The Active Building Centre’s legacy lives on – Dr Jo Atkinson

Dr Jo Atkinson, Practice Manager – Buildings at Energy Systems Catapult. 

It has been seven months since the Active Building Centre (ABC) was acquired by Energy Systems Catapult, and what an exciting journey it is proving to be! ABC was acquired by the Catapult to accelerate efforts to decarbonise the built environment – merging ABC’s knowhow in buildings, with the Catapult’s expertise in decarbonising the energy system across homes, buildings, and sites.

Making our mark

I made the move to the Catapult alongside several of my colleagues to continue the mission we started when ABC was set up in 2019 under the UK government’s Transforming Construction Challenge.

The integration of ABC is financed by a £4 million award from Innovate UK. £1 million of the award is funding the ABC Legacy Programme to ensure that ABC’s expertise, knowledge, and work is integrated and exploited within the Catapult. Integration is well underway, with a new Buildings Practice having been established at the Catapult as part of the Infrastructure and Engineering capability.

With the Committee on Climate Change arguing that all new buildings need to be Net Zero from 2025, and all existing buildings by 2050, the Catapult’s recognition of the need for sector specialists is heartening. The knowledge I – and my colleagues from ABC – have built up from involvement in over 100 research projects is being championed within the Catapult and is contributing to a discussion and debate around the role of buildings as part of the whole energy system.

Active Buildings

An active building supports the energy network by intelligently integrating energy technologies for heat, power, and transport. It’s like seeing a building as a mini power station.

Active Buildings are designed to maximise both physical and psychological comfort for occupants whilst being energy efficient combined with using integrated technology and smart controls.

This is further enhanced by active communities – whereby multiple active buildings are connected, providing greater flexibility support to the local and wider energy networks.

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What are active buildings?

No slowing down

We’ve wasted no time in kickstarting our work at the Catapult. £3 million of the Innovate UK funding is being used to finance InSite – an innovation project aimed at developing a national data hub that tracks emissions, energy, and costs (before and after decarbonisation interventions across non-domestic buildings and sites). We’re also exploring how the data from the ABC’s new build non-domestic demonstrator projects can be integrated into the InSite project.

Work on the ABC Blueprint – which outlines key considerations across the lifecycle of development for professionals and technicians who work to design, plan, build and manage buildings and places – has continued at pace. A key part of the Blueprint is the 3C’s approach putting comfort at the forefront whilst balancing carbon and cost.

Figure 1: The three Cs: Comfort, Carbon, Cost

Figure 1: The three Cs: Comfort, Carbon, Cost

This work – and our approach to building decarbonisation – builds in an awareness that focusing on operational carbon emissions and capital costs alone, will not deliver against our Net Zero carbon targets. Our approach starts to outline key considerations across the lifecycle of development for the professionals and technicians who work to design, plan, build and manage buildings and places.

By investing in our homes and factoring their construction into the broader whole energy system, we can reduce running costs, and lower operational emissions throughout the lifespan of the building.

This is more than just assumed knowledge. It is grounded in the reality of cost. If we can make low carbon materials the norm, their cost will come down. We cannot afford to continue with a business-as-usual approach to construction – as part of the Buildings Practice, it is my job to help drive forward this change and make low carbon construction the norm – thus, contributing to wider decarbonisation of the energy system network.

There is a huge opportunity across new build and retrofit to change our delivery systems for the better and start to lower emissions linked to our sector.

Building a better grid

New buildings – be they commercial or domestic – require a connection to the energy network, that is an inescapable reality of construction. What isn’t yet costed however, is the cost avoidance of upgrading the electricity grid to cater to these newly developed buildings. The approach we developed at ABC and continue to champion here at the Catapult is centred around timing and modelling.

The typical approach is to do a detailed energy modelling assessment after a non-domestic building has acquired planning permission, but this does not allow for changes in the footprint, form, orientation, roof design, and general layout as they’re fixed. These are all critical parts of designing a Net Zero building – if we do not have the flexibility to change them (as they’re locked in by planning), then we cannot allow amends to factor in the energy modelling.

By designing and constructing buildings with reduced energy demand at scale, we can mitigate against the need to upgrade or reinforce the grid. In the future, generation and smart power sharing potential by the new Active development may assist the adjacent legacy stock to be heated electrically without the associated network reinforcement.

The approach we’re recommending at Energy Systems Catapult is to do dynamic modelling for both non-domestic and domestic buildings. This would see the whole life carbon (operational and embodied), the lifecycle cost, and circularity assessments, modelled before the planning stage to better enable comfort, carbon, and costs to be considered and play an integral role in the design of a new Net Zero building, and the decarbonisation of existing stock.

Where do we go from here?

We may have a new home at the Catapult, but that doesn’t mean we’re slowing down. We’re doubling down on our efforts to decarbonise buildings. We’re going to be further developing the ABC Blueprint to make it more accessible to a wider audience, while further refining how buildings sit within the whole energy system. The ABC Legacy Programme is the start of the journey for turning the ABC Blueprint into the tools and assets that developers and building owners need to decarbonise the built environment at pace and scale.

Together with the Place, Sites, and Homes teams at the Catapult, we’re delivering on the ABC mission to decarbonise our buildings and support the transition to a Net Zero future. Our team’s skills and expertise have already been deployed on a range of projects across the Catapult.

On the Warm Home Prescription we’ve been supporting the Catapult’s delivery team with guidance and technical input on following the PAS 2035 Retrofit Standard, assessing the risks around building fabric upgrades and the need to also consider adequate ventilation as part of the works.

The Buildings Practice have contributed to Local Area Energy Planning. We helped the Place team build their understanding of the risks involved of including cavity wall insulation in areas subject to severe exposure to wind-driven rain, and how to set out a no regrets way forward for local authorities working on a LAEP.

And that’s not all, our work in the Buildings Practice has gone international. We’re supporting the team working on the Singapore Net Zero Buildings project with the delivery of one of the workshops focused on decarbonisation of buildings and how learning from the Active building approach can be taken forward in Singapore.

Progress is not achieved in silos. Combining the ABC mission with that of the Catapult is going to deliver for people, place, and planet in a way that considers the whole energy system – that is how we achieve Net Zero, that is how we make decarbonising the UK as easy as A…B…C…

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