Posts Tagged ‘Technology’

The great PV break-through


Ross McGuinness is Area Sales Manager for Kingspan Insulate and Generate. In this guest post, he celebrates the unprecedented take-up of solar PV, but warns it’s too early to break out the Champagne just yet…

The massive expansion of solar PV capacity in the UK has passed another milestone recently. Just a couple of weeks ago, SPV broke through the symbolic barrier of 1,000MW of installed capacity.

Sunset reflected in a solar panel, by ToGa Wanderings on Flickr

This growth has been rapid: in April 2010 there was a mere 26MW installed nationally. 23 months down the line and the industry has topped 1GW, which is a stunning result. The driver behind this seismic shift towards green, renewable energy is without a doubt the government-backed Feed-in Tariff (FiT).

This is all very positive news, and with the announcement from the Department of Energy and Climate Change some weeks ago stating their wish to have 22GW installed by 2020, you could be forgiven for thinking that everything is rosy in the SPV garden.

This announcement of several weeks ago has set out something of a roadmap for PV, but key questions need to be addressed before the industry will come out and support the new policy.

The government has destroyed any trust it may have had with the sector and it will take quite some time to repair what has become a fractious relationship. Continued court actions and appeals mean that, in the short term at least, a cloud hangs over SPV in the UK right now.

Looking at what is proposed by government, many industry insiders believe that it will be challenging to convince consumers to invest in SPV at the new rates. One of the main drivers of SPV has been the willingness of investment firms to “fund” SPV, hence the plethora of “free” installs whereby the end user got the benefit of free or discounted electricity and the funder got the Feed-in Tariff.

The new FiT rates will make it unlikely that similar funding models would be viable from an investor perspective. Funders look for an IRR of a minimum return of 7%; anything less and they simply go elsewhere for their fix. The government is on record as stating that they envisage returns of ca. 5% and will strive to ensure they do not go any higher by linking the price of PV modules to the FiT rate.

On the face of it this is a good proposal and should go some way to preventing the “Boom and Bust” that has beleaguered the industry. The mechanism has the potential to provide a sustainable and controlled future for the FiT.

In the long term, this is a positive for the industry, but short term – bearing in mind the skepticism and mistrust about the government’s attitude, and also bearing in mind the further cuts announced for July – you can understand why many are not cracking out the champagne just yet.

Solar panels in a low-tech setting: Breckenridge, Colorado

The belief is that Westminster is out of touch with where the industry is at, but most crucially and disappointingly, they fail to see where the industry can go. The Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change tweeted a couple of weeks ago that the Germans had just announced big cuts to their FiT scheme, implying that he was actually correct in pursuing the cuts here – blissfully ignoring the fact that Germany has had a Feed-in Tariff for the past decade, has a total installed capacity close on 25GW and operates on a completely different scale to the UK.

Under the new rates, the German government is proposing to pay €0.135/kWh for ground-mounted solar farms with a capacity of 10MW or less, and for rooftop installations that are 1–10MW in size. Germany is lightyears ahead of what is currently viable in this country.

There are, however, some reasons to be optimistic. The Chinese government last week directed the leading polysilicon and solar cell manufacturers to increase production, which should see prices continue to fall. That’s good news for consumers and probably bad news for non-Chinese manufacturers. China really does seem to be attempting to establish itself as the SPV equivalent of the Middle East. Continued downward pressure on price of SPV definitely looks set to continue in the short-to-medium term.

The great PV breakthrough should achieve one thing, however: SPV will at least now receive the recognition it deserves as a viable and high-quality alternative to fossil fuels. The SPV industry deserves recognition in Government energy strategy.

There is simply no reason why, if there is willingness on behalf of the powers that be, that by 2020 the UK cannot have the 22GW of solar capacity that government says it wishes to have.

Ross McGuinness, Area Sales Manager, Kingspan Insulate and Generate

Twitter: @rossmcguinness   Email:


Spotlight on solar air heating


Andrew Brewster leads the Renewables Design Team for the CA Group – a specialist building envelope manufacturer and installer. In this guest post, he puts one of the lesser-known solar technologies under the spotlight:

Solar air heating is a proven technology that has been developed specifically for heating large spaces. With high-profile advocates including The Royal Mail, Marks & Spencer and Jaguar Land Rover, the technology is increasingly expected to become part of the sustainability strategy of those companies leading the charge for environmental responsibility.

