Buildings as powerhouses

Buildings as powerhouses

Buildings as powerhouses


Sustainable building is the buzzword among architects. Yet for most of us, living in houses built decades ago, reality remains far from the futuristic designs – our homes gobble up energy, are often wasteful and inefficient. But that may be about to change, as business and academia pull together to forge a new urban landscape, where buildings become the powerhouses of the future.

Ask leading scientists at the cutting edge of environmental technology to describe the house of the future and they will take you to a fascinating world, where material and biological science operate in harmony to create a living built environment.

It is a world where myriad technologies replace fossil fuels and nuclear power. A future where chemistry, biology, nanotechnology, material science and biomimicry fuse to create a living, interconnected city. A place where solar energy is harvested in different forms from every façade and stored inter-seasonally, where smart insulation regulates the environment, while living walls of algae react with sunlight to create shade and light. An interconnected world where the home, workplace, car and school mimic a living organism by interacting naturally with the environment to collect energy harvested from homes by day and workplaces by night to be pumped to where it is most needed.

Most of these recent innovations have been driven by the threat of climate change. Research by the United Nations Environment Programme reveals that smarter building construction offers the single greatest opportunity to deliver cost-effective cuts in harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings globally consume 40% of our energy resources and emit a third of the planet’s greenhouse gases – a figure set to rise as power-hungry populations migrate to cities.

“We can make solar cells on anything, including paper.”

Dr. Trisha Andrew, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

The problem with the scientists’ enticing vision of the future is that for most of us it bears little relation to our actual experience of the built world. Whether you live in Berlin, Shanghai, Rio or Milwaukee, you are likely to be surrounded by buildings that have changed little in design over the past 100 years and that use technology that has developed little over the past 50 years. The most advanced technology that we see in everyday use tends to be limited to heavy crystalline silicon solar panels and wind turbines.

This could be about to change. And the catalyst for change is a quiet revolution that has been taking place in the boardrooms of large companies and the laboratories of academic institutions. People are realizing that while there is no shortage of brilliant innovation in building design, there has not been enough focus on how to bring these new technologies to the wider market. This realization is leading some of the world’s best scientific minds to shift attention from blue-sky thinking to addressing the technological challenge of scale. The question is, how to make this technology both affordable and profitable while producing it on a large enough scale to really make a difference.

Greg Keeffe, Professor of Sustainable Architecture and head of research at Queens University in Belfast, Ireland, believes that architects and designers may have something to learn from the mass production techniques used by car manufacturers.

He argues that today’s need to cram houses into what little urban space is left, means each building has to be individually designed. This offers no opportunity to develop the kinds of innovation that go with mass production.

“If you look at the average house with an E-Class Mercedes parked outside, that house is so dim compared to that car,” says Professor Keeffe. “I believe we need a more industrialized, mass customized product, which is currently beyond our grasp because buildings are designed so differently from cars. Hundreds of man-years of thought have gone into designing each element of a car, whereas so much less thought has gone into each element of a building, because every building is so individual.”

Facts and figures: Energy consumption and energy efficiency

  • 40% of our energy resources…
    Buildings globally consume 40% of our energy resources and emit a third of the planet’s greenhouse gases − a figure set to rise as powerhungry populations migrate to cities.

    10 GW of power…
    The scientists of the SPECIFIC project estimate that if just 10% of the steel produced each year by project partner Tata Steel had the smart coating of the transpired solar collector, it could produce 10 GW of power, or the equivalent of one nuclear power station’s annual energy output.

From lab experiment to industrial production


Recently set up to address this very challenge, the Sustainable Product Engineering Centre for Innovative Functional Industrial Coatings (SPECIFIC) is an industrial and academic consortium tasked with bridging the knowledge gap that exists between innovation and production. Launched four years ago, the project is led by Swansea University in Wales with funding from the Welsh and UK governments, as well as from its main industrial partners Tata Steel, NSG-Pilkington Glass and BASF.

SPECIFIC’s aim is to turn buildings into the powerhouses of the future. It plans to act as a link between UK universities to exploit cutting edge, global developments in building materials and design, using smart coatings that enable walls and roofs to collect, store and release renewable energy. Working mostly with steel and glass, the project has already experienced extraordinary advances that are set to revolutionize at least one sector of the construction industry.

Kevin Bygate is Chief Executive Officer of the SPECIFIC project, heading up a team of more than 120 world-class scientists, technologists, engineers and business developers, all focusing on how best to up-scale existing technology and so turn laboratory-scale innovations into products capable of being manufactured on a large scale.

“There are many universities and research institutes that make the initial inventive step. What that physically means is, they have created something the size of a thumbnail, and on the thumbnail is a small dot, the size of a pin, that does something interesting,” says Bygate. “We take over at that stage to replicate the function with an abundant material using a process that can be scaled up. We use pilot lines to produce one-meter-wide sheets and then a reel-to-reel line that will make a material large enough to put on a building.”

One product is the transpired solar collector, which is capable of absorbing an average 50%, and up to 75% in good conditions, of the solar energy that hits a building. Transpired solar collectors are installed as an additional micro-perforated steel skin onto an existing or new wall or roof, creating a cavity of heated air between the building’s surface and the metal skin. The heated air is drawn from the cavity and fed into the building, so that it can either be used to meet the building’s immediate energy needs, or be stored for later.

Partner in the project, Tata Steel, produces steel in the UK for building warehouses, supermarkets and retail outlets. SPECIFIC estimates that if just 10% of the steel produced each year by Tata Steel had this smart coating, it could produce 10 GW of power, or the equivalent of one nuclear power station’s annual energy output.

Bygate believes that transpired solar collectors could become a key future energy resource. “What we have is proof of concept and now we are looking at the business model to take it to market,” he says. “Depending on the rate of public acceptance for the product and the adoption curves, you could generate around one third of the UK’s renewables by the 2020s using this type of technology.”

As important as harvesting solar energy is its storage. Batteries, hot water storage and underground thermal storage all have potential, but tend to take up large amounts of space. While some energy needs to be stored for a matter of hours before being used, other energy needs to be drawn on inter-seasonally, typically stored in summer for use in winter.

SPECIFIC is having success on this front too. Professor Dave Worsley, who heads the project’s academic research program, explains: “What we are working on is a thermochemical store – the basis of which is a salt that absorbes or releases water, similar to the way we sweat – which traps or releases a huge amount of energy.”

It is this ability to trap and release energy so efficiently that Worsley believes will make this solution suitable for inter-seasonal storage, while taking up ten times less space than using water for energy storage.

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