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A SEArch For Solutions

Dr Harrall was here with the assistance of Hikurangi, Beacon, British Council, British High Commission Wellington and Jasmax. His presentation ‘Real people, real buildings, real data’ shared insights on creating high-performance, low-impact buildings, and how this data is informing policy and public awareness in the UK. His house designs, which share Passivhaus principles, produce highly liveable buildings with ultra-low energy requirements working with both retrofits and new builds.

SEArch buildings are all naturally heated, and naturally ventilated using stack ventilation and the Venturi effect. Savings made from eschewing conventional heating and cooling systems are diverted to upgrade the building envelope and ventilation and install solar panels (made affordable with significant UK government investment in renewables and feed in tariffs) to replace conventional fossil fuel heating and boilers.

Careful orientation on the site (in the case of new builds), combined with very high thermal mass and insulation have enabled these buildings to gain and retain heat passively throughout British winters. Artificial lighting during the day is virtually unnecessary, due to expansive South-facing glazing. And in summer, insulation and thermal mass also reduce internal temperatures.

SEArch Architects leads by practical example. The practise has built its own high-performing offices, as part of the SEArch designed Canebuzo (Carbon Neutral Business Zone). The Long Sutton Work/Life Project – Jeremy’s own earth sheltered home – was his original testing ground and informed his Doctoral study. It was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors’ Sustainable Building of the Year.

In 2008 SEArch also partnered with Wherry Housing Association and the ‘Greening the Box’ (GTB) initiative to upgrade a down-at-heel 1930s residential property relatively cheaply, rather than demolish and rebuild. The project had three key aims: increase the autonomy of the property in terms of energy, water and waste management, by extension make occupants less reliant on these public utilities, while reducing the building’s GHG emissions. Utilising low-tech super-insulation and passive solar heating, the retrofit created a home with better energy performance than a typical new dwelling. Without conventional heating systems, maintenance and running costs are kept very low, while internal temperatures have remained steadily above 18C° without central heating since residents moved in.

As Dr Harrall demonstrated, GTB generates its own tangible evidence of benefits, reflecting residents’ very positive feedback on their comfort levels. Data is collected hourly from sensors that measure internal and external air temperature, light, solar radiation, CO2 and humidity, in addition to meters measuring solar panel generation and electricity consumption.

The project, and others like it undertaken by SEArch, illustrate that the UK’s existing housing stock – even 80 year old properties – can have a much smaller energy footprint, without the need for expensive heating systems or cyclical demolition and then rebuilding.

Jerome Partington, Sustainability Manager and transformational change agent at Jasmax, is excited about the benefits of super insulated heavy mass walls, demonstrated at a senior school maths block in West Auckland’s Avondale College. “The buildings performed well during the 2012 winter. Only later was it realised that the heating system had not been connected to the classrooms and no heat energy had been needed during the winter to make them comfortable.”