Harnessing sunrays to heat large spaces

What is solar air heating?
Solar air heating works by harnessing the sun’s energy via a Transpired Solar Collector (TSC), or SolarWall®. The SolarWall® technology pre-heats fresh, outside air, which is then actively drawn into the building’s heating system, contributing considerably to a reduction in the need for fossil fuels.

The technology is 100% renewable and has the effect of dramatically reducing a building’s overall heating requirement, providing significant savings in energy consumption and carbon emissions.

SolarWall® in action
CA Group recently installed the world’s largest SolarWall® on a single building for Marks & Spencer, at the retail giant’s 80,000m² East Midlands Distribution Centre (EMDC) in Castle Donington. The 4,500m² Transpired Solar Collector is expected to reduce the building’s heating requirement by somewhere in the region of 30%, by generating more than 1,135,000kWh and saving over 256t of CO2 per annum.

The SolarWall® can be seen in action at the Jaguar Land Rover training academy in this video:

The benefits
The revolutionary solar air heating system has the lowest capital cost and the highest known efficiency of any active solar technology in the world (up to 80%), generating in excess of 500 Watts of thermal energy per square meter on a clear day [Dr. Chuck Keutcher, U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)].

It also offers the quickest return on investment, with an estimated payback period of three years on new build and eight years on retrofit applications. So as well as being an excellent option from an environmental perspective, it is also one that makes good commercial sense.

Global recognition
SolarWall® has been available for almost 30 years and is used in over 35 countries globally. A number of companies have tried to emulate the system but, due to a lack of understanding and third-party testing, they have been unable to replicate SolarWall®’s level of system performance.

In the UK, as part of its ongoing development and accreditation, the technology has received the independent endorsement of five leading authorities: Oxford Brookes University, the Welsh Assembly, Cardiff University, BSRIA and BRE.

CA Group has seen a significant uptake in the technology because of the very tangible results it delivers. As awareness of the technology’s capabilities increase, the Group anticipates that solar air heating will become part of the sustainability strategy of more and more companies looking for cost-effective ways of making the biggest impact on their CO2 emissions.

CA Group’s interactive Renewables Guide offers further information on solar air heating and other renewable options geared towards the generation of power and heat for commercial, industrial and distribution centres.

Shadows through sand: translucent concrete


Concrete may have started out as a heavy, low-tech material, associated with architectural brutalism and 1960s high-rises. How times have changed… Already on the market, or half-way towards becoming commercially available, are concrete formulations with any number of surprising qualities.

Silhouette & sand dunes, by Daniel Oines on Flickr

These days, concrete can be lightweight, waterproof, recyclable, bendable, self-healing, and even (arguably) environmentally sound. And now, concrete – that most solid-sounding of building materials – can be translucent, too.

Here is how light-transmitting concrete is made: layer upon layer, ultrafine optical fibres are paralellised and distributed through a fine-grained concrete mix. When set, the concrete is cut and shaped into panels or tiles, which are then polished to the desired texture.

With structural performance indicators including a compressive strength of 49N/mm2 (MPa) and bending strength of 7.7N/mm2 (MPa), translucent concrete may be used as a load-bearing material.

Luccon concrete, supplied by NY Stone Manhattan (on

When used as part of an external wall or placed in front of a window, these concrete panels need no light source other than the natural daylight that is diffused through the solid surface. If the concrete is mounted internally in the shape of wall, floor or ceiling panels, artificial light sources can be used to create special effects.

As you can imagine, designers have started playing around with this concept and its various applications:

  • The optical fibres, backlit with coloured LEDs, create concrete walls that shimmer in different shades according to where you stand in a room.
  • Points of optical fibres in different diameters, distributed unevenly through a dark concrete panel, create the illusion of a starry night sky.
  • The light-transmitting fibres can be arranged into the shapes of logos, company names, symbols and signage.

