Written evidence submitted by Active Building Centre (DHH0099)


From the Active Building Centre (ABC), a UK national centre developing modern methods of design, manufacturing and deployment for flexible renewable energy systems in buildings and communities. ABC leads on the integration of energy technologies, to optimise the renewable / low-carbon energy a building can capture, manage, store and use efficiently for day-to-day, week-to-week, season-to-season uses; including the integration of EV technology where appropriate.

Given the UK’s commitment to move to a net zero world, free of fossil fuels, the potential of each and every technology that can capture and store renewable energy should be explored, developed and as we learn more about their capabilities, many should be supported to maximise their deployment and export potential.

At the Active Building Centre this means exploring a range technologies that capture energy from varied sources and in various manners. This means:

These features are described in the six principles of Active Buildings at the end of this submission.

The initial concept and programme of work of ABC is focused on developing and deploying the Active approach on new buildings of all typologies, both domestic and non-domestic; with an Active Office, Classroom, Industrial Building and Active Homes already built and operational.  These and other projects in the market with ABC partners will provide a growing portfolio of data, which in turn will enhance the knowledge base of how all buildings are designed, how they deploy and integrate energy and digital technologies, to give a much higher building performance for their users, be that as a home, office or service providing setting.

Our programmes of work in research, design, development and commercialisation will, inter alia, explore solutions to the challenge of decarbonising heat, initially through our founding UKI grant and then beyond as we develop as an RTOFurther information on our programme is here – www.activebuildingcentre.com.

In advance of that there are already lessons from the existing demonstrators, and the development of the Active Building principles that are relevant to your questions, as follows.



Our response to the BEIS Inquiry: 

1.       What has been the impact of past and current policies for low carbon heat, and what lessons can be learnt, including examples from devolved administrations and international comparators?

There are a number of functioning Active Building Demonstrators already in use, not least the Active Office and Classroom at Swansea University, the industrial ‘Shed’ and the soon to be occupied Active Homes in Neath.  All of them demonstrate how design, siting, high fabric standards, coupled with an appropriate deployment of energy technologies, for harvesting, control or storage, can deliver buildings that are significantly lower cost to run, and that are almost universally renewably heated (noting an allowance has to be made for the carbon intensity of any grid electricity imported).  Such approaches show we can decarbonise heat to a high degree.

The role of the Active Building Centre and wider ecosystem of Active advocates is to ensure these approaches are further developed and that the learning becomes a mainstream approach to decarbonising both construction/new build, and suitably refined to be an upgrade approach to existing stock of homes and all other building types.

Further information on the capabilities and potential of Active Buildings can be found in these two recent papers from the ABC academic research programme:

Active-Building-Centre-Research-Programme-White-Paper-The-role-of-active-buildings-in-the-transition-to-a-net-zero-energy-system.pdf (abc-rp.com)

Active-Building-Centre-Research-Programme-White-Paper-Can-you-make-money-from-active-buildings.pdf (abc-rp.com)


2.       What key policies, priorities and timelines should be included in the Government’s forthcoming ‘Buildings and Heat Strategy’ to ensure that the UK is on track to deliver Net Zero? What are the most urgent decisions and actions that need to be taken over the course of this Parliament (by 2024)?

The government has to manage a balancing act between some choice editing so that those options that are contingent, or that are regionally particular (say hydrogen clusters), are clearer to all those actors who have a role outside of the energy system, i.e. construction, retrofit & upgrade, planners; while also prompting sufficient innovation and productivity gains that are yet to emerge.

As one example, DfT recently consulted on changing building regulations to mandate the installation of charge points to support home charging and wider EV roll out.  However, such technologies and their wider use, and integration, in homes and buildings is novel and relatively untested, with both passive and active approaches being developed and refined.  (Passive being power one way from building energy system to an EV, active reflecting Vehicle to Grid, two way flows, which mean the vehicle battery can support the building and local grid’s energy management as much as power the EV). 

