Inside the £16 MILLION lab preparing houses for climate change: MailOnline goes behind-the-scenes at the world-leading research facility in Salford where model homes are tested against extreme weather conditions

  • Energy House 2.0 can test different weather systems including snow storms, gale force winds and rain storms
  • Two homes are located inside the University of Salford’s climate chamber in Greater Manchester 
  • It comes as new housing regulations to reduce carbon emissions are set to come into effect from 2025 

The temperature plunged to a chilly 3.2°F (-16°C) as scientists commanded a snowstorm in a giant laboratory in Salford.

From the outside, the research facility, painted black, looks nothing more than a huge warehouse plopped in the middle of a university campus.

But inside lives two climate-controlled chambers, where researchers from the University of Salford are working away to see how houses can be more energy efficient by 2025 – when new Government laws will be imposed that require a significant reduction in carbon emissions from new builds.

Professor Will Swan and his team at the university can test around 95 per cent of all types of weather seen across the world, from freezing temperatures of as low as -13°F (-25°C) to blistering highs of 104°F (40°C) – similar to those parts of the UK faced during last year’s heatwave. 

MailOnline went behind the scenes at the £16 million facility to see the lab in action. 

Energy House 2.0 at the University of Salford is a giant climate chamber, costing £16 million. Inside, two detached houses are kitted out with energy effiecient technologies

The university can test around 95 per cent of all types of weather seen across the world, from freezing temperatures of as low as -13°F (-25°C) to blistering highs of 104°F (40°C) – similar to those parts of the UK faced during last year’s heatwave.

In December 2021, the Government put in place new building standards to come into effect from 2025.

The Future Home and Building Standards says carbon emissions from new build homes should be around 30 per cent lower than current houses.

Other buildings such as offices and shops should be 27 per cent lower.

This means installing new carbon technologies, such as those being trialled in the Energy House 2.0, is essential.

As well as reducing emissions, the new homes must also reduce overheating indoors, making them safe for elderly and vulnerable people.

Source: Gov.uk 

The £16 million project, partially funded by the European Regional Development Fund, will look into how powering, heating and insulating homes can be improved by new technologies that aim to lower homeowners’ carbon footprints.

If using an ordinary house, it would usually take months or even years to gather the data from extreme weather conditions such as gale force winds, rain, snow and ice. 

But at Energy House 2.0, where two detached model houses stand, scientists can control the weather to within half a degree, meaning the data can be collected within a matter of weeks.

Upon arrival, the chamber, which can fit up to 24 double-decker buses, was set to a cool 23°F (-5°C).

But with the click of a button, scientists in the control room had forced the temperature down to 3.2°F (-16°C), with snow blasting out of a machine onto a house.

‘It is brilliant for us because traditionally how you evaluate technology is doing a field trial, using a whole house (that already exists) but because you have to wait for the weather conditions, you have to wait a long time and that can take two years’, Professor Swan explained to MailOnline.

‘Here, if you need to test a product or the building at -5°C, we can do it immediately. 

‘We can essentially compress a couple of years of work into a couple of weeks, meaning innovators, if they have great net-zero technology, can get that tech into houses much more quickly.

‘If it doesn’t work, they can address those issues.’

Richard Fitton, a professor in building performance at the university, said the project would help address ‘difficult questions about how we reach zero carbon target in future housing’ at a time when the UK’s built environment accounts for more than 40 per cent of the country’s carbon footprint.  

The £16 million project, partially funded by the European Regional Development Fund, will look into how powering, heating and insulating homes can be improved by new technologies that aim to lower homeowners’ carbon footprints

Upon arrival, the chamber, which can fit up to 24 double-decker buses, was set to a cool 23°F (-5°C). But with the click of a button, scientists in the control room had forced the temperature down to 3.2°F (-16°C), with snow blasting out of a machine onto a house 

The original Energy House in Salford

In 2009, Professor Will Swan and his team at the University of Salford set up their first Energy House.

The lab was created to study energy use, with two terraced houses, similar to the ones seen in Coronation Street.

It was the first research facility of its kind, with the homes built to replicate 20th century two-bedroom terraced houses.

While not as varied as the weather conditions inside Energy House 2.0, scientists were able to change the temperatures from 53°F (12°C) to 86°F (30°C).

