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By Prof David Worsley, Chair of Materials Science and Engineering, Swansea University

The Active Building Centre is an independent, world-leading centre of excellence forging the way in showing how we can overcome one of the key roadblocks to net-zero carbon.

A simple question

The story starts over ten years ago in Swansea University’s Materials Engineering department, when we were working with colleagues at Tata Steel and BASF to develop cladding for buildings with a significantly longer lifespan. By developing new paints and coatings, we were able to move from the standard maximum lifetime of twelve years to over forty. Once we had managed this, however, it occurred to us that this cladding would cover 60 million square metres of material. It was now better at keeping the rain out, but was there more that all this cladding could do?

ABC’s mission is underpinned by that simple question. We can work for the buildings – why can’t we make buildings work for us?

So, 10 years ago we founded SPECIFIC (the Sustainable Product Engineering Centre for Innovative Functional Industrial Coatings) at Swansea University, to work with industry and do the research into how buildings could be made to do more than just keep water out. We started to devise new technologies and methods, starting with finding ways to receive solar energy through the cladding, before moving on to thinking about how else we could both generate and then store electricity and heat.

With our first projects as SPECIFIC, we started to put these theories into action through our Active Classroom, on site at Swansea University. The building was our first active building. Rather than being passive, the building generates electricity through its integrated solar roof and heat from the solar thermal collector on the walls. In its first year of operation it generated 1.5 times the energy it used..

We then developed the concept in our Active Office, which was designed by SPECIFIC’s Design Manager Joanna Clarke and built by Wernick through modular construction. It makes further use of innovative solar technologies, including the first commercial installation of Naked Energy’s eye-catching photovoltaic-thermal tubes, which generate both electricity and heat from the south-facing wall..

As well as being renewable in its own right, the surplus electricity generated by these buildings is also stored and then used to run the buildings during periods of high demand on the grid, reducing energy bills as well as emissions. It also powers our onsite fleet of electric vehicles, producing a virtuous cycle of reduced emissions.

An ongoing partnership

We had the ideas, and had proven that they could make significant change to a key sector in the fight against climate change – buildings consume about 40% of our energy and commensurately produce 40% of emissions in the UK, with heating the main contributor – but the question was how to start to roll these technologies out. This is where the ABC comes in.

SPECIFIC is an academic, research-driven organisation; we did not have the capacity or commercial expertise to explain and sell these ideas to the people who need to hear them: housing developers, local authorities and government.

There is a great opportunity, especially here in Wales where fuel poverty is such an issue, for the active building technologies we’ve worked on to be implemented in council estates, to make housing less of a drain on the grid, thereby helping the planet and wallets. And in the private sector, as things like electric vehicle charging points become more mainstream, and homeowners realise the financial and ecological benefits to owning and living in an active building, there is also opportunity to show developers how to cater for this demand by combining new and existing technologies in the most efficient ways.

The ABC was spun off to do just this, and to get these technologies to the people who need them, as we’re seeing in their work in Flintshire and Port Talbot and across England.

SPECIFIC still works closely with the ABC engineers to continue to find new and better solutions, both in Swansea and Gloucestershire . We can always perfect the proof of concept and now, thanks to the ABC, we know that there are people who want to hear about these new developments.

Since beginning our partnership with the ABC, their work has gone from strength to strength, including bringing together industry leaders to argue publicly for the need to reform the built environment at COP 26, and hosting their own pre-COP conference for local stakeholders. These two events perfectly encapsulate the fact that the problems we face are global, but they are also local: every house that our technology improves makes a difference.

The future

So the past of the ABC is clear, but what about its future? 2022 has encouraging signs as the year when local authorities, property developers and the public really start to take the action that will enable us to start to move to net-zero. There is no more excuse of not knowing that there’s a problem and, thanks to the ABC, not knowing how to solve it isn’t an excuse either.

This means more retrofitting – over 80% of the buildings that we will be using in 2050, and which will need to be carbon-neutral by that time, already exist. And it means working on more than just housing: government buildings make up a huge chunk of the building stock in this country. The ABC is already working with one of the biggest landlords, the MoD, to turn all of those hangars into net contributors to the grid.

Theres a lot of work to be done, but we’re excited to be on the front lines alongside our colleagues in Swansea and Berkeley.