A research project led jointly by the University of Bath and Cardiff University will work with communities in Bristol and Swansea to co-design energy efficient and low carbon housing fit for the future, thanks to a £4.6 million award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
Researchers from across the GW4 Alliance of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter universities will work with industry, community groups and local authorities to transform existing housing into ‘Beyond Net Zero’ liveable homes, as part of UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Green Transition Ecosystem.
The housing sector is responsible for around 20% of the country's total carbon emissions and with 80% of the homes that will be occupied in 2050 already built, retrofitting the country's existing housing stock to improve energy efficiency, and reduce carbon emissions, is critical to achieving the UK's Net-Zero targets.
The team will design, test, implement and monitor innovative prototype bio-based lower carbon solutions to improve the energy efficiency and resilience of housing, and evaluate their performance compared to traditional synthetic materials. The goal is to create scalable and transferable designs and solutions to retrofit a greater number of houses and different house types.
The project will also demonstrate bio-based solutions across a small number of traditional brick-built houses in Bristol and Swansea, constructed by councils between 1920-1940. These account for approximately 1.1 million of the homes occupied in the UK today and are generally viewed as one of the more challenging styles of houses to retrofit.
Professor Pete Walker at the University of Bath, and project lead, said: “It is not enough to simply implement design solutions, we need to create comfortable liveable homes that are resilient to climate change and will withstand future weather events. Our design process will embed community participation at its centre by creating spaces for co-developing knowledge, sharing experiences, and reshaping designs for Beyond Net Zero homes.
“Our innovative solutions will use bio-based and non-extractive materials together with renewable energy supply and storage. We will explore the impact of these materials not only on achieving Net Zero design but also the potential impact on residents' comfort and wellbeing.”
Professor Jo Patterson at Cardiff University added: “This project evolved from a GW4 research community, and would not have been possible without the support of the GW4 Alliance. I am excited to be part of a team that will expand on that research, working with colleagues across the alliance and alongside new regional partners to transform existing housing by working with, and for, communities.”
Minister for Energy Efficiency and Green Finance Lord Callanan said: “Today’s £4.6 million funds – backed with Government funding – will be a key contribution towards helping cut emissions and making homes more energy efficient.
“By testing different renewable resources to help keep homes warm and save households money on their energy bills, this project will further support our ambition to cut energy demand by 15% by 2030. And by working closely with communities, the project will also help ensure that local views and experiences are front and centre in our transition to a cleaner, more secure energy system.”
The UK Government is investing billions to improve the energy efficiency of homes across the country, including through measures such as insulation.
However retrofitting is also a significant design challenge. Poorly executed retrofit measures can lead to problems with damp and mold, and poor design can cause damage to building fabric and cultural heritage.
Current retrofitting approaches rely heavily on synthetic and non-renewable materials, such as plastics and foam insulation, which can have negative environmental impacts. In some cases, the embodied carbon emissions of retrofitting measures can even exceed the carbon savings from reduced energy use.
Bio-based materials are derived from renewable resources, such as crops, fungus mycelium, cork and wood, and have the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions and environmental impact. As well as environmental benefits, bio-based products and systems offer energy efficient, healthy, and sustainable improvements to existing homes.
This project builds on the work of the GW4-funded collaborative research and innovation community, the Circular Economy of Timber Buildings. The community ran workshops strengthening collaborations between GW4 researchers and initiated collaborations with external partners and key stakeholders.
The interdisciplinary nature of this project brings together expertise from architecture, engineering, social sciences, and sustainability and will work with a range of partners; Woodknowledge Wales, The Alliance for Sustainable Building Products, Mikhail Riches Architect, timber frame manufactures Sevenoaks Modular Limited, Swansea Council and WeCanMake, a community land trust based in Bristol.
Melissa Mean, Director of WeCanMake, said: “We are excited to bring our community-led approach to this project to create healthier homes in Knowle West, and we look forward to working with local people to seed a greener future through innovative retrofit methods.”
Richard Broad, Associate Director at The Alliance for Sustainable Building Products, said: “The UK faces an enormous retrofit challenge. The Beyond Net Zero project will further demonstrate the major role bio-based materials have to play in not only rapidly improving the energy efficiency of our existing housing stock but enabling comfortable and healthy homes with low embodied carbon.”
Gary Newman, Chief Executive at Woodknowledge Wales, said: “Making the best use of the timber we grow in Wales, by transforming it into products such as high-performance timber frame systems and woodfibre insulation, will significantly help decarbonise our built environment. This project doesn’t come too early to develop solutions specific for the retrofit market and to create the relationships across the construction supply chain to implement them.”
Charlotte Hale, Operations Director at Sevenoaks Modular, said: "Sevenoaks Modular are thrilled and excited to join forces with leading academics in the GW4 Alliance as we embark on our journey to develop a game-changing offsite construction solution. Together, we'll push the boundaries of innovation and sustainability, leaving a lasting positive impact on the construction industry and the environment.”
Green Transition Ecosystems (GTEs) are large-scale projects that focus on translating the best design-led research into real-world benefits. Capitalising on clusters of design excellence, GTEs will address distinct challenges posed by the climate crisis including, but not limited to, realising net zero goals.
GTEs are the flagship funding strand of the £25 million Future Observatory: Design the Green Transition programme, the largest publicly funded design research and innovation programme in the UK. Funded by AHRC with support from the UK Government and in partnership with Future Observatory at the Design Museum, this multimodal investment aims to bring design researchers, universities, and businesses together to catalyse the transition to net zero and a green economy.
Dr Allan Sudlow, Directors of Partnerships and Engagement at Arts and Humanities Research Council added: “Design innovation is crucial to the mission of decarbonising our economy and society by 2050, and it is via exceptional design thinking that we can bring human, social and scientific research and innovation together to achieve this.”
The project will run for 24 months and aims to deliver a green transformation, fostering a legacy of positive behaviour change, supporting local and regional supply chains, and strengthening local delivery capacities.
The project team will communicate their research findings through educational and wider community engagement, in partnership with the Future Observatory, and will develop and deliver training to reduce the design skills gap in retrofitting.