The traditional building materials included solid brick walls, suspended timber floors and single glazed windows with a conventional ‘wet’ heating system fired by a gas boiler. 

Researchers can study the data to analyse how energy is consumed in older homes.

 

Source: University of Salford 

He added: ‘The facility will help us to stress test these buildings under extreme hot and cold climates, to provide data on energy efficiency and overheating in homes.’

The experiment arguably could not be happening at a better time, with climate change issues becoming more pronounced across the UK and the drive to reach the Government’s goal of Net Zero by 2050 becoming more forceful.

On top of that, more people across the country are being forced into fuel poverty, with many becoming even more conscious about their energy uses as prices have been hiked as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

In the coming months, people will be staying in the house to see how well they can adapt to living in them, as Professor Swan says, ‘boilers are easy, people are complicated’. 

Those chosen to live in the homes will be able to use them as any other, with access to flushable toilets, showers, WiFi and even Sky TV.

Using sensors, and no cameras, scientists will be able to track which technologies work best.

The University’s project has been conducted in partnership with house builders Bellway Homes and Barratt Developments, as well as construction solutions manufacturer Saint-Gobain.

Since the energy and the cost-of-living crisis has occurred, they have seen a marked interest in how energy-efficient homes can be.

Jamie Bursnell, group innovations manager for Bellway, told MailOnline: ‘In our home we are using the UK’s first ever air-source heat pump.  

‘It works the same way as a normal heat pump but is instead mounted on the roof, taking up less space in the garden.’ 

The two houses will test different technologies, with the main difference being that the Bellway home is built from bricks, while the Barratt home is testing a timber frame, made out of 36cm-thick insulation-filled panels that are covered in cladding mimicking a real brick.

The Future Home, created by Bellway, is testing the UK’s first mounted-air source heat pump – taking up less space in your garden and posing less of a security risk than leaving it outdoors, where people could potentially break into it.

It is also trialling infrared and ambient heating, mechanical ventilation, double versus triple glazing, enhanced insulation, and a prototype shower which recovers heat from wastewater.  

The eHome2, run by Saint-Gobain and Barratt Developments, looks at how to create zero-carbon housing using off-site lightweight construction tools.

It is also piloting heating and ventilation technologies and smart technologies that enable those living in the home to change the temperature or turn on the shower with a click of a button. 

During the visit, scientists changed the temperature to a chilly -16 degree C and started a snow storm covering the home and electric car in powder

MailOnline goes behind the scenes of the UK’s first ever net zero McDonald’s branch 

Developers say the cost of running the eHome2 is £85 per month, compared with £187 for their new build homes today and £315 for a typical Victorian house.

Speaking to MailOnline, Oliver Novakovic, Barratt’s technical innovation director, said: ‘Everything about these homes is about reducing energy.’

The Future Home, created by Bellway, is testing the UK’s first mounted-air source heat pump – taking up less space in your garden and posing less of a security risk than leaving it outdoors, where people could potentially break into it.

It is also trialling infrared and ambient heating, mechanical ventilation, double versus triple glazing, enhanced insulation, and a prototype shower which recovers heat from wastewater.  

The eHome2, run by Saint-Gobain and Barratt Developments, looks at how to create zero-carbon housing using off-site lightweight construction tools.

It is also piloting heating and ventilation technologies and smart technologies that enable those living in the home to change the temperature or turn on the shower with a click of a button.

Developers say the cost of running the eHome2 is £85 per month, compared with £187 for their new build homes today and £315 for a typical Victorian house.

Speaking to MailOnline, Oliver Novakovic, Barratt’s technical innovation director, said: ‘Everything about these homes is about reducing energy.   

The home is testing two different heating systems: an electric system that uses infrared panels cleverly hidden behind mirrors and ceiling panels, and a water-based system that heats the home through the skirting boards using an air pump 

‘We know the energy crisis is here, it’s in the news all the time. What this house does is cut the bills to around £80 a month whereas the equivalent Victorian dwelling would be closer to £330.

‘The other thing is this home gets its energy from PVs three to four days a week, meaning it is not taken from the grid.’