Two companies involved in the development, manufacture and supply of translucent concrete:

LUCEM Lichtbeton

LUCEM LABEL tiles with custom logos, names and icons

LUCEM bar counter with coloured background lighting


Main entrance of Museum Cella Septichora, Hungary

Iberville Parish Veterans Memorial, Baton Rouge

More information can be found in this Gizmag article on light-transmitting concrete. And finally, here’s one that DIY’er Calvin Drews made earlier: a video on how to make your own light-transmitting concrete.

Google Panda: the effect on your web searches


Are you familiar with Google’s new Panda algorithm? Recently introduced, it has changed the way Google responds when architects and other specifiers search for products and services. Intended to weed out low-quality websites from search results, it has also had a knock-on effect on websites that provide genuinely useful services to web users.

This is the time to make sure your website contains unique, relevant content – making it a destination site in itself. John Macrae, Head of Sales for our parent site, explains how.

Eats shoots & leaves: the Panda algorithm (Stéfan on Flickr)

There are a lot of ‘directory’ sites. Many of them simply aggregate information that is already widely available, present it in a directory format (with varying degrees of practical information for the user), slap on a form of user interface and hope to attract traffic via search engine optimisation.

In most instances, they generate revenue by acting as a source of web traffic to companies that pay to have web links prominent on the site.

Google has quite rightly seen that many of these sites serve little useful purpose to web browsers. The proliferation of these sites can clog up search results pages and mean that original suppliers’ sites that deliver good relevant content are being pushed off the first few results pages.

It seems wholly beneficial to web browsers that Google has introduced a new algorithm to help people ‘find more high-quality sites in search’. This algorithm has been labelled Google Panda and is aimed at dealing with sites that aggregate information.

The algorithm has certainly reduced the ranking of some poor directories, but it also has hit sites that provide a more sophisticated service to users. Google will continue to refine their algorithm because it understands that some good sites will have been affected, and that a blanket approach simply can’t deliver their desired outcome. Still, the genuinely useful directory sites must act themselves to avoid being de-ranked by Google.

Directory sites need to update their image (Brenda Starr on Flickr)

There is no doubt that ‘directory’ sites must re-evaluate their quality. The poorest of sites will have a mountain to climb in order to pass muster according to Google’s ‘quality’ algorithm: they will have to invest heavily in order to develop unique content, change their business model, and come up with a new raison d’etre to present to their advertisers.  In the meantime they’ll have to spend on Google Adwords to have any tangible search engine presence!

Fighting the panda (Kudumomo on Flickr)

In the context of directory sites, quality will involve:

1. Unique content
Unique content on a directory site is tricky to achieve, since the site collates information on products that are already written about on a manufacturer’s site. However, the directory site does not have to simply regurgitate existing web content. Unique directory content can be achieved by presenting products from a 3rd party perspective, in order to deliver the pertinent information free of ‘corporate speak’. Web users want clear and easily digestible information, ideally presented from an independent viewpoint.

The directory can also ensure that its content is presented in a consistent style that will make information about similar products from different companies easily comparable.

Truly unique content will only come from editorial input.  This requires the ‘directory’ to have an editorial resource that genuinely understands the industry and its products and services, and can then generate meaningful content – for example, overviews of products that help users gain a clear understanding of the options, technologies and applications.

Manufacturers can also play a role in providing additional unique content if the site can become a forum for publishing technical articles and white papers; good quality, educational content.

(Google’s own guidelines recommend that web designers ‘create a useful, information-rich site and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content’.)

2. User functionality
Google delivers relevant search results. The user then has to explore those results on their own – going through results from different companies, different websites, all with different ways of presenting information – there’s no further guidance or help from the search engine.

A high-quality directory site can help the user interrogate the marketplace:

  • Search refinements: sub-setting results according to a combination of relevant parameters (size, weight, materials, cost, accreditation etc).
  • Product comparison: similar products summarised side-by-side on a web page can be invaluable to users looking to arrive quickly at the information that’s right for them.
  • Management of information: users should be able to store and manage relevant information, organising this information efficiently for future reference.
  • Tools to help users take ‘next actions’: providing the user with efficient communication channels to suppliers, whether contacting them individually or many at a time.

3. Taxonomy
A mass of quality content is only useful if it is organised in a logical and clear taxonomy. This organisation requires a huge amount of discipline and a deep understanding of the nature of the content. It is essential to deliver a more sophisticated search-and-refine functionality that benefits users. Investment in skilled personnel and suitable software is the only way to get a taxonomy right.

