Active Office

A work space that captures, produces, manages and stores its own energy.

Last updated: 21st December 2020

Date uploaded:

Approved for use

Innovation Lead: Marie Greaves
UKRI funding: £800,000

Website:
specific.eu.com/the-active-office/


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Summary

Imagine the possibilities if a building could create, harvest and share clean energy, learn from how that energy was being used, and use that data to improve its future performance? The team at SPECIFIC Innovation & Knowledge Centre set out to demonstrate exactly that. Developing out from smaller projects, the Active Office has been the team's most ambitious endeavour to date and has been a powerful prototype of the benefit of Modern Methods of Construction and integrated technologies. The project used only locally-sourced modular manufacturing processes and integrated technologies systems with control logic, which draw on a network of meters and sensors. Its ability to monitor occupancy, weather changes and even learnings from past performances, means the Active Office can optimise operations and makes energy use as efficient and effective as possible. In its first year, energy use has come down by 12% and operational costs were 43% less than a standard office of the same size.

Innovation type: Energy
Organisation type: Research centre

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Project pioneers

Professor Dave Worsley and the team at SPECIFIC Innovation & Knowledge Centre at Swansea University designed and built the first Active Building which combined energy generation and storage with smart/intelligent controls, so the building supports the energy network, rather than is a burden on it. This pioneering approach creates buildings that make the most effective use of energy, rather than the energy supply having to fit into the building.

The problem

Currently, powering and heating buildings accounts for 20% of the UK's carbon emissions and new solutions to decarbonise heating are needed urgently to meet UK construction targets to be net zero by 2050. One of the potential solutions to low carbon heating is electrification but the existing infrastructure is outdated and based on a centralised model where a few large generators distribute power across the grid. This centralisation of supply causes transmission inefficiencies which doesn't support the needs of buildings or, indeed, the people that use them. And even where new technology becomes available, however compelling it is, its successful adoption relies on two things - proof that it can deliver, and knowledge throughout the supply chain on how to operate it effectively.

Vision

Active Buildings create places that are fit for the future. Using more thermally efficient materials and creating new standards around the way our buildings generate and store energy means buildings will actively respond to the environment around them, rather than trying to combat it. There will be significantly less heat loss in the winter or heat gains in the summer which will make buildings comfortable all year round. The level of data gathering, management and control in an Active Building will mean owners and occupants can benefit from decreasing fuel bills, and could help eliminate fuel poverty. It will also provide a constant stream of smart intelligence to ensure improvements are continually made. It can also open up channels of engagement with future energy aggregators, meaning that buildings could potentially be constantly trading with suppliers. And ultimately it will minimise carbon emissions as we transition the industry, and the country, to net zero.

Key Insight

Professor Dave Worsley moved from lecturing about climate change and its impact in the 1990s to needing to be part of the action and solution. The creation of SPECIFIC allowed his team of researchers to develop and test renewable technologies including the next generation of printable solar PV and emerging energy storage technologies. In 2014, Joanna Clarke, the lead architect from SPECIFIC, first designed a small Active Building called the Active Pod to initially demonstrate the concept of building for optimum energy generation and storage, and to demonstrate integrated control. She took the learnings from this to scale up and design the Active Classroom, which used a number of experimental technologies developed within SPECIFIC or by their collaborators. But knowing how hard it is for new technologies to penetrate established markets, the team at SPECIFIC set their sights on full-scale demonstration of new products to prove they work, and to build confidence and capability within the supply chain. With investment from UKRI, they could now turn their smaller-scale tests into real-world evidence through the Active Office prototype.

First step

Lessons and experience from these demonstrator projects (such as Active Pod and Active Classroom) were applied to the Active Office project using the funding from UKRI. Active Office was set to be the most ambitious project that the team at SPECIFIC had conceived - a larger two-storey prototype, developed and constructed to a significantly accelerated schedule. This time the team used only commercially available technologies and existing supply chains, to demonstrate that new sustainable building design is possible now, in the current market.

Barrier

Adopting new active technologies and data-driven approaches can be challenging if there's no evidence for the benefits they can bring. For an industry driven by short-term cost and urgent demand for new buildings, investing and integrating active components and systems can feeling disruptive and expensive - even if it the valuable data can support improved decision making, bring down energy demand and support whole-life value. Until a concept is proven, it is difficult to achieve widespread adoption - making demonstrator projects like this critical to show what is possible when active components are integrated from the start.

