By Lee Chambers, Chief Commercial Officer at the Active Building Centre.
2021 has been a momentous year for many reasons, but particularly for those of us across the public and private sectors tasked with helping lead the fight against climate change.
2021 for ABC
At the Active Building Centre, we had already known coming into this year that it would be a pivotal one. We were entering into the second half of our initial three-year grant funding period. This rightly raised expectations that we demonstrate tangible progress in our mission to set new standards for building zero-carbon homes capable of powering themselves and redistributing surplus green energy back into the grid.
The delayed COP
The rescheduled COP26 summit was also due to take place in Glasgow in November, convening world leaders and focusing international attention on the climate emergency. It represented a rare opportunity to move the dial and shift the terms of the debate globally, including with respect to the built environment.
Looking back at how the year ultimately panned out, we can be under no illusions that there remains much more ground to cover. COP26 was a tale of both meaningful progress and frustrating compromise, as my colleague Hywel Lloyd has previously written.
We remain optimistic
But, from the perspective of the ABC, we see two standout causes for optimism arising from the past year.
The first is the consensus that has emerged on the issue. The political and popular opinion in favour of embracing ambitious and radical responses to the imminent crisis is now incontrovertible. This is particularly true across the UK. We saw that nationally, at COP26 and in the public debate that surrounded it – but also at a local level, at the COP Gloucestershire event hosted by the ABC this October.
I was immensely proud of the work our team did to convene leaders from local government and industry to discuss how to reach net-zero targets, all through the lens of living and working in Britain’s greenest county. Endorsed by the Prime Minister, the conference brought together luminaries like Stroud MP Siobhan Baillie, Ecotricity founder (and Forest Green Rovers chairman) Dale Vince and Sam Stacey, Director of UKRI’s Transforming Construction Challenge. And I have no doubt that you will find people equally passionate to play their part in reaching net zero at the grass roots of every other county across the UK.
Wind of change is upon us
The second cause for optimism is the progress we have made in enabling the construction industry to bridge the gap between popular demand and current reality. Government and industry sing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to the desirability of zero-carbon, fully electrified buildings that can shrink the 40% of UK carbon emissions for which our built environment is currently responsible. But, despite this, there is little familiarity with or adoption of the absolute best practices for sustainable construction.
We believe that we are making progress in showing the way for how all those involved in the construction process, from local authorities through to developers, can make better use of existing technologies. Solar panels, heat pumps, biomass boilers, battery storage, EV chargepoints – the individual bits of kit are all increasingly familiar. But we are building an evidence base as to how they can be installed and configured together to minimise up-front costs, optimise energy efficiency and maximise returns in the long term.
Partly this comes from the demo homes we have completed at our R&D centre in Berkeley, on the banks of the Severn Estuary. As of this autumn, we now have three demonstrator active buildings on site. Each is built to different specifications, showing how renewable generation and storage technologies can be either retrofitted into past generations of housing stock or incorporated into modern-day new builds. From these, we continuously capture and analyse data on energy performance, so that our understanding of how to optimise green buildings is constantly improving.
Working alongside others
But it also comes from the increasingly active pipeline of commercial projects on which we have provided our expertise throughout this year. Each successive development on which we advise provides practical proof of concept and advances the cause of greener construction in the future. This year, that has included advising on the Nationwide-funded Oakfield project in Swindon, delivering 239 homes with EPC-A ratings in one of the UK’s largest energy-efficient housing developments; the Trent Basin housing development in Nottingham, pioneering the use of community-owned renewable energy infrastructure; and the retrofit of the Y Twyni lecture theatre facility on Swansea University’s Bay Campus.
Bridging the gap
The ABC was founded to bridge the divide between public demand for greener building methods and the construction industry’s inertia in exploring and adopting these. Because of the groundswell in popular support, on the one hand, and the hard evidence that we’ve gathered for what does and doesn’t work, on the other, that gulf has never felt narrower than it does as 2021 draws to a close.
We’re excited to take this even further next year, delivering truly transformational change across the industry.