Has Google thrown the baby out with the bathwater?

Some very good directories (that are already highly regarded by their users) have been affected by Google’s new algorithm – albeit less so than poorer directories. Google will refine their algorithm over time, but even the best directories will be forced to reassess their quality.

This might lead to a new generation of ‘directory’ sites. Those with vision – and sufficient intelligence and resource to deliver the quality required – will prosper. With better directories appearing prominently in relevant search results, the web user will ultimately benefit.

Better directories will also negate the search results issue in the longer term, because if a directory site is good enough it will become a primary web destination, i.e. the object of the search rather than a spin-off of the search.

This might especially be the case where a directory serves a specific market, for example the construction industry. Here, a directory can focus its attention on satisfying the needs of a particular type of user, and market itself to a clearly defined user group.

Search, compare and select:

What about

Here at ESI we’ve known all along that web users want quality. The old mantra ‘Content is King’ continues to resonate true. Our challenge is to continue to develop original content, user tools and functionality so as to cement our place as a focus for suppliers and buyers within our marketplace.

Our site is a valuable resource for the industries we operate in; it is much more than a ‘directory’. We will work with Google’s algorithms because we want our site to be seen on the right search pages, but we are fully engaged with our own target users, developing our relationship with the right people so as to become a primary internet destination for them.

It is this close relationship and understanding of the market, along with a growing market awareness of our site’s quality content and functionality, that will generate traffic for our site and achieve our objective of connecting users with the right information as efficiently as possible.

LUMENHAUS: energy efficiency, innovation and sustainable housing


Solar Decathlon is ‘a competition organized by the U.S. Department of Energy in which universities from across the globe meet to design and build an energetically self-sufficient house that runs only on solar energy, is connected to a power grid, and incorporates technologies that maximize its energy efficiency.’

The 2010 competition was held in Madrid, with teams from Spain, Germany, Finland, the UK, France, China and the US taking part. Over the ten days of the competition the 17 houses produced three times more energy than they consumed (6,177 kWh against 2,579 kWh).

The judging criteria were:

• Architecture
• Construction and Engineering
• Solar Systems and Hot Water
• Energy Balance
• Comfort Conditions
• Usage
• Communications and Social Media
• Industrialization and Market Viability
• Innovation
• Sustainability

Solar Decathlon 2010

Solar Decathlon 2010

Night light display

Night light display

Rotating facades and roof

Rotating facades and roof

Comfort and usage

Comfort and usage

Vegetated wall

Vegetated wall

The winner was VirginiaTech’s LUMENHAUS.

Inspired by the glass pavilion-style Farnsworth House designed by Bauhaus architect Mies Van Der Rohe, the house features a flowing, open plan that connects occupants to each other within the house and to nature outside.

LUMENHAUS emphasizes integrity and endurance. Choices of materials and components are based on the basic requirements of environmental conservation and energy use, as well as the longevity of each product. General concepts for sustainable architecture – compact volume, little air infiltration, strategic insulation, natural/cross ventilation, passive heating, and integrated geothermal energy sink – are articulated with appropriate technologies.

1. Photovoltaic array and electric actuator
LUMENHAUS is completely powered by the sun. A powerful array of photovoltaic (PV) panels provides carbon-neutral energy to the house. The PVs, arranged in a single array that covers the roof, are built into the house during construction. The panels are bifacial, meaning they use both sides to increase energy output by up to 15 percent. Using an electric actuator, the entire PV array can be tilted to the optimal angle for each season (from zero degrees to a 17-degree angle in summer and to a 35-degree angle in winter).

2. Interior lighting
The energy collected during the day will be symbolically radiated back out at night through a low-energy, long-lasting LED lighting system. LED lights are extremely energy-efficient light fixtures that emit a very high-quality white light. They produce more lumens per watt than traditional incandescent bulbs. They also have extremely long lives and are very durable, being resistant to heat, cold and shock.

3. Rainwater collection and greywater recyling
LUMENHAUS is not only energy-efficient; it is water-efficient, too. The roof is sloped to collect rainwater that is filtered for potable (drinkable) use in the house, while water used in the house (greywater – from the shower, bathroom sink and clothes washer) goes through a series of bio-filters in the surrounding landscape where it is cleaned for non-potable use.