Process innovation

The need to be able to demonstrate new technology quickly and efficiently is vital to building confidence in innovation in the industry. Adopting technology that was already commercially available meant that the Active Office prototype could demonstrate improved productivity and the ability to scale in front of people's eyes.
The Active Office team set out to test and validate manufacturing processes and new technologies in-situ, and provide a flexible platform for assessing and demonstrating different control strategies in localised energy generation and storage, to show that Active Buildings are possible and can have a positive impact on the electricity infrastructure. The building was constructed using a modular system, manufactured by Wernick just 15 miles from the University campus. 12 modules were transported to the site over a short two-day period. The curved roof, consisting of a series of trusses manufactured in another local factory, form the main roof structure which sits on top of the modules. The solar energy-generating roof was also manufactured offsite with the photovoltaic modules being bonded onto the steel roof panels before being transported to site from the local supplier in Newport. This enabled the solar energy-generating roof to be installed quickly with minimal site activities. The offsite construction and local manufacturing and supply reduced the time and carbon emissions associated with the build. Collaboration, as is more often seen in manufacturing processes, was the cornerstone to this project, and working closely, designing in partnership and a shared learning curve was critical to the project's success. To capture key learnings, architect Joanna Clarke has developed an Active Buildings Toolkit to aid the design of Active Buildings. This provides a step-by-step guide to designing and delivering Active Building projects, as well as springboard for discussion and knowledge sharing.

Digital Innovation

At the core of the Active Office is an extensive digital network able to evaluate data in real time to drive thorough Building Performance Evaluation (BPE) and provide a constant feedback loop of improvements to the operation of buildings, to develop planned maintenance regimes and to create predictive control strategies - which can all support cost and carbon savings. For example, the Active Office delivers active energy by using a range of solar technologies (such as solar PV and naked energy tubes) to harvest, store and release energy in one, optimised system that is integrated into the building. By using the data collected and identifying improvements in operation and control a 12% energy reduction has been achieved over the first year of operation. With the latest 12 months of data prior to lockdown showing net neutral energy performance, further savings have been identified targeting a net energy positive status once normal operation resumes. The main technology elements are underpinned by a CISCO communications system, combined with control logic developed by SPECIFIC which enables the individual elements of the building to work together to optimise its operation. The data inputted via the control logic supports decisions on how the building should be running, based on factors such as occupancy patterns from calendars, weather predictions from environmental sensors, and data on past performance. To process the vast amounts of data generated from the meters and sensors in the building, CISCO recommended its Kinetic Edge and Fog Processing Module (EFM) to add computing power to the distributed network. This helps make fast decisions close to the point of action and reduce data before sending to higher levels in the network. This was compatible with DG-Lux IoT platform which could bring all the data generated by the different building systems together in one unifying piece of software.

Collaborators

Early engagement with the supply chain was a key part of the building’s development. SPECIFIC made sure there was a clear process of working together, designing together and educating each other to test how the supply chain could work in a different way to deliver a successful project. As well as the team at SPECIFIC Innovation & Knowledge Centre at Swansea University and funding from UKRI, support came from The European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government and EPSRC. The project was co-sponsored by Tata Steel and CISCO and built by Wernick; FUSION 21 was the framework provider; and key technology suppliers were Dulas, BIPVCo, naked energy, NSG Group, and AkzoNobel.

  • AkzoNobel
  • BIPVCo
  • CISCO
  • Dulas
  • EPSRC
  • Fusion 21
  • NSG Group
  • SPECIFIC-IKC
  • TATA Steel
  • The European Regional Development Fund
  • Welsh Government
  • Wernick Buildings
  • naked energy

Lead support

The Active Office was led by SPECIFIC Innovation & Knowledge Centre at Swansea University and funded by UKRI. The Transforming Construction Challenge (TCC) through the Active Building Centre (ABC) is supporting the wider roll out of the Active Building concept, promoting whole-life value thinking and innovative methods of construction. TCC events provide the Active Building Centre team with the opportunity to disseminate knowledge, share best practice and develop collaborative projects, for the benefit of the entire industry.

Long Term Vision

The long-term vision for this project is that all buildings should adopt an Active approach, to ensure total optimisation of energy usage and supply. Evolving from a national grid structure to a hyper local, almost neighbourly trading of energy.
With its data-driven approach from design, through construction and to occupancy, it means that the whole process can be overhauled to deliver maximum efficiency and minimum environmental impact. Data is key, understanding how and when energy is consumed in the built environment will enable intelligent choices to be made on how to generate, store and release this energy for best impact on the wider infrastructure.

Human Stories

Professor Dave Worsley has been a committed champion of discussing the negative impacts of climate change on the planet since the 1990s. It was his visionary approach not only to developing renewable technologies but also to demonstrating the impact of these new technologies to build confidence, understanding and uptake in the industry. The architect Joanna Clarke, working with the technical team at SPECIFIC, was able to help bring Professor Worsley's vision to life with the first iteration of an Active Building called the Pod to its current iteration today with the Active Office.

Powerful Processes

The first time the Pod was able to clearly demonstrate the advantages of the Active Building concept and technologies was a milestone moment in the project.
But it was the collaboration between every single element of the supply chain to deliver a unique building integrating innovative technologies with well-established technologies in this project that shows the true possibilities. Working with Transforming Construction going forward will provide a platform to share and educate the industry on the innovation that is at their fingertips now.

