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The West Midlands is bringing together its small businesses to supply sustainable technologies to public-sector construction projects worth millions. Jitendra Patel reports

A pioneering project is being run in the West Midlands to promote the integration of environmentally friendly practices in the construction industry.

Sustainable Public Buildings (SPB), run by low-carbon specialist Encraft, involves collaboration with eight public-sector building projects. These range from £1M to more than £60M.

The project is funded by regional development agency Advantage West Midlands. And it also encourages collaboration with more than 150 small companies supplying environmental technologies to help them become more involved in the region's supply chains. By making the right connections for these fledgling businesses, the region is laying the foundations for a more sustainable future.

The background to the SPB project is an increasing concern for mitigating and adapting to climate change, which is reflected in progressively more demanding legislation.

New building regulations require compliance to limits on CO2 production and necessitate closer collaboration between architects and engineers at the early stages of design.

The aim of the project is to engage a wider range of stakeholders than has traditionally been the case, bringing together clients, users, contractors, suppliers, architects, engineers and others likely to be interested in or affected by a new building, which is crucial for its success and sustainability.

It is also generally accepted that sustainability can only be truly achieved if the social, environmental and economic aspects are all considered from the outset when a new building is conceived.

SPB has been collaborating with public organisations to promote these points and produce examples from which others can learn. The West Midlands Region has a strong legacy of engineering skills, which is exactly what the construction industry needs to use new materials, work to tighter standards and develop new methods such as off-site manufacturing.

A sustainable future also depends on the sector sourcing much more of its needs from local companies. So there are opportunities to design and manufacture items such as solar panels, heat pumps, wind turbines and phase-change materials required to deliver renewable energy and avoid the need for overseas imports.

There have also been key lessons learned by SPB which give fresh hope and opportunities for the future of sustainable construction processes.

David Rhodes, SPB project manager at Encraft, said: "The development of off-site manufacturing is probably the biggest opportunity of which the industry should take note.

"All the new materials in the construction industry and methods of harnessing renewable energy are relevant too. We have the skills in the West Midlands but these need to be matched by the drive and investment.

"The region has a significant amount of biomass resources and should therefore be alert to using them for heating purposes."

The most ambitious project on which SPB has collaborated is the £4M new library for Blackheath in the West Midlands.

David Rhodes, project manager for SPB, worked together with Richard Baines from the Black Country Housing Group, which will share the new building with library staff. They also collaborated with architects, building services engineers and others to produce a design with many innovative features.

Aside from more obvious measures such as reducing heat loss through the building's fabric, the design also includes:
  • Inclined windows and deep roof overhang to reduce solar heat gain
  • Low-voltage direct-current supplies for the LED low-energy lighting and computers, avoiding the use of transformers and
  • rectifiers
  • Solar hot water and photovoltaic panels, all compatible with direct-current supplies
  • Biomass heating and phase-change materials to absorb summer heat without the need for thermal mass and minimise the need for air conditioning
The building technologies used in this case will be an excellent demonstrator and example for the West Midlands Region and beyond, just as the way in which stakeholders were consulted and the integrated team working of the architects and engineers.

Small companies
As part of SPB's objective to support small companies and help integrate them into the region's supply chain, the project has worked closely with Skyrota, manufacturer of small-scale wind turbines.

The company,which is based in Halesowen, West Midlands, is set to compete with the renewable-energy technologies which have generally been imported. It provides products particularly for coastal and exposed areas of the British Isles, on high buildings and in many overseas countries.

The initial offering is a 5kW model, which is five to eight times the size of most turbines on offer for domestic use and also suitable for industrial applications. Designers are working to produce a range of turbines which can be assembled from well tried modules of different sizes, including aerofoil, gearbox, generator, control system and metering. One version will be suitable for stand-alone generation to supply energy to people who have no other practical energy source other than wind.

For the technically minded, the design itself is innovative and the basis for Skyrota's confidence. The gearbox matches the low-speed turbine to a high-speed generator to deliver many advantages.

This makes it feasible to use a vertical-axis turbine at low speed, which reduces the stress and costs of the turbine, also reducing the size and weight of the electrical generator. Vertical-axis turbines face the wind from any horizontal direction and are more able to operate effectively in blustery conditions.

The rotor blades are 4m long and have a 2.5m radius, sat at the top of a 7m tower.

Skyrota will also use an induction generator to avoid expensive and sometimes unreliable electronic power conversion. According to the company, it is a robust, established technology, which is affordable and simple to connect to the grid because it does not require special provisions for synchronising.

SPB is one of several projects supporting Skyrota and advised on the generator design. David Rhodes said: "Skyrota is exactly the sort of company the West Midlands wishes to encourage and the type of initiative which will help the UK replace other industries which are now in decline."

Skyrota is included in the wind turbine output calculator on the Encraft website, giving a postcode search facility and the average speeds for each location and the surrounding nine 1km grids. The figures give outputs for 10m, 25m and 45m above ground level from the government's national wind speed database.

www.encraft.co.uk

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