4. Passive energy systems
LUMENHAUS optimizes the use of passive energy through day lighting, natural ventilation and natural passive heating and cooling.

Day lighting is the natural lighting of the house through means of windows and other openings. In this case, the entire south and north facades are either translucent (when the insulation panels are closed) or transparent (when the insulation panels are open).

Natural ventilation is the ventilation/cooling of the house through means other than mechanical/electrical-powered systems. The house can be naturally cooled and ventilated by opening any of the sliding doors on the north and side facade of the house. These doors include bug screens to keep bugs out of the house and to let in fresh, clean air.

Natural heating of the house comes through the ability to capture the sun’s heat in the polished dark-gray concrete floor. When the sun hits the concrete slab in the day, it absorbs and stores heat, which it radiates to naturally heat the house throughout the night.

5. Modular design
The modular design of LUMENHAUS allows it to grow with your family. Multiple units can connect or stack with plug-in stairs and entryways to create two-, three-, and four-bedroom houses with the same efficient use of space of the single module. If used as a part of a community, the houses have the potential to become even more sustainable than the single house. For example, if a single person were to originally move into a single module, but then later got married, he or she could add another module to expand the space with little difficulty.

[All LUMENHAUS information from the technologies section on their website]

LUMENHAUS at the Solar Decathlon

LUMENHAUS at the Solar Decathlon

Architecture under Harold Wilson and 1974’s hung parliament


The newly built World Trade Centre, 1973 (US National Archives, Flickr)

Our sister blog, External Works, has speculated on what the new ConLib government (or, as some on Twitter would have it, ConDemNation) could mean for the built environment. I thought it might be interesting to see what was going on in the world of architecture when Britain last saw a similar political situation.

The UK’s last hung parliament came about in 1974. Harold Wilson (or, as he was less well known, James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx) entered his second term in office after Ted Heath proved unable to form a coalition government. Like today, many countries in the West were experiencing recession and financial crises.

Britain's shiniest front door (DowningStreet on Flickr)

Wilson’s possibly best-remembered speech explored the massive implications of scientific and technological change for 60s and 70s Britain. He argued that “the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry”.

Despite a troubled economic climate, the built environment of the time was shaped by technocracy, experimentation and the development of high-tech construction methods.

Buckminster Fuller, he of the geodesic domes, had already inaugurated the World Design Science Decade (1965–1975) at the meeting of the International Union of Architects in Paris. The decade was, in Fuller’s words, devoted to “applying the principles of science to solving the problems of humanity.”

Fuller's dome for the 1967 expo in Montreal (caribb on Flickr)

Wikipedia on 1970s architecture:

Architecture in the 1970s began as a continuation of styles created by such architects as Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Early in the decade, several architects competed to build the tallest building in the world. Of these buildings, the most notable are the John Hancock Center and Sears Tower in Chicago, both designed by Bruce Graham and Fazlur Khan and the World Trade Center towers in New York by American architect Minoru Yamasaki. The decade also brought experimentation in geometric design, pop-art, postmodernism and early deconstructivism.

London's BT Tower (by fishyfish_arcade on Flickr)

By the time of 1974’s hung parliament, one of London’s iconic (that word again) structures, the BT Tower, had been opened by Harold Wilson. The tower exemplified the decade’s desire to build new, build tall, and build high tech.

In 2003, the BT Tower became a listed building along with six other “historically and architecturally outstanding communications structures” located around the country. Revealing the listings, Baroness Blackstone, then Minister of State for the Arts said:

“Our built heritage should be about much more than old buildings. The best of our modern architecture also merits the recognition and protection that listing brings. Structures like the BT Tower and the ntl Broadcasting Tower are cultural and architectural icons of Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’. These buildings mark the early milestones of Britain’s transformation into one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world today.”

The next five years will show whether the global ‘sky’s-the-limit’ architectural optimism of the 1970s will, through sheer cost-cutting necessity, be replaced by something more local, modest and sustainable.