Fascinating Facts

Powering and heating buildings accounts for approximately 40% of the UK's carbon emissions. With the Active Office, a 12% energy reduction has been achieved over the first year of operation. It creates 3.5 times less carbon than a typical office building. The operational costs of the Active Office were found to be 43% of the operational costs of a standard office of the same size.

Benefits

Active Energy
The Active Office delivers active energy by using a range of solar technologies to generate, store and release energy in one, optimised system that is integrated into the building. By using the data collected and identifying improvements in operation and control a 12% energy reduction has been achieved over the first year of operation. With the latest 12 months of data prior to lockdown showing net neutral energy performance, and further savings have been identified targeting a net energy positive status once normal operation resumes. Not only has energy reduction been achieved, but by actively controlling when import and export occurs it has demonstrated the ability to actively reduce operating costs and carbon emissions when compared to uncontrolled generation and export. Some building types could produce excess energy which they could sell to the grid to generate income, use to charge electric vehicles, save in batteries or share with other buildings that need more energy than they can produce themselves. For the first time it is showing that a building can work in harmony with the grid. It also acts as a platform to deliver other collaborative projects, such as a demand side response (DSR) project with Evergreen Smart Power, which demonstrates how a building can act as a virtual power plant (VPP) as part of a flexible energy system.

Collaboration
The Active Office was made possible by extensive collaboration between SPECIFIC and its supply chain partners, including Wernick Buildings, Dulas, Naked Energy and BIPVCo. Together, they were able to deliver a unique building incorporating innovative technologies with well-established technologies, in parallel streams. The detailed mechanical and electrical design was ongoing while the modules were being manufactured and the ground works completed. By sharing data and lessons learnt through detailed case studies and presenting at industry events, they were able to impart their knowledge to the wider industry.

Cost
Although construction costs for the Active Office were higher than a typical building of this type, this can be balanced by the fact that operational costs are lower. The operational costs of the Active Office were found to be 43% of operational costs of a standard office of the same size. In addition, the building control systems enable energy to be imported at low prices and exported, ensuring further savings through use of an optimised control philosophy. As technology costs come down and access to innovative energy markets increases, buildings such as these have the opportunity to operate as revenue generators in the future. This project enables the operational savings to be explored and proven, paving the way for future uptake.

Emissions
Use of renewable energy generation, combined with energy storage and smart control strategies enables a reduction in overall carbon emissions both directly (from energy used in the building and vehicles) and indirectly (by selecting when to import or export energy to the grid depending on the carbon intensity of the grid at any time). Initial data looking at carbon emissions from electricity at the time of use shows a 50% reduction over a 9-month period. As the control strategy is refined it looks likely to achieve the anticipated carbon savings in operation. A Life Cycle Cost Report demonstrated the building uses 3.5 times less carbon than a typical office building of the same size. SPECIFIC is now working with researchers at the University of Bath, where a PhD researcher employed by the ABC Research Programme is undertaking a Life Cycle Analysis of the Active Office using the standard RICS methodology.

Investment
Many of the partners within the project have benefitted from the successful delivery of the building and the ongoing platform capability is enabling further research and knowledge to be developed. It is a showcase for various innovations. For example: one of the more novel products, the Naked Energy Virtu PVT tubes, has secured £5m of private investment, primarily as a result of the confidence provided by seeing the product delivered, installed and in operation; Wernick Buildings use the building as a showcase project highlighting the benefits of offsite modular construction and the opportunities for integration for technology and control. The Active Office is also used as a platform within an Innovate UK-funded project (FRED) examining the benefits of domestic demand side response, as well as other emerging collaborations examining virtual power plant control and evolution of small-scale energy trading opportunities.

Time
Use of off-site construction significantly reduces project time – the Active Office was conceived, designed and constructed within 8 months. The condensed design period, while not preferred, encouraged swift decision-making and allowed the whole team to work closely together to develop appropriate solutions. The construction period was reduced significantly due to the use of offsite construction, which enabled the main superstructure of the building to be constructed simultaneously with the substructure works, saving at least one month of the construction programme. Further time savings were realised through the use of the building integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) roof panels. The system used on the Active Office combined the PV with the roof covering, which is quicker than using traditional solar panels which have to be added to a roof after its installation.

Whole-life Value
In terms of whole-life value, the focus for Active Buildings is on energy supply and how this can maintain a more comfortable, low-emission building over the long term. For energy supply, the building has already demonstrated how it can work in harmony with the grid - using, storing and redistributing energy. Access to smart and time-of-use tariffs will enable revenue savings or even income generation in the near future, however the value in terms of carbon emissions in operation have also been projected and proven in the short term. The Active Office is being used to test different ways of controlling energy flows to and from the building, responding to grid carbon intensity (CI) or energy prices. The vast amount of data being collected enables the building to act as a flexible platform for demonstration, testing of integration and operation of new technologies or products and services, such as the virtual power plant being developed by the FRED project.