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By Joanna Clarke, Head of Design

With COP 26 later this year, the UK government has a prime opportunity to set the tone for climate action for the start of the decade. In anticipation, questions arise around plans to reach net zero carbon by 2050, while helping other nations do the same.

To date, government’s energy initiatives have lacked imagination and foresight. Ground source heat pumps (GSHPs), for example, continue to be encouraged as a way of reducing emissions. However, this doesn’t take into account the 4.7m homes built before 1919 nor the millions built in the decades following. Along with being best suited to new builds, as a stand-alone solution, GSHPs are limited in their ability to meet future demand for truly energy efficient buildings.

An active approach

A holistic, systems-based approach is what’s needed, taking into account the implications of the climate emergency and net-zero targets. ‘Active Buildings’ offer such a low/zero carbon solution. 

Evolved from the passive-model, Active Building design focuses on energy efficiency and a degree of energy self-sufficiency, responding to growing demand on the National Grid. It aims to support societal shifts both away from gas powered heating and toward electric vehicle (EV) adoption.

This design model takes a broader view of tackling low carbon, with consideration given to building fabric, smart systems, integration with the wider grid network and more. In this way, it is a model designed to answer and withstand the challenges of the climate crisis. 

Defining the system

The systems-based approach which defines Active Buildings is underpinned by six criteria:

1. Passive design and building fabric

Designing for occupant comfort and low energy use, according to existing passive principles. This includes consideration of orientation and massing, fabric efficiency, natural daylight and natural ventilation. Fundamentally it’s an integrated engineering and architectural approach.

2. Energy efficient systems

Energy-efficient and intelligently controlled systems minimising loads, including HVAC, lighting and electrical transportation. Built-in monitoring and standard naming schemas further underscore meaningful data capture which enables optimisation and refinement of predictive control strategies.

3. On-site renewable energy generation

Incorporation of renewable energy generation where appropriate. Selecting renewable technologies holistically, dependent on site conditions and building load profiles.

4. Energy storage

Electrical and thermal storage which mitigates peak demand, reducing requirements to oversize systems and enabling greater control.

5. Electric vehicle integration

Active Buildings should integrate electric vehicle (EV) changing capabilities where possible. As technology advances, bi-directional charging will allow EVs to deliver energy to buildings as required and vice-versa.

6. Intelligent management of micro-grid integration with national energy network

Active Buildings must be capable of managing their interaction with wider energy networks (e.g. through land shifting, predictive control methods and demand side response).

Empowering & cost-effective

The benefits for property managers and home owners will go beyond saving on their energy bills. Enabling buildings to generate, store and release energy has the potential to empower tenants, giving them greater control over their energy and even the potential to trade energy themselves. 

As the deadline for the ban on diesel and internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles is brought forward to 2035, Active Buildings also offer significant potential for mass EV adoption. To illustrate this, Professor Dave Worsley, founder of the Active Building Centre, has covered 20,000 miles in his Nissan Leaf over the past 12 months, powered entirely by energy generated through PV panels. The potential fuel savings should be a major motivator for consumers, as well as businesses and fleet operators.

The road ahead

Individual products are merely sticking plasters, not overall solutions. Technology changes rapidly and incorporating new flavours of the week is costly. Why would we construct more buildings which only need to be retrofit in a few years’ time? Any realistic, long term answer to the climate emergency must pull its weight in the greater scheme of things.

Decarbonising the built environment is about more than just material solutions. A change to a systems-based approach requires a major shift in mindset amongst both building occupiers and built environment professionals. We need to urgently educate and upskill the existing industry; arm designers with knowledge on designing for climate resilience; attract the younger generation into construction; and develop strategies to improve occupants’ understanding of their houses’ operation. 

There are still challenges to be overcome, especially the industry’s understanding of retrofit. The easiest place to start will be with future builds, whether housing, offices, schools or otherwise, to develop solutions that can be used to address the existing stock.

Furthermore, procurement currently tends to focus on initial capital project cost, rather than focusing on whole life costs of buildings or carbon cost. Unless decarbonisation is regulated or incentivised, it will be very difficult to change this. With a concerted effort from the top down, I don’t believe any of this is insurmountable.

We know the problem and we have a potential solution. As the climate emergency is increasingly recognised, how can we not afford to take up the mantle?