Active buildings

Can buildings generate, store and release their own heat and electricity from solar energy? Yes, but how it can be done still needs research, evidence and more work

SPECIFIC is a UK Innovation and Knowledge Centre (IKC), accredited by UKRI, leading in energy technology research and full-scale demonstration.

The centre is funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (UKRI).

According to their website, SPECIFIC’s vision is “a world in which ‘Active Buildings’ can generate, store and release their own heat and electricity from solar energy.” To deliver this, they research, prove and promote early commercialization of building-integrated technologies that can capture energy from the sun and store it in a building until it is needed. The team are also investigating the role for these buildings in our national energy and transport systems.

Joanna Clarke, Design Manager and Architect of the Active Classroom and Office at says:

“We believe the Active Building design concept will ease pressures on the existing electricity grid networks. This is possible by controlling the import and export of energy to and from buildings by using the energy storage vessels as buffers and by developing control strategies that enable time shift of energy demand.”

But what exactly are Active Buildings?

An Active Building is described as “a building that supports the wider grid network by intelligently integrating renewable energy technologies for heat, power and transport.” It also has six core principles:

  1. Building fabric and passive design – integrated engineering and architecture design approach including consideration of orientation and massing, fabric efficiency, natural daylight and natural ventilation.  Designed for occupant comfort and low energy by following passive design principles.
  2. Energy efficient systems with performance monitoring – intelligently controlled & energy efficient systems to minimise loads – HVAC, lighting, vertical transportation. Data capture via inbuilt monitoring to enable performance validation, optimisation and refinement of predictive control strategies, including dissemination of performance data to building occupants.
  3. On-site renewable energy generation – renewable energy generation to be incorporated where appropriate. Renewable technologies should be selected holistically, given site conditions and building load profiles combining, where applicable both photovoltaic and solar thermal technologies.
  4. Energy storage – thermal and electrical storage should be considered to mitigate peak demand, reduce the requirement to oversize systems, and enable greater control, with a view to supporting the local infrastructure through time shifting of demand and controlled export; and enabling flexible control to enable virtual power plant integration.
  5. Electric vehicle integration – where appropriate Active Buildings integrate electric vehicle charging. Combined Charge Systems (CCS) with local control and the option of either virtual power plant (VPP) aggregated control or frequency response should be considered. As technology develops, bi-directional charging will allow electric vehicles to deliver energy to buildings as required, participate in demand side response and work with the wider building control systems.
  6. Intelligently manage integration with micro-grids & national energy network – in addition to intelligent controls, Active Buildings manage their interaction with wider energy networks, e.g. demand side response, load shifting & predictive control methods, aiming to minimise uncontrolled import or export of energy by effectively utilising the storage assets.

A single Active Building combines a range of integrated renewable energy technologies, which work together in one system to generate, store and release heat and electricity.

Regarding how Active Buildings can benefit society, Joanna says:

“Overall society benefits from reduced carbon emissions and the potential avoidance of costly and disruptive grid upgrades.”

The property sector in Wales, and across the UK has the opportunity to be early adopters of this construction model, becoming trailblazers in the collective mission to achieve net zero-carbon targets, and to substantially contribute to a more sustainable society.