The home is testing two different heating systems: an electric system that uses infrared panels cleverly hidden behind mirrors and ceiling panels, and a water-based system that heats the home through the skirting boards using an air pump.

Smart features are also built into the home, including automatic night lights that go off when you step out of bed in the dark, speakers reminding you to take your medication when entering the bathroom in the morning and blinds that shut automatically to keep your home cool when it’s hot outdoors

 Homes are  also trialling infrared and ambient heating, mechanical ventilation, double versus triple glazing, enhanced insulation, and a prototype shower which recovers heat from wastewater

There are also a number of smart features built into the home, including automatic night lights that go off when you step out of bed in the dark, speakers reminding you to take your medication when entering the bathroom in the morning and blinds that shut automatically to keep your home cool when it’s hot outdoors. 

The rival homebuilders will then share their data at the end of the year-long project.

In a control room, members of the team sets the weather systems, while watching infrared cameras to see if there are any parts of the homes emitting more heat energy than other parts, making it easy to spot any issues.  

The home has sparked the interest of politicians, with visits from Michael Gove, civil servants from Grant Shapps’ team from Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and Greater Manchester’s Mayor Andy Burnham.

It has also seen much interest from academics and businesses around the world wanting to use the groundbreaking facility. 

Mr Burnham said: ‘This is a world-leading facility, and we are proud that it is based right here in Salford.

‘Credit to the University of Salford for having the vision and ambition to deliver such a valuable and innovative asset.

‘This will help make Greater Manchester a global leader in green construction and energy systems, as we look to find solutions to the climate and cost-of-living issues we face.’

The project hopes to run for a while longer, following a surge of interest from businesses and universities worldwide. 

Professor Swan explained to MailOnline that he hopes the ‘learning will carry on’ and says in the future, scientists could push the temperatures up to an excruciating 140°F (60°C), use sub-zero temperatures to test military vehicles or even test emergency disaster shelters.

Key features inside the home of the future at Energy 2.0

The homes inside the University of Salford’s climate chamber, called Energy House 2.0, will test a range of technologies to see how we can make houses more energy efficient.

Building fabric

To make homes more sustainable, the home uses a high-performing timber frame system that will meet Future Home Standards thermal values. 

Dual heating

The home allows users to switch between using renewable energy and other heat sources using the Smart Home app.

Instead of using bulky radiators, it is also looking at ways heating sources can be hidden within the home.

This includes using a combination of an electric-based system of infrared panels on walls combined with an air source heat pump for hot water. 

Skirting boards around the house are also fitted with the Thermaskirt system, which uses heat emitters to warm the room in combination with an air source heat pump.  

Reducing carbon

As well as reducing carbon emissions through solar PVs and an air source heat pump, the building material also looks to reduce carbon.

The home uses a Weber-designed brick system, which developers say ‘has a fraction of the weight of traditional brick, and so has significantly lower embodied carbon’. 

It also reduces carbon in terms of transportation and waste. 

Dual ventilation

The home uses two ventilation systems to improve air quality within the home, which is another key element to the Government’s 2025 housing goals.

It uses a centralised ventilation system and a mechanical ventilation heat recovery system that supplies pre-heated fresh air to rooms, while simultaneously extracting humidity from places such as the bathroom. 

The smart controls in the home allow people to switch between the two systems. 

Reducing water consumption

Waterfall is a system that tells homeowners how much water is being used in their showers, toilets, washing machines and dishwashers – as well as the cost.

Taking this knowledge of how much water the individual living inside the home uses, it then tries to reduce water usage and energy by 25 per cent.

It also has the ability to detect when water is being wasted or genuinely used.

If it’s being wasted it can cut-off the supply immediately. 

Smart Home features

More modern technology has also been fitted in the home, including apps and interfaces that control heating, TVs, lighting, audio and window blinds.

One particular system, called Loxone, uses excess energy generated from PVs to heat hot water or charge electric cars for free.

The developers explained: ‘With extreme temperatures becoming more common, the system can passively heat rooms using solar gain by lifting the blinds before bringing on the heat source, or in a heatwave, it can also cool rooms automatically by tracking the trajectory of the sun to make the home comfortable and efficient.’

These systems can also be controlled through smart home devices such as Google Home and Alexa. 

Source: Barratt Developments 

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