New research to improve well-being of building occupants

A new programme of research being led by the University and involving 16 other partners from across Europe will develop materials and technologies to improve occupant well-being in modern low carbon buildings.

Modern buildings have been developed to be very airtight, improving their energy efficiency and reducing their carbon footprint.

However, these sealed environments have created unexpected side effects, with research showing that a build-up of potentially harmful chemicals in the air is potentially causing negative impacts on well-being of the occupants.

The ‘Eco-See’ project, which has received €6.55m funding from the European Union’s Framework 7 Programme for a four year period, studies the use of innovative eco-building materials that will combat poor indoor environmental quality, while also radically improving the energy efficiency of buildings.

Leading the project, Professor Pete Walker from our Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, said: “Poor indoor environmental quality in buildings can lead to poor occupant well-being, including loss of productivity and concentration, and in some cases contribute to the development of asthma.

“The European Union aims to ensure that all new buildings will be zero carbon. However, we need to find ways of achieving this without negatively impacting on occupant well-being.”

The research project will look at ways to combat the build-up of Volatile Organic Compounds (‘VOCs’), which can be harmful to building occupants if they build-up at higher concentrations. VOCs can be both artificial and naturally occurring, and are released into the air from many different sources including cleaning products, furniture, adhesives, carpets and paints.

Daniel Maskell, project Research Officer here at the University, said: “Historically the natural ventilation caused by leaky windows or loose fitting doors kept VOCs in a building to much lower levels. In modern buildings, which have been designed to reduce the exchange of fresh air and subsequent loss of heat, this does not happen.

“Our research will look at the use of bio-based insulation materials, like sheep’s wool and hemp, some of which have been proven to draw VOCs out of the air and store them. However, we are faced by a lot of questions - for example we don’t yet know what quantity of these materials is required, how long they will absorb VOCs for, and whether the absorption/adsorption process has negative impacts.

Through the project the researchers will develop highly insulated wall panels treated using novel chemical processes to enhance the capacity of building materials to capture VOCs. The team will also develop highly novel photocatalytic coatings using nanoparticle technology, which will decompose potentially harmful chemicals when exposed to sunlight, preventing them from being re-released into the air.

The objective of the project is to deliver products with at least 15 per cent lower embodied energy than traditional construction materials, with at least 20 per cent longer expected lifespan, and for at least 20 per cent lower build costs. By making better products at a lower price the research group can create a cost effective solution with the potential for real market impact.

The research consortium brings together a multidisciplinary team of world-class researchers from universities (Aveiro (Portugal), Bangor (UK), IIT Delhi (India)) and research organisations (Building Research Establishment (BRE) (UK), Fraunhofer IBP (Germany), Tecnalia (Spain), Wood Technology Institute (Poland)) with a number of large enterprises (Acciona (Spain), BCB (France), Environment Park (Italy), Kronospan (UK) and Skanska Group (UK)) and innovative SMEs (Black Mountain Insulation (UK), Claytec (Germany), Greenovate Europe (Belgium), Nesocell (Italy)), whose combined expertise and capacity will lead to commercial development and exploitation of the products developed. The project recently held its initial consortium meeting at the University of Bath.

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