The UK’s first energy positive office, the Active Office, was opened in June last year at Swansea University. Designed by SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre to be powered entirely by solar energy, the Active Office aims to generate more energy than it consumes over the course of a year.

The Active Office isn’t just meant to be a high performance building for its own sake, but also to demonstrate how well buildings can perform with technology available today. The building is packed full of cutting edge, commercially available technology to help generate, store and manage energy for the building.

One piece of technology provides both electricity and heat to the building; the photovoltaic thermal (PV-T) system by Naked Energy. Made up of a number of photovoltaic panels contained in vacuum sealed tubes, the system has been mounted onto the front elevation of the building and could potentially provide heat energy for the entire building through spring, summer and autumn.

More solar energy is collected through the roof which is covered in, or more accurately made up of, solar cells. The PV cells are bonded directly onto pre-painted steel to create a roofing system that can be installed using conventional methods. The Active Office features the first commercial installation of BIPVco’s technology on a curved profile, which aside from adding architectural flair, will also generate power throughout the year even in low light conditions.

The various systems are monitored by extensive metering installed throughout the building, enabling SPECIFIC to determine where energy is being generated and consumed. This is reflected in a real time display in the entrance foyer, allowing occupants and visitors to find out how the building is performing.

However, the building can’t reach its energy positive target if all the energy it generates is wasted. “We took a fabric-first approach to reducing energy consumption,” commented Joanna Clark, Building Integration Manager with SPECIFIC and Architect for the Active Office.

The Active Office was designed and conceived by SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre and funded by Innovate UK with support from Swansea University and the European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government.

It was manufactured offsite by Wernick Buildings, in their factory in nearby Port Talbot. SPECIFIC knew that modular construction could deliver the levels of performance they needed against a challenging programme and budget.

Months later, the choice of modular is being borne out by data. On current performance, SPECIFIC predict an annual consumption of approximately 20MWh versus an annual generation of 24MWh.

The future looks bright for this new type of solar-powered building design. In September, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond annouced funding for the Active Building Centre through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and UKRI. The new independent national centre will seek to remove barriers and accelerate market adoption of new Active Buildings.

It seems likely that modular construction will play an important part in progress towards a low carbon future.

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The demand for new school places and the crumbling state of primary and secondary schools is a pressing issue for Local Councils all over the UK. The situation, however, is starting to improve thanks to Government funding – in 2017 a pot of £2.4 billion was allocated for their improvement and maintenance.

Presuming that funding is in place, Councils still face a number of challenges before building can take place. For example, focus on the environment and growing energy costs mean that Councils are under more pressure than ever to deliver low energy, efficient spaces – all while sticking to budget. Safety of pupils and minimising disruption during term time of course remain pressing issues.

This need to focus on myriad issues, including the small task of ensuring the future sustainability of schools in their area, means that Councils are uniquely placed to take advantage of modern methods of construction.

Modular schools, delivered to site in segments over 2 or 3 days, such as those manufactured and installed by Wernick, are helping to solve many of the challenges presented by the education sector. And new frameworks are revolutionising the school building procurement process.

Wernick Buildings’ Divisional Manager for Scotland Chris Hart says that there is a “felicitous synergy between the education sector and modular construction”. Last year, the Wernick Scottish division experienced its busiest summer to date, tripling its turnover. Summer 2019 is expected to be even busier following the Scottish Government’s announcement of a £1 billion fund for rebuilding and refurbishing Scotland’s schools in November 2018.

Edinburgh, Inverness and Highlands Councils took receipt of ten new modular buildings from Wernick last summer. Installation, fit out and inspection took place over the summer vacation and the buildings were ready for pupils upon returning to school.

Ben Wernick, Director of Construction at Wernick explains “Modular building projects can be completed up to 50% quicker than traditional construction methods as the indoor ‘offsite’ construction process can take place alongside site and foundations work which also means very little delay due to the weather. Finishing buildings over the summer holidays means no disruption to teaching and no risk to pupils.”

