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

The thermometer dips below zero as a blizzard of fine snow descends on two newly built houses in a vast laboratory in northern England.

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

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

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

Rain, wind, sunshine and snow can be simulated in temperatures ranging from 40 degrees Celsius to -20 C, controlled from a control center.

– Replicate the weather –

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

The facility, consisting of two rooms that can experience different weather conditions at the same time, will test types of homes from around the world “to understand how we deliver their net-zero and energy-efficient homes,” he added.

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

Other builders can then rent space in the lab to put their own buildings in the spotlight.

The project’s first house was built by British property company Barratt Developments and French materials giant Saint-Gobain.

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

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

In the living room, a hot water circuit runs along the underside of the walls, while further heat is provided via infrared technology in the moldings and from a wall panel.

Mirrors also act as infrared emitters, while numerous sensors monitor which rooms are in use.

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

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

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

A parliamentary report found that in 2019, 17 per cent of building heating emissions came from homes, making their contribution comparable to that of all petrol and diesel cars 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 of Home Energy’ –

“One of the key technologies we’re trying out in 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 that can be automated as much as the resident wants.”

And now with their mega laboratory, scientists and companies no longer have to wait for extreme weather fluctuations.

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

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

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


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