Environmental psychology and facade design


Ancient façade, via Bibliothèque de Toulouse on Flickr

In the last few weeks on the Building blog, we have looked at innovative building envelopes in various forms. We’ve speculated on current and future technologies, including smart facades and biomimicry.

Building facades always seem to catch people’s imagination and attract emotive reactions. We only have to look at the Chelsea Barracks debacle between Prince Charles and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (which took place this time last year) to know how powerfully people can react to upfront building design.

Is it simply that people respond most readily to the part of a structure that is most ‘in-your-face’, or are there more subtle forces at play? The Handbook of Environmental Psychology, by Robert B. Bechtel, Arza Churchman and Arzah Ts’erts’man, is an interesting read in this respect. From Chapter 21:

Many sound principles allow us to predict who will co-operate when resources are scarce, how cultures vary in their privacy seeking, what meanings are conveyed to observers by which building facades, and to describe residents’ strategies for dealing with spatial conflicts in their homes. Preferences, attitudes, spatial cognitions, and emotions in response to the built and natural environment: all are understood much better than they were three decades ago.

The book covers subject areas such as healthy design; environments for aging; climate, weather and crime; community and urban planning; children’s environments; and personal space in a digital age. If you have 70-odd pounds to spare, you can buy it here.

I recently started a discussion in the Architecture group on LinkedIn regarding the future of facade design, and want to share some of the dynamic, insightful and optimistic comments that followed:

Anne Elliott Mercia of Integrated Framing and 2SCALEarchitects :

I think that the high-tech materials and systems are really interim technologies until we can learn how to make equivalent materials from more environmentally benign sources, like the water wall. Eventually I do believe we will be able to “grow” building structures from bone or shell-like materials.

Adham Refaat, Owner of Architecture Los Angeles:

Building skin of the future is breathable; able to sweat out moisture and heat and breathe in cool, fresh air in hot seasons; preserve heat and let the sun in in cold seasons. Building skin of the future is alive with micro-particles that react to direct sun and open like flowers for shading, and collects condensation and rain water for re-use.

Shreesh Thergaonkar, Deputy Chief Architect at Gherzi Eastern Ltd:

Building facades are the most important elements in today’s architecture, and the most needed. They have a very bright future.

Shell by sunshinesyrie on Flickr

More than two ways to skin a building: smart facades


tanakawho on Flickr

How does an architect approach the design of a brand new building? What are the primary considerations – function, form, structure, materials, setting, sustainability?

Each designer will have their own priorities, but to the public – outsiders, neighbours and visitors – a building’s cladding forms a large part of our first impression. The cladding is the building’s face, and we often take it at face value.

Increasingly, though, new technologies are allowing a building’s skin to have functions beyond weatherproofing and decoration.

Smart skin: translucent insulation

Impression of a SmartSkin zero-energy building

Dutch architects and engineers Jon Kristinsson and Andy Dobbelsteen have released details on a new smart skin system for zero-energy buildings, conceived by Dr Noor van Andel and Mr Peter T Oei. Tests on prototypes have shown promising results.

‘Smart skin’ is a new concept: a thin translucent skin for buildings instead of walls. Groundwater is used to buffer the temperature difference between night and day and even between summer and winter. Most often, technicians think that energy losses can only be reduced by using thick insulation, or at least high-performance insulation. ‘Smart skin’ is a typical Dutch idea from a wet country with an averagely mild climate and high groundwater level. ‘Smart skin’ is not a well-insulated wall, but uses the thermal mass of groundwater for heating or cooling.

A PDF outlining the project can be downloaded here.

Smart skin: building-integrated wireless access

In another project, Ji Hoon Jeona, Woonbong Hwang, Hyun-Chul Park and Wee-Sang Park have researched the buckling loads of smart-skin composite panels, in this case for use with wireless LAN systems. Here, thin-strip antennas are incorporated into laminate cladding for building-integrated wi-fi access.

Smart skin: biomimicry

MRA's Kepos eco-hotel

An Ecofriend blog post brings details of MRA‘s Kepos eco-hotel. Designed by John Naranjo, the hotel absorbs solar and wind energy through an open skin. The double-skin building facade is meant to replicate a forest canopy:

The technical and sustainable attributes that are being reinforced by the biomimicry concept include learning from the life-supporting aspects of our living environment, obtaining energy, recycling and reclaiming resources and materials. The main component that will be applied to the building’s exterior canopy will be a special layer developed by SMIT called GROW. This canopy incorporates a combination of photovoltaic and piezoelectric technologies in one system that will absorb both solar and wind energy in one open skin.