To mandate a type of charging infrastructure risks repeating the problems of the first phase of smart meters, where SMETS1 meters proved incompatible with a change of supplier.



Equally, hydrogen may well be a useful energy vector for many by 2050, yet between now and ~ 2035 there are some parts of the country that can and will be early movers in hydrogen deployment, and others that will not.  The government’s strategy should endeavour to provide some clarify on this for all actors that can affect heat decarbonisation.

This suggests that standard- based approaches, focused on performance and capability should be the main focus of the strategy, offering a technology agnostic platform on which different approaches can be tested and improved. Any support mechanisms need to recognise and foster differently technologies at different stages of development, as a variety of successful approaches will be better able to cope with a wider range of UK conditions, as well as offer greater export potential.

As we have noted, while standards are important; our experience highlighted the importance of standards based on the right metrics.  While EPCs are useful we also appreciate there are flaws in its underlying calculation methodology, and we note recent publications by the SAP IF working group. For example, with the recent consultation on Building regulations Part L in mind, we proposed that Part L should be designed to ensure all homes are designed to a “future-proofed” performance-based target (based on energy demand by area per annum, i.e. KWh/m2/y) achieved through adopting the following principles:

i) An efficient building fabric & optimized passive design to reduce operational energy

ii) Regulated loads minimized using energy efficient services and low carbon heat

iii) Where practicably building loads met using onsite renewable generation & storage

iv) Energy storage also be considered so as to mitigate peak demand, reduce the requirement to oversize systems, and enable greater control, enabling low carbon energy consumption (for example, thermal stores with low output heat pumps, maximisation of low carbon energy generation, reducing grid stress and carbon intensity through arbitration).

We also would highlight the need to facilitate the potential for innovation, given the relatively early stages of deployment of many low or no carbon heat technologies, so any regulation, not least Part L, with the Future Homes Standard to come, should avoid disadvantaging existing or emerging technologies and passing unnecessary costs onto consumers and protecting future generations. Homes should be designed to be equipped (if applicable) with the above and:

i) Suitable energy infrastructure that allows import and export (i.e. two-way flow) of energy.

ii) Control systems that allow market functions to be deployed to the benefit of the home user/owner (e.g. arbitrage, aggregation, variable tariff contracts etc.) as well as multi vector energy control to optimise direction of energy flow, including quality metering/monitoring/ comms functions.

iii) Further consultation with Ofgem and others to assess the wider energy system benefits of activated buildings to ensure the UK decarbonises to deliver a net zero economy at the lowest cost consumers; enabling competition and innovation which drive down prices and result in new products and services for heat and reduce CO2 emissions.



3.       Which technologies are the most viable to deliver the decarbonisation of heating, and what would be the most appropriate mix of technologies across the UK?

If we accept the answer includes a variety of technology and fabric approaches reflecting local conditions and historic building stock then a standards- and performance-based approach will help resolve this appropriately for each part of the geography of the UK. The most appropriate mix will then be those technologies that work well in each setting.

We would expect this to include technologies that play a part in fulfilling each of the six principles of Active Buildings, i.e. fabric, controls, harvesting, storage and integration with EVs and the local grid. We can expect a greater variety of heat and related technologies than is currently the case. Clearly these are led by approaches that reduce demand, followed by those offering supply close to the point of use.

It is also worth noting that in many cases the optimum heat or energy solution will not be derived by a simple heat calculation – the Active Building Demonstrators integrate their energy technologies to give an optimum supply of warmth, of hot water, of electrical power for multiple uses including charging EVs – they can balance within thermal supply and demand, within electrical supply and demand AND between thermal and electrical – such benefits would not be realised through a heat only lens, or worse a ‘replace a boiler with a. n. other piece of kit in isolation’ based approach – this has implications for skills as much as for packages of technology.

Our experience indicates that heat pumps are an effective heat technology that can meet the heat and hot water needs of any building, assuming they are suitably sized, installed, and integrated as with any technology.  That said they are, for many people, still novel technologies so government interventions should focus on how to make them mainstream. 

We would note that heat pumps should generally be considered as part of a range of measures to improve building energy performance, rather than in isolation.  Any holistic view will provide a better performance for a given cost; and offer more flexible solutions to suit the great variety of building designs and location settings in which heat pumps will be deployed. 

As modelling studies by Imperial, a partner institution, are showing, heat storage will be a key element of the future energy system so we will also examine thermal storage technologies, for example the Sunamp heat battery storing heat through phase change material. 

We will be testing, developing and deploying many of the technologies that can already address the energy transition, for example how can the CoP of Heat Pumps be improved to 5, 8 10 or beyond; and will publish our results on performance and integration over the coming years.


4.       What are the barriers to scaling up low carbon heating technologies? What is needed to overcome these barriers?

In many respects the barriers stem from a non-systemic view of heat and warmth, an approach that allows new buildings to be less efficient than they can be, or undervalues building performance in the mainstream.  This is reinforced by measures such as ECO, which place this inefficiency burden on the energy sector, rather than provide a driver for high performance buildings from the construction sector.  In turn ECO and its predecessors have tended to take an incremental approach, rather than a whole building or whole area approach.



Some of this could be addressed by the imminent Part L revisions to building regulations, and the soon to follow Future Home Standard – both sh/could ensure no further new builds that will require retrofit. 

If the imminent Ofgem RIIO-2ED determination does expect Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) to ensure their business plans are based on area energy planning then there will be scope to deploy systemic responses to the energy and decarbonisation needs of groups and areas of buildings. This should offer greater potential for integrated and optimal solutions area by area, as it will force a consideration of alternative heating fuels within a wider consideration of future electricity supply and demand.  This could support a technology agnostic approach if standards emphasis performance, allowing hydrogen heating to come to the fore where local conditions and efforts support it, with electrification where that is more locally appropriate, and hydrogen less so.

Mainstreaming heat pumps and associated renewable heat technologies should include standards that pull demand towards heat pumps and other renewable heat technologies over gas boilers, which the promised Future Homes Standard could help secure.  Standards should also be considered for those trades involved in installing and maintaining such equipment, building on the requirement of the Green Homes Grants that providers are registered for the Trustmark scheme.

If standards help set the scene for what is required, there is also work needed to change expectations, both of owners and users of homes and building.  Some of that comes in supporting, promoting and disseminating the experience of Innovators and Early Adopters of heat pumps, and related technologies.  This could mean a more obvious presence of heat pumps in the many building design and refurbish programmes on mainstream TV channels, e.g. those hosted by George Clarke, Kevin McCloud, Phil & Kirsty, among others.

The Diffusion of Innovation theory suggests that mass mainstreaming is then more likely to come from word of mouth and person to person engagement, if my friends and neighbours think they work I’m more likely to go with their view, than one marketed at me.  This could suggest place-based targeted deployment with local influencers.

As ABC works to describe, categorise and test technology combinations that capture, manage, store and deploy energy we expect further useful narratives, that engage people in wanting to have a heat pump, to emerge.  One clear opportunity lies in enhancing the performance and value of heat pumps compared to gas boilers, another in tying together having an EV and a heat pump, as the future of home energy.

Measures that support mass deployment will help reduce unit costs over time, as well as improve the availably and skill of installers and maintainers.  On the latter point we are already engaged with one FE college in Upgrading one of their sites to be Active, with a view to developing skills and training opportunities that support the array of Active technologies.  One consideration going forward will be how to ensure installers and maintainers have the skills to think about the building or home energy system as a whole, rather than be involved in either the gas or electricity system, or worse only one technology within the range of those installed.

A further element that should improve mass deployment is the on-going improvement in performance of Heat Pumps.  One of our objectives is to raise the bar on the Coefficient of Performance (COP) of heat pumps (as highligted above) to make them even more attractive as heat supply devices.  We will be exploring a range of other improvement strategies.



