Meeting the Transforming Construction Challenge through Active Buildings

Dave Worsley
Dave Worsley 10-09-2019

Have you ever thought about how you can change the way your life impacts on the planet?

An emerging public consensus recognises that the world is at a tipping point in relation to carbon emissions and global warming. The requirement for immediate action is being led by the next generation, championed by the 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg and a succession of global events supported by school children.

But what can we do now to transform the way we use energy? How can the UK show global leadership as an exemplar for the rest of the world? This is more important than anything else we could be thinking about. And we have a solution!

Every year buildings in the UK are responsible for around 40% of the carbon emissions. Much of this is under our control. It is principally around heating.

For decades we have burned things to get heat. We started with trees and when they became in short supply, we turned to coal then oil. Finally, to reduce at least some of the carbon intensity, we burn gas. For a long time, people championed gas as a clean fuel which it is in terms of smoke, but gas is only half as destructive as coal for melting ice. The shift to burning gas has reduced deforestation and reduced particle and carbon emissions a significant amount.

But now we need a more radical change. The UK Government is committing to ambitious targets both for electric cars and new homes built with no gas connection.

At the newly formed Active Building Centre in Swansea we are working with partners across academia, industry and government to help develop Active Buildings, buildings that do not need any gas at all for heating. They can also generate an excess of power which can be used to make money by energy trading or power electric cars. Solar power can work even in a wet climate such as the UK’s. We simply need to save the energy for when we need it. And to save it as electricity and heat. Currently in the UK, most of the carbon-based fuels we use are in heating buildings.

With first-of-a-kind demonstrator buildings built by SPECIFIC IKC at Swansea University, we are demonstrating how a classroom and office are heated without gas.

Picture: the Active Classroom, which generates, stores and releases its own energy

For the last year over 20,000 miles I have used only power from these solar powered buildings to drive my electric car, a Nissan Leaf. At least another 6 to 8 electric vehicles regularly use the building power to run their cars, using energy from the sun and subsequently producing no carbon emissions.

Picture: the Active Office, which demonstrates the Active Building concept developed by SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre (IKC)

At the Active Building Centre we plan to help deliver many more of these Active Buildings as part of our work funded through the UK Government’s Transforming Construction Challenge and through our close collaboration with our Transforming Construction partners, the Construction Innovation Hub and NetworkPlus.

This is how we should make all buildings, whether it be homes, offices or factories. Your parcel could be delivered in an electric van charged by the Amazon building it was stored in. Your children could attend school where all the power they need to teach them, comes from the school. Hospitals where a power outage passes unnoticed as the electricity and heat stored from the sun collected from the building roof and façade are available in abundance and there are no diesel generators outside making nasty smells. At home, your house and car working together seamlessly sharing power with energy harvested at work brought home, and when needed, your home fuelling your car.

Worldwide this should be how all buildings are built and powered. As we build more buildings, we get more power.

The technology is available now and through continued innovation, the electricity and heat produced will soon be cheaper than what we get from the grid – through both new materials discovery and in implementing manufacturing optimisation methods and digital design.

Historically we transport energy around. This energy is locked up in carbon formats stored from the sun’s rays millions of years ago. Why can’t we move solar energy around instead?

The problem is that something that is hot will always get cold. Moving electricity from a hot climate and distributing it around the world involves considerable expenditure on cables and an inevitable loss of most of the power. If we can resolve the storage of electricity and heat inter-seasonally we will have the means to transfer solar power around the world like we currently do with coal, oil and gas.

As well as the environmental benefits this would bring, it would also bring wealth and opportunity for some of the poorest nations with no resource but sunshine. It would allow countries such as the UK that require lots of power to buy it.

In reality, solving the energy use of new buildings is simply the start. Within five to ten years we can reduce the cost and improve efficiency so that inter-seasonal energy generation and storage and imported ‘solar’ heat and power can become the drivers of the economy. This will give our children and grandchildren all the opportunities we had without the consequences of irreversible climate change they currently fear.

We can do this now. We need to do this now.


Dave Worsley is Director of the Active Building CentreThe Active Building Centre is funded by UKRI as part of the Transforming Construction Challenge through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF).