UK megalab creates climate to test houses of the future

The thermometer dips below freezing as a blizzard of light snow falls on two newly built houses inside a huge laboratory in the north of England.

Despite the frost, the two energy-efficient houses remain cozy and warm thanks to the use of state-of-the-art heating and insulation technology.

Welcome to Energy House 2.0, a science experiment designed to help homebuilders around the world reduce carbon emissions, save energy, and address climate change.

The project, based in a laboratory resembling a giant warehouse on the University of Salford campus near central Manchester, opened last month.

Rain, wind, sun and snow can be recreated in temperatures ranging from 40 degrees Celsius to -20 degrees Celsius, operated from a control center.

– Replicating the weather –

“What we have tried to achieve here is to be able to replicate the weather conditions that around 95 percent of the populated Earth would experience,” Professor Will Swan, head of the university’s energy house laboratories, told AFP.

Consisting of two chambers that can experience different weather conditions at the same time, the facility will test home types from around the world “to understand how we deliver your net-zero and energy-efficient homes,” it added.

The two houses, which are quintessentially British and built by companies with UK operations, will remain in place for a few years.

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

The first house in the project was built by British property firm Barratt Developments and French materials giant Saint-Gobain.

It is clad with decorative bricks on a framework of wood paneling and insulation, with solar panels on the roof.

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

In the living room, a hot water loop runs along the bottom of the walls, while additional heat is provided via infrared technology in the trim and from a wall panel.

The mirrors also act as infrared heaters, while numerous sensors monitor which rooms are in use.

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

Builders estimate cutting-edge technology will mean the energy bill will be just a quarter of what an average UK home currently pays, a boon for customers reeling from high energy prices.

It will also make a major contribution to Britain’s efforts to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050 to combat climate change.

A parliamentary report found that, in 2019, 17 percent of heating emissions from buildings came from homes, making their contribution similar to that of all gasoline and diesel cars on the roads of Britain.

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

– ‘Alexa from home power’ –

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

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

And now, with his mega-lab, scientists and businesses no longer have to wait for extreme changes in the weather.

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

The “ultimate goal is to create that environment that is comfortable, profitable and commercially viable,” Cox added.

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


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