The Future is Renewable

Harnessing natural power in the built environment

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There are still those who roll their eyes when the topic of renewable energy on listed buildings is raised. And yes, while this does present an extraordinary challenge, there are many ways that this can be achieved if we think creatively.

Our profession has the skill set to help tackle the climate crisis, bringing new ways of working and thinking. A holistic approach to sustainable design, both in construction and in future use, requires on-site renewable energy to play a crucial role.

As we have seen more widely in society, we should open up the conversation to multiple points of view regardless of age or experience when tackling the climate crisis. Creativity—in whatever your field of expertise—often comes by challenging convention, testing the what-if scenario, and sometimes upsetting the whole applecart if you hit a brick wall.

Our design for the Study Centre at St John’s College, Oxford brings the ancient and the modern together. Considered the finest example of baroque architecture in the UK, Canterbury Quad was a challenging test bed for renewables.

Though you would never know it, the Great Lawn now conceals an impressive array of 40 boreholes, sunk to a depth of 55 meters. It took some lateral thinking to identify that it was the grounds rather than the building that would unlock potential.

The idea of a ground source solution gathered momentum when the energy benefits were measured. The importance of striking a balance between heating and cooling demands was the key criteria. Cooling loads were needed for the server and archive rooms, which could be met by diverting the borehole water to fan coil units. This increases the incoming borehole water temperature, amplifying the efficiency of the heat pumps and recharging the ground temperatures in summer when there is no heating requirement.

xterior view of St John's College, Oxford University, by Wright & Wright Architects
Exterior view of St John’s College, Oxford University, by Wright & Wright Architects. Photo © Hufton + Crow

It was then the turn of the building to play a part. Electricity is generated by photovoltaic panels located on the roof. Some have said the building has a castle-like presence, with the thick stone walls and deep reveals; so it is nice to think that the ancient device of the parapet is used to conceal something very contemporary. The overall net energy use of the building is expected to be less than 20 kwh/m2/year, comfortably within the 2030 upper limit of 55kwh/m2/year in the UK.

This radical thinking was combined with one of the fundamental tools of our trade: the use of light. Where better to deploy those tools than a library. Thermal modelling determined that large areas of glass could be used in the main reading areas, if married with the use of low emissivity glass, as well as blinds and baffles. All windows have been specified and detailed to achieve a “best-in-class” thermal performance providing a U-value of 1.0w/m2K or less.

Two related aspects of the United Nations Sustainable Development goals—well-being and ecology—bring us back to the garden. The habitat was enriched to encourage existing and new wildlife to flourish. The delight of birdsong and the dappled light through the retained mature trees, provides the stimulus for the students to study and dream in the Study Centre.

If heritage is to stay alive and be a vibrant resource, the fabric needs a sensitive touch, combined with a radical set of strategic moves to unlock potential. What if the contents of the building, such as a museum or archive need special measures of control?

The Museum of the Home in East London, was faced with a common quandary of a lack of space. This set of 18th-century almshouses, is home to a wonderful collection celebrating domestic life through the ages. The project shows the advantages of a retrofit over a rebuild approach; unlocking the potential of unused spaces whilst keeping a low carbon footprint.

Cross section of Museum of the Home
Cross section of Museum of the Home. Image Wright & Wright Architects

Remarkably, 70% more useable space is provided in the project, with only a limited amount of new build. By introducing vertical cores into a former linear set of period rooms, the curatorial route was transformed. This break in rhythm opened up the possibility to move up to the attic floors for research and education, or down and out to the wonderful garden to explore.

Of course, life is easier with new build projects. The new Library and Archive at Lambeth Palace, has been designed to contain an unrivalled corpus of precious books, manuscripts and artefacts for the Church of England. Much like the Study Centre we imagined this project as being heavy-weight and thick-skinned, now widely termed a fabric-first approach.

Peer review at key stages of design development, led to a thorough critique of the current standards for the archive buildings. This pioneering approach is part of a wider trend in museums and archives, where the tight bands of environmental control could be relaxed, allowing for more seasonal fluctuation without pumping in excessive energy and without damaging the artefacts.

Whether the approach is on-site renewable, retrofit or fabric first; our profession can move to the forefront of the climate crisis response. By striking a balance between technological development and care for our heritage we can protect our shared cultural and ecological assets for future generations.

Main image: How can we incorporate renewable energy into the architecture of today? Photo © Dennis Schroeder

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