Northern Ireland

University of Ulster in thermal homes experiment

It's a unique housing experiment.

Two homes built exactly as they would have been constructed around 1900 in the corner of a university campus.

Families are moving in and expected to face cold damp walls and large heating bills.

Modelled on an existing old Belfast home, the houses have no cavity walls and no wall insulation.

Researchers at the University of Ulster (Jordanstown campus) have been exploring the best way to retrofit insulation to homes with no wall cavities.

So they decided to build part of a terrace of real houses, put real families in them and then try to sort the problem out.

Fitting insulation retrospectively to such homes (there are over 20 million in the UK) is very difficult.

One problem is the amount of internal space the insulation takes up. Another is the substantial disturbance to fixtures and fittings all of which adds to the cost.

"It's a living laboratory," said Philip Griffiths from the School of the Built Environment at the university.

"We want to be able to find solutions to retrofit homes so that when we leave them they are comfortable for the people living inside them and they still have a good living area they can use."

The new "old" homes are correct in every detail. Architraves around the ceilings have been included and there are even period-style mouldings below supporting walls.

This ensures that future insulation development will have to cope with real design features rather than just theoretical blank walls.

Human activity monitored

Each room has all its thermal and human activity monitored. The families who move in will be asked to live a normal life, complete with children leaving doors lying open.

But they will also be expected to allow researchers regular access to try out ideas.

The scientists involved in the project are under no illusion that it will be a simple solution.

"Internally we can put on something like a vacuum insulation panel, which is a lot thinner than traditional insulation material.

"Therefore we don't take up as much internal space", said Mr Griffiths.

"When you insulate the house from the outside you avoid things like thermal bridging (where heat leaks from internal connecting walls) but insulating outside causes problems with the planners with regards to conservation areas and things like that.

"Then we have to make sure that when we reduce the heat loss we do it without creating mould growth and condensation problems within materials."

Formally launching the project on a cold damp and windy day, the Employment and Learning minister, Stephen Farry welcomed the research which his department had helped fund.

"Our commitment to this project demonstrates the importance of the critical contribution that research and development makes to economic development and competitiveness in Northern Ireland."

Image caption Temperatures in the houses will be monitored

"Skills will be a key contributor to maximizing the potential economic returns from sustainable energy and ensuring Northern Ireland meets the energy targets contained within the Strategic Energy Framework for Northern Ireland," said Mr Farry.

To the uninformed observer the houses seem rather out of place, hidden as they are amongst various scientific and technical buildings.

But their location means they can be monitored day and night.

Guard chambers

In a real street with a row or terrace of homes, the adjoining gable walls enjoy the shelter and heat from their neighbours and this is replicated in the experiment.

So-called "guard chambers" have been constructed at either end of the row and are kept heated to an average home temperature.

But if you wander up the stairs in one of the apparently empty chambers you may find a man crouched at a computer monitoring the temperature and movements next door.

Which could be rather unsettling for the new residents until they get used to being thermal guinea pigs.

The UK had set itself a target to retrofit all single wall homes by 2050. That's over 20 million homes.

But as one project researcher at the university points out there are just 19.9 million minutes until 2050.

That's a home retrofitted with insulation every minute for the next 38 years.

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