We expect hybrid heat pumps and non-fossil fuel gas (i.e. hydrogen, bio-methane and blends) to be part of the UK heat solution, even if they are initially (before 2035) deployed regionally. We will, therefore, be exploring how hydrogen-based technologies can be best integrated into an Active Building setting, be that to support hydrogen-fuelled vehicles, deploying fuel cells as a source of home space and water heating, and how, or whether, hydrogen storage should be deployed (or should devices be scaled to support hydrogen for instant use).


5.       How can the costs of decarbonising heat be distributed fairly across consumers, taxpayers, business and government, taking account of the fuel poor and communities affected by the transition? What is the impact of the existing distribution of environmental levies across electricity, gas and fuel bills on drivers for switching to low carbon heating, and should this distribution be reviewed?

As we have noted above a systemic view of the challenge would suggest a greater contribution to the challenge from the construction sector – and while that might seem initially like greater costs, the benefits of Modern Methods of Construction (in this case MMC of the energy system solutions themselves) as well as deploying the Active approach should both lead to productivity gains, and new revenue streams into the construction sector.

We would also note that a suitable deployment of Active technologies, targeting the fuel poor and/or the elderly (those entitled to winter fuel allowances) could provide both with energy self-sufficiency or even energy wealth.  Those subsidy /top-up payments that each group currently receive could be redeployed as investment streams for upgrading the homes of these groups of people.


6.       What incentives and regulatory measures should be employed to encourage and ensure households take up low carbon heat, and how will these need to vary for different household types?

There should at least be a level playing field for Active technologies, one that values and rewards their ability to reduce and manage demand, in turn saving significant capital costs of additional reinforcement or supply in excess of optimum demand (i.e. oversized because demand hasn’t been managed or optimised).  This would see a much better return to ‘pro-sumers’ than is currently in place.


7.       What action is required to ensure that households are engaged, informed, supported and protected during the transition to low carbon heat, including measures to minimise disruption in homes and to maintain consumer choice?

This is potentially the most important element of the process of transition, and potentially the area getting least attention. Others are better placed to deliver granular responses on this at this stage of our programme.




8.       Where should responsibility lie for the governance, coordination and delivery of low carbon heating? What will these organisations need in order to deliver such responsibilities?

Our experience suggests that much of this delivery has to be overseen and managed locally, to make the most of local area planning, local intelligence on building stock and tenure, and to optimise appropriate local solutions – even if there is also a regional or sub-national coordinating mechanism.


In addition to our responses (above) the following links will take you to additional evidence on the form, function and potential of Active Buildings





Further detail on the technologies we are already testing on the Active Classroom and Active Office Demonstrators can be found here - https://www.specific.eu.com/assets/downloads/casestudy/Active_Office_Case_Study.pdf


Active Building General Principles 



Building fabric and passive design – integrated engineering and architectural design approach including consideration of orientation and massing, fabric efficiency, natural day-lighting and natural ventilation.  Designed for occupant comfort and low energy by following passive design principles



Energy efficient systems - intelligently controlled & energy efficient systems to minimise loads - HVAC, lighting, vertical transportation. Data capture via inbuilt monitoring & standard naming schemas to enable optimisation and refinement of predictive control strategies



On-site renewable energy generation - renewable energy generation be incorporated where appropriate. Renewable technologies should be selected holistically, given site conditions and building load profiles




Energy storage - thermal and electrical storage should be considered to mitigate peak demand, reduce the requirement to oversize systems, and enable greater control




Electric vehicle integration - where appropriate Active Buildings integrate electric vehicle charging. As technology develops, bi-directional charging will allow electric vehicles to deliver energy to buildings as required




Intelligently manage integration with micro-grids & national energy network – in addition to intelligent control of building systems, Active Buildings manage their interaction with wider energy networks, e.g. demand side response, load shifting & predictive control methods


December 2020