in 2018.

In fact, the first Active Building I designed was known as the Active Pod. A small garden office building which I designed to demonstrate the Active Building concept known at the time as ‘Buildings as Power Stations’.

The main purpose of the Pod was to test how heat and electricity generation could be combined into one system to provide power, lighting and heating for a building. And how these systems could be controlled to enable their effective operation.

The Pod had a 1kWp building integrated PV roof, a novel glazed solar air collector, lead acid batteries, a novel resistive heating system developed at SPECIFIC, and a clever control system, operated via an intuitive display platform.

The challenge was then how to apply the learnings from the Pod onto larger buildings.


Learning from Active Buildings

It was difficult to predict how well the Active Buildings would perform as they incorporated several new technologies, processes and systems.

The beauty about working in the innovation world is that failure is deemed part of the learning process.  It is far better to build the prototype, learn what works and what doesn’t work, and use this knowledge to progress to better designs.

This is exactly what these Active Buildings demonstrate.

The progression from the Pod to the Office is clear to see and the systems within the Active Office continue to be optimised.


Core principles of an Active Building

The starting point for designing an Active Building is to follow the 6 core principles:

Active Building definition

1. Building fabric and passive design – integrated engineering and architecture design approach including 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 – HVAC, lighting, vertical transportation. 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, reduce the requirement to oversize systems, and enable greater control.

5. Electric vehicle integration – where appropriate Active Buildings 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 manage their interaction with wider energy networks, e.g. demand side response, load shifting & predictive control methods.

Most of the Active Building principles are fairly straightforward.

Their initial focus is on reducing the energy needed within the building through passive design, building fabric and use of controllable energy efficient systems. Then consideration of renewable energy generation and storage. Then developing systems to enable the intelligent integration of the building with the wider energy networks.


Assessing a building as “Active”

Not including all the measures described in the principles does not necessarily exclude a building from being deemed “Active”.

While renewable energy is the preference for the primary energy source, if this is not possible due to site specific conditions, this does not prevent a building from intelligently managing its integration with the energy networks, so it could still be considered “Active”.   While energy storage is desirable, it is possible to manage energy without storage, using flexible energy trading strategies. Building projects can be assessed on an individual basis.

The ability to collect data in a standard format is crucial to any Active Building project. We have a standard naming convention that should be used in all Building Management Systems (BMSs).

Data collection enables:

  • Learning
  • Optimisation of systems
  • Early fault detection and resolution
  • Predictive control strategies to be developed
  • Planned maintenance regimes to be established

A key to the successful development of an Active Building project is to consider “Active” at every stage in the project.

Most building projects tend to follow the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Plan of Work, which takes a project from inception through to completion and use. We are developing an overlay to this Plan of Work which will outline the Active Building Centre’s input and support at each of the stages.

At present, it is sensible to allow for an uplift in the Capital Cost of an Active Building, due to the maturity level of the technologies being deployed. Life Cycle Cost exercises should be able to prove the added value of adopting an Active Building approach over the whole life of a building, and a reduction in the Operational Costs.


What stage to contact the Active Building Centre

Ideally, the ABC team would be involved in a project from the very start, at RIBA Stage 0.  This is not always possible. You may consider a project becoming “Active” once the design process has already commenced, up to RIBA Stage 3, when the design will be well developed.

Unless measures have been taken that align with the Active Building principles during the early design stages, it may be difficult to add “Active” elements in after Stage 3. This will depend on specific projects, timescales and available funding.  It may be possible to add data monitoring systems in at a later stage, for example, which could help optimise systems and provide learning.

If you have an idea for an Active Building project, please contact us to discuss with a member of our team.