The right use of technology can provide affordable future-proof buildings that perform better for everyone. The ABC is here to help, says Sam Stacey

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Earlier this year, Flintshire County Council approached the Active Building Centre (ABC) about decarbonising a planned housing development. Design was already well underway but they had not been able to get satisfactory guidance on optimising the vast array of fabric and technology solutions from the market.

Following the ABC’s intervention, the Flintshire houses will now achieve a 97% improvement on Part L regulations and have predicted heating costs of £84 per year, compared to the original estimate of £1,440.

Yet, even more interestingly, this is not the usual equation of increased capital cost paying back in reduced bills over time – all the interventions will be achieved for the same total price.

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This example shows just how valuable the ABC will be in meeting the UK’s net zero commitments. A market failure in the greening of buildings has been evident for some time, and solving it was one of the aims of the government’s sector deal for construction.

The problem is that developers of new buildings do not have evidence-based guidance on the correct combination of technologies to meet net zero. Similarly, suppliers of active technologies (energy generation, storage and management) are not currently incentivised to provide real world data (including regional and seasonal variation in performance), or to integrate different technologies.

As a result, the current consultant market advising on net zero buildings is doing so from a basis of idealised performance data, which produces a gap between designed and actual performance.

The ABC was established with a grant from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as part of the transforming construction challenge. The UK has been no laggard in net zero research, with UKRI having made significant investments in the SPECIFIC innovation and knowledge centre, the active building research programme and the energy systems catapult.

The key is to view sustainable buildings as a system: a system that captures, stores and controls clean energy

Working in collaboration with these investments, the ABC is bridging the “valley of death” between research and market application. The key is to view sustainable buildings as a system: a system that captures, stores and controls clean energy.

The ABC assures the technology under each of these headings – from researchers and manufacturers alike. It is then able to configure the best portfolio for a given development, as in the case of Flintshire.

At a strategic level, the ABC assists clients in shaping a realistic mandate for building energy performance from their suppliers, while also providing manufacturers with guidance on the latest technology in order to supply products to meet client demands.

The ABC is based in Swansea, south Wales, and has a large test centre at Berkeley, in Gloucestershire. The test facilities include three types of residential building based on standard assessment procedure (SAP) fabric standards from 2005, 2012 and 2025 respectively.

A fully-fitted laboratory is used for the improvement of core technology such as heat pumps and energy storage. Early results indicate the potential to increase the coefficient of heat pump performance (COP) from the current average of three by 67% to a COP of five.

Finally, the ABC has a validation laboratory for large-scale energy solutions, such as the ongoing collaboration with Keltbray on their hollow ground-temperature-harvesting “HIPER” piles. These piles have shown a 60% improvement in conductivity compared to traditional solid thermal piles. The ABC facilities should be of interest to a wide range of business seeking innovative energy solutions.

In parallel with the work at the headquarters and test centre, there are a series of real-world demonstrator projects. As part of the Welsh government’s Innovative Housing programme, active building technology will be monitored in 600 homes. In the Trent Basin, in Nottinghamshire, energy control across a community to smooth generation, demand and storage is being tested.

At Crosshands in Wales, a new-build hybrid industrial and commercial development is being used as a physical and commercial model for an energy system that includes heat pump technology, phase change materials, solar, an integrated controller, remote monitoring, and data analytics. The aim here is to develop an opportunity in the office/industrial hybrid market for the “government soft landings” approach that highlights the need to focus on operational requirements from the outset of a project. It also provides a test site for integrating active building approaches into the RIBA Plan of Work.

While the ABC enables the Transforming Construction programme to achieve its target of halving built-environment carbon emissions, and rapid scaling will be achieved by being part of the wider programme. The ABC sits alongside the Construction Innovation Hub in defining the new approaches to construction, incorporating the Value Toolkit and Platform Construction System.

Now is the time to grasp the opportunities that the ABC facilities and services offer

A portfolio of 50-plus innovation projects involving hundreds of industry partners has revealed the art of the possible with respect to better construction, and this work has enabled a shift in public sector procurement in the form of the Construction Playbook. The ABC will support the playbook’s mandate that “all contracting authorities should set out strategies and plans for achieving net zero GHG emissions by or ahead of 2050 for their entire estate/infrastructure portfolio”. The government’s spend of over £30bn a year on new buildings will provide solid demand for active building solutions.

For both clients and suppliers now is the time to grasp the opportunities that the ABC facilities and services offer. As shown in Flintshire, intelligent use of technology can provide affordable future-proof buildings. By embracing value-based procurement and standardised platform, design costs will continue to fall - leading to stronger financial returns, while at the same time meeting the needs of society with buildings that perform better for everyone.

Sam Stacey is challenge director, Transforming Construction, UKRI