05 - 07 March 2024 | ExCeL, London

05 - 07 March 2024 | ExCeL, London

Opinion Piece

Taking a Stand for Better Buildings

Opinion piece by Paul Foulkes, Co-Chair of the KNX UK Association

Technology has presented us with an opportunity to create more sustainable, energy efficient buildings that are adaptable to the changing needs of occupants, but these changes need to be incorporated from the outset and not as an afterthought.

Census 2021 results show the population of England and Wales has continued to age since 2011. The number of people aged 65 years and over increased from 9.2 million in 2011 to over 11 million in 2021 and the proportion of people aged 65 years and over rose from 16.4% to 18.6%.

Seven years ago, I reported on an initiative in France that addressed this need in society.

In order to provide ‘safe at home’ environments the scheme sought to retain residents’ independence and improve security and comfort.  Solutions were implemented employing simple modifications and KNX technology.

Each year falls affect one in two people aged 80 or over some of these are due to poor lighting, so sensor-controlled lighting was installed, other modifications included easier to operate shower fittings and a shower that has no step to help limit the risk of accident. The sink was fitted to allow access for a wheelchair. 

If the occupant has a fall or loses consciousness, then the installed movement detectors recognize a lack of movement and an alert would be shown on the building interface panel along with a local visual and aural alarm, an alert can also be sent via text or email to specific people or the emergency services indicating that the resident is not responding to the local alarm.  The same alert sequence can be activated manually by push-button movement detectors and manual alarms can be installed in any room and profile depending upon the needs of the resident.  The profiling is specific to that resident and it can include various parameters such as the amount of time spent sleeping or active and allows the passive detection of any abnormal routine changes and alerts can be activated as required. 

Independence issues don’t just affect the elderly, the office of National Statistics reports that there are 10,444,770 people between the ages of 15 – 50 listed as Disabled under the Equality Act: Day-to-day activities limited. Injury, illness and congenital conditions.

The use of KNX technology is increasing in these settings because it is the worldwide standard and guarantees seamless interoperability between thousands of products from over 500 different manufacturers. Functionality can be endlessly added to or adapted as needs change, without a complete system overhaul. And as users needs change then the system can easily be adapted to the new requirements.

One of my passions is the need to design better buildings from the outset, creating buildings for life that adapt and change to the needs of the occupant.

When designing homes for life it is necessary to look at user profiles. The requirements for a single person are going to be considerably different than a requirement for a family of four, or a household with a disabled family member. A further consideration is the potential for change in requirement throughout the lifetime of the occupants. What is needed by an occupant at 25 years old will be considerably different from what is required or desirable for that same occupant at 65 years old. 

We have a tendency in the UK to think of houses as elements just passing through our lives but actually a house is going to stand for probably at least 100 years. In fact, much of our housing stock in UK is considerably older than that.  Focus on infrastructure capable of meeting future requirements needs to be a day one objective.  It is short-sighted to design and build the house then subsequently consider adding in functionality retrospectively.

We need to be thinking from day one about cabling requirements, services, ventilation, water, waste. Most importantly we need be thinking beyond basic wiring regulation.  On all buildings, not only larger projects, the building services design should include controls of all of the elements within that building – heating, ventilation, light, glazing all of these need to be assessed from day one and they need to be assessed by someone that has an overarching viewpoint.  

Quantity Surveyors will look at each individual aspect of a building and what that means is that the overall design gets broken down in to silos and individualized resulting in disparate systems.  If a controls integrator is included in the design and specification process, as part of the M&E team, the result is a building that will stand the test of time.

The planning stage needs to reflect the here and now but also needs to look beyond that, not only at what is going to be needed in five years time, but what’s going to be happening in that building in 25 years time. Installed systems must be able to adapt to these changes without massive, costly overhaul.

The future use of that building could change not only for the initial occupant of that building but also if the needs of that resident changes, perhaps from a single person to a disabled person to a family or to adapt to environmental changes. We need to be designing buildings that don’t need to be stripped back to base build in order to put in a completely new infrastructure.  Far better to plan for changes to future requirements in the homes that we build right now. 

Unfortunately, within the UK volume house building market, the goal can often be building to the lowest possible common denominator, which generally seems to be cost to that particular developer.  Sadly, this is how we build and sell houses.  We consider it acceptable to put the minimum amount of insulation in, the minimum amount of technology in.  That’s not a sustainable build route in any way shape or form. 

This has been recognised for many years and I often quote Rowe from way back in the 90’s:

“In our anxiety to leave the housing market as free as possible we allow short-term costs to dominate our policies

…every year we add to the country’s housing stock, dwellings whose inflexibility makes them even less suitable for any but the young and agile …” Rowe 1991

We need a more flexible future-thinking approach to the way we design building infrastructures and we need to do it now.

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