The role of innovation in balancing energy efficiency and comfort

Richard Kemp-Harper, CCO of Airex, says we need to think about Building Regs in a different way.

If Albert Einstein was a Retrofit Coordinator he would have a thing or two to say about the UK’s poorly insulated, damp, inefficiently heated homes and the route to making them fit for human habitation, never mind Net Zero. And what he would probably say is “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Net Zero is a different paradigm to the background of the Industrial Revolution and post-war booms that have driven the building of much of the UK’s legacy housing stock. The history of building design has been led by the way we have heated our homes, from the hearth and chimney to the oil-fired range to the gas boiler. Retrofitting low-carbon heat into buildings designed for a completely different energy source cannot be done using the thinking we have used in the past.

We know the challenges well. Upgrading the fabric of the legacy housing stock to enable the transition to efficient, electrified heating is as non-trivial an endeavour as it is an exciting opportunity. Not least as the industry is increasingly aware that homes are complex systems even before you put people in them!

Healthy homes

A key example of this is in the trade-offs between energy efficiency and ventilation. Healthy homes are warm and well-ventilated, but ventilation introduces draughts and heat loss while insulating homes to be efficient inevitably involves improving airtightness and reducing natural ventilation. Failure to get this right means an unhealthy home, either cold or damp or both.

To manage this we have two separate and independent sections of Building Regulations, Part L and Part F, that need to be balanced. The PAS2035 standard requires the consideration of ventilation in the design of an energy efficiency retrofit. But what happens when you add people? The need for both heating and ventilation is dependent on both occupancy and activity. Accounting for this at design stage generally means taking an average case and adding a bit for good measure, an approach almost guaranteed to be sub-optimal for heating, ventilation or often both.

We need a new way of thinking about this, new products, new tools, new skills. In short, we need innovation. Not as a nice-to-have for a bit of PR but as an essential part of the transition. We are increasingly used to the innovations of smart thermostats, systems that learn about who is in the home and what they are doing and adjust to optimise energy efficiency.

By the same token, ventilation should respond to activity in the home. More so as the variation in humidity in the home is so dependent on the number of people and what they are up to. It is not enough to simply comply with the minimum requirements in the Regs. In low occupancy, too much heat is lost, people hate the draughts and close the trickle vents or block up air bricks – causing a damp problem. Or the kids and their families move back in due to the cost of living crisis – and you get a damp problem.

Smart ventilation

We need to think about Building Regs in a different way. Part F actually defines a performance specification, what the air quality in a healthy home should be. The specifications of square millimetres of ventilation is just one way to achieve a healthy home, at least for an average home with typical occupants.

Smart, demand-responsive ventilation can ventilate when needed to meet the performance requirements of the Regs but contribute to fabric energy efficiency the rest of the time, rather than fighting it. In other words, smart ventilation can be part of meeting both Part F and Part L requirements, integrating the two instead of trading them off against each other. But this requires new products and new ways of thinking together with the education of those involved in designing, delivering, and assessing what happens in homes.

Along with other specialists in ventilation, Airex has been working in this space for several years with our smart air bricks, and internet-of-things devices designed to balance energy efficiency and ventilation and to respond to what goes on in the home and the external environment. Our Floorvent product reduces heat loss from timber floors by controlling the ventilation of the floor void, but responding to underfloor and weather conditions to ventilate when needed. Conversely, our Roomvent product is designed to provide necessary ventilation for habitable spaces, but preventing heat loss and draughts when possible so necessary airflow is more readily accepted.

Taking considered risks

In our work to develop and deploy these products our greatest challenge, in common with other innovators, has been coming up against established ways of thinking particularly in the regulation. We need new ways of thinking, but the status quo has a lot of inertia, the regulations and the organisations managing them are designed in the context of the old ways.

Innovation is about taking risks. Carefully considered and managed risks, but inevitably a combination of technical, market, and business risks are involved. There are always things you cannot know before you try something. Unfortunately, regulators and those responsible for auditing compliance are institutionally allergic to risk, usually by design and legislation, but it does lead to a culture clash when they rub up against innovators.

Ironically then, the place we most need innovation is in the organisations least set up to do it. Above all the ability to take risks, to acknowledge that some things cannot be known without trying, that the only real way to learn and understand is to do. This doesn’t mean a free-for-all though, it means assessing and understanding risk, monitoring and learning over time. After all, much good practice we have now has emerged from experience of the things that have gone wrong in the past. The opportunity to gain that experience is vital to the adoption of innovations that will unlock Net Zero, and we need regulators, as well as innovators, to step out of their comfort zone to create that space.

Airex is a leading innovator in energy-efficient solutions, dedicated to making homes and buildings more environmentally friendly and cost-effective. With a focus on cutting-edge technology and a commitment to sustainability, Airex offers a range of innovative products including the world’s first smart air brick to reduce the home’s energy bills, helping to end fuel poverty and climate change with a simple building retrofit.