More and more schools are switching on to the speed of factory manufactured buildings, but what about the aesthetic? The characterless demountables of the past have given way to digitally-led, modern designs, indistinguishable from ‘on-site’ constructed buildings and lauded by architectural firms such as ÜberRaum and Glancy Nicholls.

“The preconceptions are there but the reality is that when people walk into a modern modular building that Wernick has made, they realise this is a big step up from what they’re used to” commented Chris Hart, who has found that old feelings towards modular buildings die hard: “I’ve heard of teaching staff trying their best to avoid moving into the new building. Once the building has been handed over, they are trying to get in there first! They’re warmer, cleaner, bright and airy. From a teaching perspective, it’s a considerable improvement on a lot of the accommodation the teachers are currently working in.”

Constructing buildings offsite, in a controlled environment, means that a building can be made water-tight and weather resistant with quality controls ongoing throughout the build. Modern modular buildings are simple to maintain, are well insulated and achieve high EPC ratings – and green technologies can be easily incorporated into the design to further support their eco credentials.

Chris Hart says that the feedback on Wernick’s projects has been overwhelmingly positive, adding: “Using factory construction, we can build faster, to higher standards, and at any time of the year. There are also environmental benefits with reduced waste and less emissions. In modular construction we can really meet a lot of the requirements in the education sector – that’s why we think it’s a perfect match.”

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Architecturally designed and built completely to spec, the new three-storey building on the University of Birmingham’s Edgbaston Campus is full of unique features.

New office space was required to accommodate University academics: overall growth and construction work elsewhere on campus meant that staff were temporarily displaced. Planning permission was granted for a new office block, but only for 3 and a half years.

Not Just a Temporary Solution

The brief: the building needed to be temporary but not feel temporary, and it needed to be spacious, contemporary and light. Time was of the essence, but without compromise on finish.
Of the three companies asked to tender by the University, Wernick Buildings were selecting as the preferred tenderer based on a combination of cost, quality and programme A Wernick Buildings’ modular system allowed the architects to customise the internal and external finishes while maintaining the budget and schedule.

A wide range of features were specified from the outset: from architectural features such as the large sections of glazing, feature banding and projecting window surrounds, down to the finishing touches of skirtings, window frames and doors. The resulting space is befitting to its prestigious surroundings and listed neighbouring buildings.

Modular Installation and Feedback

After just six weeks in the factory, the 36 modules were loaded and ready for the trip from South Wales to Birmingham. The February installation was on schedule: even after allowing for some of the worst snow this country has seen for some time! Crane trucks manoeuvred the modules through mature trees on the site – giving the final impression that the building had always been there.

Kevin O’Flaherty, Senior Project Manager at University of Birmingham is responsible for a portion of the University’s ambitious capital programme, from the inception to getting the keys. Kevin, alongside the architects, worked very closely with the team at Wernick Buildings saying that he was in touch almost every day as decisions had to be made so quickly. Kevin found the Wernick team to be “highly professional and always wanting to do the best job”.

Kevin remarked: “I often hear “it doesn’t feel like a modular building” – the extra touches have really made the space and feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive from both staff and planning.”

Due to the nature of the modular system used, the University can choose to move the building: either keeping the current configuration or changing it completely. The modules are built to be stacked up to four-storeys high or reduced down to one-storey. Kevin, however, feels the building sits very comfortably in its existing setting.

Architectural Touches

Glancy Nicholls Architects Ltd, based in Birmingham and London, is a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Chartered Practice and was started in 2004. Wernick worked with the firm previously, also at the University of Birmingham. Wernick helped GNA to deliver a low impact building for researchers studying the surrounding woodlands. Read more about the BIFoR scheme here.

GNA architectural assistant Aiden Astle, who worked on the new office building, is excited about both projects’ potential to “challenge the misconception of modular buildings”. The office building, he added, is further proof of modular’s capabilities: “This project demonstrates that a limited time-frame doesn’t need to infringe on quality. This project has proven the flexibility of this method of construction and the results speak for themselves.”

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