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By Joanna Clarke, Head of Design

Ever since designing the first Active Pod back in 2014, I have been on a remarkable journey alongside government-backed think tanks SPECIFIC and The Active Building Centre. Together we have been able to bring the concept of ‘Active Buildings’ to life.

What is an ‘active building’?

What is an ‘Active Building’ you might ask? Essentially it is a structure which has evolved from the passive-model, not only focusing on energy efficiency but also a degree of energy self-sufficiency. How we generate enough electricity to meet a rapidly growing demand is a conundrum which is starting to influence how we design buildings. This presents its own unique challenges as we look to simultaneously divest ourselves of fossil fuels and shift towards green renewables.

Active Buildings provide a potential answer, one which will support societal shifts to electric vehicles (EV) and away from gas powered heating, easing pressure on the grid and saving consumers, landlords and business owners significant amounts on energy bills.

Over the last five years, we have worked hard to develop and define the Active systems approach. The Active Building Centre consistently collects valuable data from its office and classroom at Swansea University, which means we can empirically monitor and evaluate the effectiveness and potential of the technology we use for Active Buildings.

In half a decade we have moved from a makeshift hut (the Pod) to a fully-fledged Active Housing development. The first of its kind, residents are set to move in during the first half of 2020.

Active distribution

In my role, I’m often approached by architects and built environment professionals keen to find out more. One of the most asked questions revolves around energy storage and management. While I think most are aware of how it is captured, less are so sure about how it is reserved long-term and distributed piecemeal according to need.

Let me take the opportunity to explain. To manage energy in our buildings, they have both electrical and thermal storage capacity from which we are capturing tonnes of data. From this, we’re trying to link everything we’re doing to climate predictions and grid activity. Our goal is to get to a point where we choose when we import and export energy based on carbon intensity (CI) of the grid.

Of course, there are different ways in which we can achieve this. For example, we can choose to export when CI is otherwise high, reducing the dependence on gas or coal and import at times when the UK’s running off renewable energy. This can be complemented by sophisticated batteries which can charge using renewables. Our work with Swansea University perfectly captures this.

The university has high electrical consumption and is on a high electricity tariff between 17:00 and 20:00. We have been able to develop our controls so that we would charge the batteries from our two test Active Buildings during the day, gradually topped up by the sun. Within the period of high consumption, we were able to discharge a flat load of 10 kWh continuously, saving the organisation money. At the time, they were on the highest tariff at that time of day and our activity meant having to import less on that high rate. It’s led to significant savings, helping offset the initial investment in incorporating the technology.

Substantial savings

Active Buildings also offer huge potential for mass EV adoption, a policy the UK government is overtly attempting to encourage. As such, structures built according to this system present an opportunity to start switching away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable, green energy solutions.

Change will be gradual and both business and consumers will need to be incentivised by our policy makers in order to absorb the upfront costs associated with rapid ICE scrappage and EV introduction. The best place to start will be with future builds, whether that be warehouses, schools, housing or offices, before focusing on the challenges of retrofitting existing structures.

Fundamentally, an Active Building will make this a cost effective move in the long term. The potential fuel savings should be a major motivator. For example, on our test site at Swansea University, our founder, Professor Dave Worsley, has covered 20,000 miles in his Nissan Leaf over the last 12 months, all powered by energy generated through PV panels – effectively, free fuel. It’s easy to imagine the potential on a large scale and the substantial savings which could be made.

I believe Active systems are worth investing in as they fundamentally future proof buildings. We already have a massive issue with sustainably retrofitting existing stock, which is a significant, persistent problem. Why would we design buildings now which will need to be refurbished, or worse rebuilt, in a few years’ time? Over the long-term it’s counterproductive, expensive and wasteful.

Overcoming cost

Unfortunately, design decisions always come down to initial capital cost, and this often stems from the client end. However, if architects are armed with all the right information and knowledge, they can educate clients about the advantages of Active systems.

Of course, the finance part is difficult. Often buildings are built based on grant funding or government or Local Authority spending, so they rarely have any extra money to put into the building once initial plans have been approved. Equally, on private builds, it’s convincing the developer that the extra upfront cost will be worth the effort in terms of the whole life of the building and its carbon footprint.

Currently it’s a tricky argument to win. Every building is unique and it can be challenging to incorporate all the technology needed to create an ‘Active Building’. Further, as technology advances, systems can become redundant at a remarkable pace, and a fear exists amongst built environment professionals of incorporating solutions which quickly outdate. Consequently, we need to raise awareness that the ‘Active Approach’ is more method than tool.

One obvious solution is robust legislation or regulation to ensure Active solutions are considered early on in the design process. Sometimes compulsion is necessary to encourage better practice.

Ultimately, we need to foster an understanding of the urgency of addressing the climate emergency through the built environment.

Active Buildings are proven to help balance energy import and export, easing demand on the National Grid and directly contributing towards net zero carbon in buildings. It’s something most of us architects aspire to, so I ask the reader: How can you afford not to do this? After all, we’re never going to get to net zero unless we work on these solutions together in earnest.