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Sustainable energy: a systems-led approach

Even in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, our attention is continually brought back to the climate crisis

Even in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, our attention is continually brought back to the climate crisis. 

In the news, we’ve seen headlines about reduced pollution, cleaner urban waterways and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. They demonstrate that change is possible and, through our actions, we can make a difference.

So how can we help sustain the positive changes we’ve seen? A significant part of this will be achieved through earnest dedication to net zero carbon by 2050.

To date, the government’s energy initiatives have lacked imagination and foresight. Ground and air source heat pumps, for example, continue to be encouraged despite being wholly unsuitable for existing stock, expensive and limited in their ability to meet future demand for truly energy-efficient buildings.

‘Active Buildings’ are one potential low/zero carbon solution: a holistic, systems-based approach, which takes into account the implications of the climate emergency and net-zero targets. 

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.

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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) charging 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).

The benefits for property managers and homeowners 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. 

There are still challenges to be overcome, especially the construction 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.

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?

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