As we try to progress towards net-zero, there is something that stands out rather clearly: buildings matter. Their current energy and carbon footprint are tremendous, yet they have such a potential to become a positive force for change that there can be no net-zero by 2050 without their decarbonisation. How can we leverage them to support delivering positive impact?

Supporting change

If this is the first time you are here, you might want to know that the Active Building Centre Research Programme was established to help transform the UK’s built environment, something that requires researching ideas and solutions, and demonstrating how to put them into practice at scale.

Our role at the University of Bath is to support all those involved in the design process to deliver exceptional, net-zero buildings and make them the new normal. To make things tangible and actionable, we first considered what active buildings are in close collaboration with the wider programme consortium. Here is a brief overview of the proposition that we set out in the white paper ‘Buildings as energy infrastructure, not passive consumers‘ based on our publication ‘Towards Active Buildings: rating grid-servicing buildings‘.

The Active Building Code

The reality of defining an active building is complex, the landscape is changing rapidly, and we need an agile response. This is why we deferred the practical definition of what an active building is to an Active Building Code that can evolve to make sure it stays relevant as we move into uncharted territory. Its vision is to deliver at scale buildings that ‘do no harm and that abide by the principles of whole-life sustainability and  support of energy networks.

ABCode1 in action

At a high-level, an active building or collection of active buildings (community) under ABCode1 is proposed to be one where the design team:

  1. evaluates the merits of their proposal against the rating scheme shown in the table
  2. is able to demonstrate how it performs in practice through monitoring and post-occupancy evaluation
  3. has engaged with local network service providers during the design process
Proposed rating scheme for Active Buildings (AB) and communities. Adapted from original (Figure 3).

Based on the table above, this allows us to describe active buildings or communities of active buildings as, for example, B or B ( A, B, D, C ) if more detail is desired, mapping to the order in the rating system (M,R,P,X). Details are provided here, but this considers metrics and their suggested relative importance as follows:

  • Embodied carbon (M, 15%): The carbon footprint of how buildings are put together is increasingly important as energy requirements are curtailed and energy networks decarbonised
  • Energy required (R, 50%): This promotes a rational use of resources and sensible building design practices that are proven to work, like a fabric-first approach
  • Renewable energy production (P, 15%): Helps exploring the role buildings or communities could play as power stations in a decentralised energy network
  • Energy flexibility (X, 20%): Helps exploring the role buildings could play in adapting, storing and releasing energy according to the needs of the energy networks they are connected to

Bridging the gap

The intent of the ABCode is to balance things we know are essential, robust and where not enough progress has been made (R and M) while supporting strategies that are thought to be promising in decarbonised energy networks (reduce pressure on the network, R, and enhance the triad ‘generate, store and release‘, P and X). Crucially, these represent challenging but attainable measures that design teams could consider and act on now. The monitoring and in-use performance reviews will support getting the best of active buildings or communities. At the same time, the data collected will help advancing knowledge and inform revisions of the code, so it stays relevant as the landscape changes.

This is a first proposition that sets the stage and performance aspirations, and it will evolve over time. It is not perfect, but now that we no longer have the luxury of time, we need to double down efforts in bridging the gap between where we are and where we want to be. We would love to hear your views. Interested? The white paper can be found here, or let’s talk.

Daniel Fosas is a Research Associate at the University of Bath and supports the Active Building Centre Research Programme’s work on the design, delivery and performance evaluation of net-zero carbon buildings.