Climate-KIC’s Building Technologies Accelerator programme welcomes its newest Living Lab in Zurich

ETH Zurich’s House of Natural Resources represents an exciting new chapter for Climate-KIC’s flagship Building Technologies Accelerator (BTA) programme as its network of Living Labs expands across Europe.

The House of Natural Resources joins existing Living Labs in Spain and the Netherlands. Two further labs are slated to open in 2016 in Sweden and Switzerland.

Living Labs play a crucial role in fulfilling BTA’s overall goal: speeding up and improving the research, development and commercialization process for sustainable building technologies and services. People live and work in the buildings where the experimental technology is deployed. Hence, the labs provide a valuable meeting point for researchers and decision makers, be it architects, engineers, builders, facility managers, or property owners.

“It’s a unique approach that sets us apart,” explains Katrin Hauser, Manager of the BTA programme. “We take into account user behaviour and comfort with these new technologies at a very early stage of product development.”

Large-scale projects are key

By accelerating product development, sustainable building technologies can be deployed quicker and on a widespread basis. There is substantial scope within the building industry to reduce manmade carbon dioxide (CO₂) as the sector currently accounts for approximately 40% of those emissions. The bulk of these emissions are generated during the lifetime of the building, for example from the heating and cooling processes.

BTA focuses on large-scale housing and office developments – both refurbishments as well as new projects – as it is here where the biggest environmental impact can be made.

The adoption of sustainable technologies by the building sector, however, is still in an early phase. More often than not, the hurdles are financial. When constructing a new block of flats or office building, investors tend to choose a cost-effective solution with a long track record.

“This is not a sector that is very ready to take risks,” says Nicolas Gruber, a Professor at ETH Zurich and Governing Board Member of Climate-KIC. “They are investing a lot of capital. They tend to use solutions and processes that have withstood the test of time.”

Governments, under pressure to reduce CO₂ emissions, will likely be a catalyst of change in coming years. They are expected to introduce new regulations supporting the adoption of sustainable building technologies.

BTA is not waiting, however. The programme is working today to lower the uncertainty and risks for investors, and to make sustainable building technologies more cost-competitive and accessible.

“With our tangible solutions throughout the whole value chain and active engagement of the demand side, we’re contributing to a systematic change in the built environment,” says Bertrand van Ee, chief executive officer of Climate-KIC.

Real world labs 

It is here where the Living Labs make an important contribution. Academic researchers and private companies can test new technologies in the Living Labs. Decision makers within the building sector can observe firsthand how the new technology is used in a real world environment. They can discuss findings with researchers, and describe their own requirements. And they can see how the technology interacts with other sustainable products or processes used within the same building.

This knowledge, in turn, boosts investors’ confidence in new solutions. It also reduces the potential for a “rebound effect” in which energy savings from the new technology are less than expected.

“Companies can be confident that it’s top-notch technology for solving the climate problem, and it’s going to work when they install it,” Gruber explains. “This lowers the risk for them and hence the cost.”

Researchers are excited about the opportunities provided by the Living Labs. It typically takes five to ten years for a product to proceed from development to commercialization. But researchers can now test their technologies much sooner via the Living Labs.

BTA’s wide network across Europe also provides researchers with immediate access to investors and other participants in the building sector rather than having to wait years to develop such contacts.

“We are really accelerating the research process,” says Andrea Frangi, Professor of Structural Engineering-Timber at ETH Zurich, who developed the novel hardwood frame that was used to construct the House of Natural Resources.

“We’re increasing our chance of success by developing a product with a company that knows the market situation.”

Indeed, the BTA Programme encourages researchers to draw up a business plan much earlier than they typically would. BTA recently hired four business developers to assist research teams in Delft, Gothenburg, Zurich, and Valencia in developing business models.

“The business developers are the bridge between the researchers and the market,” Hauser explains. “We need to know how to shape, improve or enrich the technology so that it will be accepted by the market.”

“If we want to be successful, we have to team up entrepreneurial mindsets and research excellence.”

Made of wood, built to last 

The ETH House of Natural Resources represents a once in a lifetime opportunity for Frangi. His innovation – a post-tensioned timber frame made from hardwood – was used for the building’s structure. He also developed the composite slabs (made from hardwood and concrete) used for the building’s ceilings. Up until now, hardwood has not been widely used in construction.

The House of Natural Resources, however, is proof that hardwood is a viable option. The material is environmentally friendly because it can store CO₂ for long periods of time. The timber frame and composite slabs also use less cement and steel, both of which result in CO₂ emissions during production.

Researchers are also testing other cutting-edge innovations at the House of Natural Resources, including an adaptive solar façade. The two-storey House of Natural Resources will house the offices of ETH Zurich’s Laboratory of Hydraulics, Hydrology and Glaciology.

Frangi believes his hardwood solutions could eventually be used to construct multiple-storey buildings, which would be a first in the world.

“This is a lighthouse project,” Frangi says. “We invite people to come and look at what we have done with hardwood. You will not find a similar building worldwide.”

The BTA programme, which has partners in education, private enterprise and government, is looking for exactly this kind of innovative collaboration. Hauser believes that the first movers will have a market advantage and lead the rest of the sector.

“We seek to gain partners that are committed and interested in sustainable refurbishment and construction,” Hauser says. “The market is not offering and adapting the solutions fast enough. With our consortium partners, we can accelerate the process.”

Further information

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