On Site with Sykes

Lockdown may have recently ended, but a lot is happening under the covers, and innovators are coming up with great ideas to meet the Government’s net-zero goals. The Climate Change Committee’s ambition is to have 5.5 million heat pumps, recognise hydrogen and decarbonise heat. Here are a few tasters of exciting developments and thoughts.


Christopher Sykes

is an Architect who trained at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London. After he qualified, he worked in both London and Sweden. Having widened his writing and journalistic skills, he subsequently started his own publishing company specialising in building magazines and events. As a hobby, he used to write sitcom for the BBC.


“What’s the best way to save energy?” a child might ask. “Keep the front door and windows closed,” might be the obvious answer. “What about the chimney?” comes the smart reply.

So, it was at an exhibition a few years ago that we saw the first appearance of this upturned solution – the popular chimella. Interesting how this simple solution is diametrically opposed to the many energy-saving innovations and research solutions which suddenly pop up these days and drive the task forward.

A good example is the team that designed and built two low-carbon buildings at Swansea University which generate their own energy. They have been proven to work at the university’s Bay Campus – which have been in operation for over two years. Both can generate and store enough solar energy to meet their own needs, with enough left over to charge up electric vehicles or share with other buildings. Now, a toolkit of the design principles that they used has been published. The aim is to encourage others to construct these ‘active buildings’, which would drastically cut the UK’s carbon footprint – currently, 40% of emissions which come from heating and powering our buildings.

Competing for the future

The recent Home of 2030 competition encouraged the best and brightest talents to design environmentally-friendly homes that support people in leading independent, fulfilling lives as our society ages. The reforms include our commitment to making tree-lined streets the norm and an ambition that new ‘zero-carbon-ready’ homes delivered under the new system will not require any future retrofitting.

Among the six finalists are some well-known architects and design thinkers. +Home designed by igloo Regeneration with Useful Projects, Expedition Engineers and Mawson Kerr and Connector Housing designed by Openstudio with Hoare Lea, LDA Design and Gardiner & Theobald are the joint winners of the competition.

The +Home scheme proposes community-led self-build homes that people can design themselves. Simple to build with affordable frames and components, the houses would be climate-friendly and recyclable at the end of their use.

Connector Housing is a flexible and adaptable system for age-friendly, multi-generational housing and neighbourhoods. It proposes varying densities of houses and apartments, with a variety of site configurations, vertical heights, external appearances and internal layouts that can be adapted to respond to changing occupant needs.

The winners and other shortlisted teams will now be invited to meet Homes England’s development partners to discuss their ideas further.

Also worth noting are the Schüco Excellence Awards 2020, which include a sustainability award. This year, it is the library and study centre at St John’s College Oxford, designed by architect firm Wright & Wright. This targets net-zero carbon in a challenging Grade I Listed setting and features Schüco windows and rooflights.

The Energy Saving Trust

The Energy Saving Trust says home energy technologies are developing all the time. Companies come up with new technologies or features for existing technologies or just new ways to use the systems we already have. Further evidence is emerging on how well systems work, when they make sense and when they do not.

For example, EcoLogic Studio has invented an algae-based ‘cladding’ system, called PhotoSynthetica, to enable buildings to breathe. Large panels (16.2 x 7m) are attached to new or old buildings. They ‘suck in’ unfiltered and polluted air from the street which rises up through the panels. The algae capture the CO2 and other pollutants and release photosynthesised oxygen back into the street or the building interior. The ever-growing algae are later harvested to produce fertilisers, bioplastics, cosmetics and more. The company claims that 2m2 of PhotoSynthetica panels can absorb as much CO2 as a mature tree.

John Goodenough was the Co-Inventor of the lithium-ion battery. As a reaction to winning a Nobel Prize for chemistry, he is said to have helped create a lithium-glass battery that has twice the energy density of lithium-ion batteries and whose capacity increases with age. It claims to operate at lower temperatures, a shorter charging time (minutes not hours) and lower costs, safer (non-flammable) and store more energy the older it gets. The year 2022 is pencilled in for the launch of what could be an industry-changing invention.

Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst claim to have developed a device that creates electricity from moisture in the air, indoors or outdoors. It works by absorbing water vapour in the atmosphere, which interacts with protein nanowires to create an electrical current. Smartwatches have been successfully powered, with mobile phones and larger-scale items next. There is the potential to eliminate the production and charging of billions of batteries. Wall paint that powers your home is in the pipeline too.

Fraser Brown MacKenna Architects have the approval to build the UK’s first micro-homes made from shipping containers. The first set of seven, single-storey houses designed for single occupancy will be built in Aylesbury. It’s thought many areas will soon copy what is a low-cost housing solution designed to suit small and underused urban spaces. High-performance insulation to walls, roof and floor along with low-energy double-glazing means tenants will have low heating bills and emissions will be minimised.

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