Dr Amar Bennadjii from The Scott Sutherland School of Architecture & Built Environment

Mixed reality offers a new approach to building retrofit and reaching net-zero

By Jenny Frost - 21 March 2022

Building on success and an academic award at the Tokyo Design Festival for outstanding research on mixed reality (MR), Dr Amar Bennadji from The Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and Built Environment (SSS), highlights the role mixed reality and digital technology plays when teaching building retrofit.

By combining the virtual and physical realities into one space, mixed reality (MR) offers a new and exciting design paradigm for architects that will help students integrate sustainable design into their work. Ultimately, MR will help the UK reach it's net-zero targets and aid it’s post Covid-19 recovery.

In the face of extreme recession and the accelerating environmental threats, a green recovery from COVID-19 would greatly improve the resilience of economies and communities. The building sector is one industry that has a huge potential to promote economic growth and carbon reduction at the same time.

With extensive expertise in the field of energy efficiency in existing buildings in terms of teaching, research or practical aspects, a team of researchers at The Scott Sutherland School of Architecture & Built Environment is driving forward a retrofit revolution.  As part of a joint international research collaboration with 16 universities known as the 'World16' and 'Forum8' in Japan, the team is exploring the role of mixed reality in architecture, urban design and teaching. The Scott Sutherland School of Architecture & Built Environment is also developing an online, Postgraduate Building Retrofit course, which will start in September 2022 and which offers an exceptional opportunity to explore the use of mixed reality learning.

Retrofitting present huge opportunities but if we really want to meet the UK’s net zero targets and to generate the necessary additional 500,000 extra jobs in this field, we need to make teaching more accessible to the wider public. That’s where mixed reality comes in. Unlike face-to-face teaching, online delivery faces many challenges that mixed reality can overcome. It allows architects to work in a completely immersive environment, either individually or collaboratively, where they experience and understand buildings long before they are built or retrofitted. It helps an architect visualise an overall project, where they can imagine and test new spaces, effectively serving as a virtual jigsaw. This reduces the number of physical prototypes required in the design process, thereby reducing material waste and cutting a project’s carbon footprint.

Including energy renovation as part of a post-COVID-19 recovery plan has many financial, social and ecological benefits. It would create jobs and strengthen our cities' resilience to future crises.  Although most countries have made significant efforts to promote the decarbonization of the building industry, only a small proportion of buildings are renovated. This is a challenge that the North Sea Regional Stronghouse Programme, which involves 26 partners including RGU, is trying to tackle. The group engages, enables and empowers homeowners and neighbourhoods to invest and reduce the environmental footprint of their homes. Several studies produced by the group have shown that there are many inherited challenges to improving the energy efficiency of buildings including financial barriers, a lack of awareness about energy-efficient options and a lack skilled professionals.

Different institutions in Japan, the UK and elsewhere across the world have addressed the lack of professional skills by developing specific training programmes and courses in the field of building energy retrofitting. Due to Covid restrictions, most thermal renovation courses are taught remotely through online-learning. However, thermal retrofitting is a practical field, and it is hard to keep participants engaged through online learning. Furthermore, energy renovation of existing buildings can be very complicated and complex, which makes online-learning considerably difficult, especially when there are too many variations of building typologies (solid brick wall, concrete wall, timber frame, etc.), treatments (internal insulation, external insulation, airtightness) and materials (aerogel porous ultralight, foam insulation, mineral and glass wool, etc).

Mixed Reality is a novel technology in online-learning that enhances participants’ learning in virtual classrooms. The research on MR applications in teaching the built environment is still at an early stage, and there is a lack of research on the effects and implications of MR in the field of energy retrofitting education. Hence my research extends the current knowledge by exploring the use of MR as a new method for students to learn how to energy retrofit existing buildings remotely.

By positioning RGU and The Scott Sutherland School of Architecture & Built Environment at the forefront of digital technology, we are equipping our students with the skill set required for a more energy efficient construction industry. Our new online, Postgraduate Building Retrofit course represents an exceptional opportunity to use mixed reality as a means of teaching postgraduate students.  It will enhance student’s learning achievements as well as professionals in the construction industry and overcome many challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. This in turn, will increase a graduate’s employability and provide the thermal renovation sector with the qualified workforce needed to achieve the 2050 ambitious carbon reduction targets set by different countries. Ultimately, this will have a positive impact on society at large, improving people’s lives and the overall energy efficiency of their homes.

Reflecting on the work of Dr Amar Bennadjii, colleague Professor Richard Laing, whose research has concentrated on the use of digital visualisation to support user and stakeholder engagement, said; “The work being undertaken by Amar and his team is vitally important. The climate emergency means that we need to radically rethink how we design, use and look after our buildings, and this requires a combination of technical and societal advances. By using digital models to convey the effects that materials and behaviour on energy use, Amar has been able to communicate his research to a wide audience. This makes it all the more exciting and will help to reach the potential of improving buildings and lives. Our Centre for Digital Cities and Society is especially interested in these issues, as they are central to us having a more sustainable future."

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