UK mega-lab generates weather to test homes of the future

The thermometer dips below zero as a mild snowstorm falls on two newly built houses inside a giant laboratory in northern England.

Despite the icy conditions, the two energy-efficient homes remain cozy and warm thanks to their use of cutting-edge heating and insulation technology.

Welcome to Energy House 2.0 — a science experiment designed to help the world’s homebuilders reduce carbon emissions, save energy and combat climate change.

The project, which is housed in a giant warehouse-like laboratory on the University of Salford campus near central Manchester, opened last month.

Rain, wind, sunshine and snow can be recreated in temperatures from 40 degrees Celsius to -20C, operated from a central control centre.

– Similar weather –

“What we’ve tried to achieve here is to be able to replicate the weather conditions that would be experienced by about 95 percent of the world’s population,” said Professor Will Swan, head of house laboratories energy at the university, with AFP.

The facility, which includes two rooms that can experience different weather at the same time, will test housing types from all over the world “to understand how we make their homes net-zero and efficient on deliver energy”, he said.

The two houses, which are essentially British and built by firms with operations in the United Kingdom, will remain in place for a few years.

Other builders will then be able to rent space in the lab to put their own properties in the spotlight.

The first home for the project was built by UK property firm Barratt Developments and French materials giant Saint-Gobain.

It is clad in decorative brick over a frame of timber panels and insulation, with solar panels on the roof.

Scientists are examining the effectiveness of several different types of heating systems, including air-source heat pumps.

In the living room, a hot water circuit is located along the base of the walls, and additional heat is provided by infrared technology in the molding and from a wall panel.

Mirrors also act as infrared radiators and many sensors monitor the rooms in use.

Residents will be able to manage the technology through a single control system similar to Amazon’s voice-activated Alexa interface.

The builders reckon the cutting-edge technology will mean the energy bill will be only a quarter of what the average UK home currently pays, which will be a boon for customers struggling with skyrocketing energy prices.

It will also make a significant contribution to Britain’s efforts to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050 to tackle climate change.

A parliamentary report found that 17 per cent of heat emissions from buildings came from homes in 2019 – making them the same proportion as all the petrol and diesel cars driving on Britain’s roads.

Environmental campaigners have long called on the UK government to increase energy efficiency and insulation support for existing homes across Britain.

– ‘Alexa home energy’ –

“One of the key technologies we’re asking for on this house is almost like a building management system for residential buildings,” said Tom Cox, UK technical director at Saint-Gobain.

“It’s almost like the Alexa of the home energy system – and it can be automated as much as the occupant wants.”

And now with its mega-lab, scientists and companies no longer have to wait for extreme swings in the weather.

“We can test a year’s worth of weather conditions in a week,” said Cox.

The “ultimate goal is to create that environment that is comfortable and cost-effective and commercially viable to deliver”, Cox said.

“At the same time (we are) addressing the sustainability issues we have in construction.”


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