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Homes as power stations

Construction work on Pobl’s ‘Active Homes’ development of 16 new homes in Neath, is well underway and expected to complete in August 2019. Elfed Roberts, head of development with Pobl gives an update on the project and shares some of the learning from it.

The original concept was inspired by the prototype Solcer House, built on a site near Bridgend in 2015. Neath Port Talbot Council and Pobl were collaborating on a number of sites in the county and at that time we jointly decided that we wanted to build the first development of occupied homes based on the principles of ‘Homes as Power Stations’ andthe site in Neath proved the ideal vehicle for this.

At Pobl, we’re passionate about reducing fuel poverty for our tenants, as well as reducing the carbon footprint of what we build and how this is utilised. We also recognise the need to continuously innovate in terms of the design and construction of our new homes and to increasingly consider off-site manufacture.

Much of the early design development in 2016-17 was informed by collaboration with SPECIFIC based at Swansea University, who worked with our consultants Pentan Architects, Auxilium and CD Gray. In October 2017 Pobl was successful in securing additional funding from Round 1 of the Welsh Government’s Innovative Housing Programme (IHP) and work on the project commenced on site in April 2018.

The superstructure of the houses and flats is now substantially complete, and it is possible to get a sense of the finished form of the development. The build method employed Structurally Insulated Panels (SIPs), manufactured at local factory Sevenoaks in Neath. The shells of the new homes were rapidly constructed within a short period of the arrival of the panels on site in October 2018, thus minimising the effects of weather on progress and improving the quality of the build on site.

Several already proven design principles and technologies have been integrated to achieve homes which, for much of the year require no electricity from the National Grid for normal everyday use. It is thought that this is the first project of its kind in Wales to integrate all these technologies together. In fact when occupied, during the spring and summer months, it should be possible for the homes to export surplus electricity from the battery to the Grid when the regulations allow for this, or to use this for charging electric vehicles in the future.

Following the sustainable building principle of ‘Conserve’, the external envelopes of the homes are designed and manufactured according to a ‘Fabric First’ approach, using off-site manufactured SIP Panels. This gives superior insulation, build quality and air-tightness by reducing the performance gap between what has been designed and what is built, and inherently reduces the energy need for heating.

The second principle is that of ‘Generate’, where renewable technologies are integrated onto the roofs to generate electricity using printable Photo Voltaic panels together with the storage of electricity using the latest Tesla Powerwall batteries. This opens the possibility of energy trading in the future.

For space heating and hot water, the project utilises perforated Tata Steel claddings on the south facing elevations which draw warm air into an Air Source Heat Pump located in the roof space to provide hot water for each home. This cladding technology is referred to as a ‘Transpired Solar Collector’ and was first used at Solcer House,and later at Specific’s ‘Active Classroom’ at Swansea University to great effect. The heating is provided by a Mechanical Ventilation and Heating Recovery (MVHR) system running off the electrical supply.

To achieve the ‘Store’ objective of the development, the original intention was to install a single large central battery within a separate on-site structure, so that all the roof mounted PVs could feed into this for individual homes to draw upon. However, after internal discussion the proposal was changed to provide each home with its own battery installation. This addressed a concern that there should not be a perception that some tenants were using more electricity from the battery than others. Individual batteries will also promote more economical use of electricity, giving each tenant control of the way they use the battery.

There are eight houses arranged into a south-facing terrace, along with 8 flats arranged in two east/west facing blocks. All homes will be available as affordable rentals and in the coming months it will be important to identify our new tenants and to work with them to provide training on the use of the homes. We want to use new ways of providing this training and are currently looking at the use of apps and ‘how to’ videos covering different aspects of running the home efficiently. A major part of the project is that of monitoring energy use and other usage criteria, so we will be installing monitoring equipment during the first 12 months of occupation and will regularly consult with tenants on their experiences. A Report on Active Homes will be prepared in August 2020 and shared with the Welsh Government, Neath Port Talbot Council and all Housing Associations in Wales.

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