architecture sustainability technology

Building of the week: The Beacon

A recent episode of the BBC’s Costing the Earth programme addressed the issue of sustainable homes. Among the various locations explored, the one that caught my eye was a development called The Beacon.

A 17 storey ‘vertical village’ currently under construction in Hemel Hempstead, the Beacon claims to be zero emissions and zero pollution. The whole building is solar powered, using the sun for heat and for electricity. The roof would be inadequate to provide for over 200 flats, so the solar panels are all around the building instead.

One thing that’s particularly clever is that the building harvests the sun’s heat and uses it for hot water and heating, but also for electricity. Sustainable architects usually orient a building and add shades and brise-soleils to stop overheating in the summer. The Beacon captures that waste heat instead and puts it to good use, providing renewable hot water and banking heat in the basement for the winter. Excess heat, presumably on particularly hot days, can be run through a turbine to generate power.

With these multiple forms of solar power in play, the energy capacity of the building is actually greater than residents’ projected needs, and it should be able to export energy for another few hundred homes. Residents themselves can expect zero bills, and free energy for life is a prominent selling point.

Other interesting features include a heat exchanger that extracts the warmth from waste water as it goes down the drain. Green buildings capture the heat from air as it leaves houses through ventilation, so why not water? Otherwise the water from baths and showers is just warming the sewers. The basement has a large automated car park and an electric car charging scheme. It gets warm down there, so heat is harvested from the basement too.

Currently the building is being marketed as an exclusive and elite housing development. Much is made of the deluxe kitchens and bathrooms and it is being sold as part of a luxury lifestyle. However, if the building can prove itself as a luxury development, then the technology can be applied to other forms of housing in future. Most importantly, the people who would benefit most from zero bills would be those on low incomes. The Beacon may serve to pilot an approach which would then come into its own in the context of social housing.

I’m also curious to see if the waste heat generation works as planned. If it does, that’s a technology that could be widely applicable in developing countries – especially those with more sunlight than Britain gets. It could be a cheaper form of solar power than PV. Millions of people are going to be re-housed in residential towers across India, China and Africa in the coming decades. If those towers can include low cost renewable energy designed into the building, The Beacon may be pioneering something rather special.

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