Smart skin: carbon absorption

In a previous post, we have glanced at how living algae facades can be used to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. We have also (in our very first, tentative and terribly short blog post) looked at the emergence of living walls.

Smart skin: this is just the beginning

Through nanotechnology, biomimicry, photovoltaic energy generation, dynamic facade technology, membrane development and a growing emphasis on ‘intelligent’ building materials, building facades will increasingly have to work harder, becoming more than just a pretty face.

Cladding images, specification details and case studies can be found on

Industrialised, Integrated and Intelligent Construction: I3CON


Industrialised, Integrated and Intelligent Construction (I3CON) is an industry-led, collaborative research project part-sponsored by the EU, involving 14 member states. The goal of the project is to develop innovations that will help deliver ultra high-performance buildings.

Pierre Bédat on Flickr

I3CON, which opened in 2006 and completes in September 2010, has involved large and small organisations, academic institutions and commercial firms from across Europe. With a total project cost exceeding 17 million euro, the hope is that the project will provide competitive advantages for designers, contractors and manufacturers.

The project aims to contribute to the creation of a sustainable European construction industry, by

delivering technologies for a smart building services system using distributed control systems with embedded sensors, wireless connections, ambient user interfaces and autonomous controllers.

The I3CON Handbook – a comprehensive document detailing performance measurement metrics, architectural concepts, services, processes, systems, modelling, demonstration and training – can be downloaded for free.

The project is certainly not lacking in ambition:

a new approach for industrialised production of building components with integrated services and intelligence will be created. These building components will be multifunctional, efficient, sustainable, reusable, interoperable and user friendly. The underlying new business model will shift current working practices from custom-designed and craft-made delivery to industrial production. … Ultra high-performance buildings will be delivered 50% faster and 25% cheaper, with lifecycle cost reductions >40% and savings in repair and maintenance in excess of 70%, together with enhanced comfort and security.

UK’s own BSRIA is involved in the project, and is hosting a ‘Community of interest‘ event on the 28th April at their HQ in Berkshire.

April Sanders on Flickr

Meanwhile, recognising the ever-increasing role of sustainability in building services engineering, CIBSE offers a Sustainability Toolkit via their online bookshop. They describe their Guide L: Sustainability as “one of the most important and far-reaching guides ever to be released by the Institution”.

Foster’s Masdar City: putting sustainable energy to the test


OnePlanetCommunities on Flickr

Foster + Partners’ Masdar City development in Abu Dhabi is getting a lot of press and blog coverage at the moment. The project is, in the architects’ words, “a six million square metre sustainable development that uses the traditional planning principles of a walled city, together with existing technologies, to achieve a carbon-neutral, zero waste community. It will be a centre for the development of new ideas for energy production”.

Building recently published pictures of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. The nicely detailed terracotta-coloured GRC cladding of the city’s first completed building reflects aspects of traditional Islamic architecture.

Masdar’s energy will come entirely from renewable resources:

• a 40–60 megawatt solar power plant
• roof-mounted photovoltaic modules
• wind farms outside the city’s perimeter
• geothermal power
• waste-to-energy
• the world’s largest hydrogen power plant

Behind the scenes, Masdar will also host the world’s first real-time study to test the effectiveness of smart home appliances in reducing electricity consumption during peak demand periods, as detailed in Abu Dhabi’s newspaper The National.

Narrow, shaded streets (OnePlanetCommunities on Flickr)

General Electric (GE) selected Masdar City for this pilot project because its electricity will be distributed through a ‘smart grid’ that combines power transmission with the internet.

The two-year Masdar City test will use ‘demand response enabled appliances’ specifically designed for the pilot programme, and will involve some of the city’s first residents. Test results will be of great interest in the European Union, which aims for 80% of all households to be equipped with a smart electricity meter by 2020.

For an alternative view, see this debate on Treehugger on whether a development like Masdar can ever be ‘truly sustainable’.

ESI references: