Research At The Suffolk Sustainability Institute, University Of Suffolk

29 April 2024 - Ben Cussons

Written by Dr Alison Pooley, with Dr Hannah Steventon and Prof Darryl Newport.

The Suffolk Sustainability Institute is one of six research institutes based at the University of Suffolk. We are committed to tackling the causes of climate change, the impacts of which alongside environmental degradation are amongst the greatest threats to public health, the global economy and biodiversity.

The University of Suffolk takes a strategic approach to sustainable development and has seen the biggest decrease in carbon emissions out of nearly 120 universities across the UK since 2015/16, achieving a 64% decrease in Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions between 2015/16 and 2021/22 (Scope 1 emissions are those caused from the combustion of fuel, while Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions from the purchase and consumption of electricity supplied by the grid, excluding emissions from the supply chain, transport, and waste).

Being part of a university that is making a real difference in carbon reduction is crucial to the work of the Suffolk Sustainability Institute as our aim is to bring tangible benefits at a global, national, and local scale as we work towards a low-carbon future. The Institute’s research is centred on three key themes: Green Infrastructure, Sustainable Healthy Communities and Energy and Resource Management. These themes span a range of emerging research disciplines and pressing urban and rural sustainability challenges, underpinning our commitment to translate our research to be useful to everyone.

The Institute promotes research opportunities and knowledge exchange through existing research projects and testing facilities, including the DigiTech Smart House, our living laboratory at BT’S Adastral Park, completed in 2022. The DigiTech Smart House, delivered through a partnership consisting of the University of Suffolk, the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership and BT, is a collaborative research facility that aims to demonstrate the regional capacity for designing, building, and occupying sustainable homes.

The Smart House utilises systems to evaluate the performance of sustainable materials, low carbon energy and water consumption, addressing two pressing concerns – 1) climate change and the impact of the construction industry and 2) the chronic shortage of affordable homes and the UK housing crisis.

The vision behind the Smart House was to present an example of an easy to maintain and comfortable home. Constructed as a ‘living laboratory’ for research to be undertaken: on the house as an operational building, in the house as a unique domestic research facility, and around the house in its digital and environmental ecosystem. Using the house as a ‘living lab’ and demonstrator we are working with a range of innovation partners.

The house, which has a gross internal area of 58m2, was initially conceived through a oneday design charette with our architecture students, and their studio tutor architect Ben Powell, with his practice Studio Manifest. The challenge was to reduce embodied cardon by 60%. This has been achieved through low impact post and beam construction using timber beams, with timber studs, the house has minimal materials in the ground to enable reuse and relocation. Embodied carbon calculations are ongoing as we adapt the home for different projects.

The construction methods used at the Smart House are testing readily available materials and methods, such as offsite manufacture and use of panel systems. Part of the purpose of the house is to test these materials for future adoption, adaptation and retrofitting opportunities, for example the timber internal walls, with Woodfibre insulation, all have screw fixings for potential reuse.

Although currently unoccupied, the house is designed as a home and contains a fully functioning kitchen, living room, fully accessible wet room and bedroom (on the first floor). With a small solar PV array on the south facing roof, mechanical ventilation and heat recovery (MVHR) and an air source heat pump, all of which are monitored for performance.

Alongside using materials and technologies that are available to the industry now, we are additionally testing novel technologies in systems integration, connectivity, and home care, to inform our socio-digital futures. The Smart House represents an opportunity to test these new technologies and materials alongside our existing models, and this will develop as we install a building management system and adapt the house for future research projects.

Recently we have been developing a garden watering monitoring system with smart rainwater storage and watering driven by moisture content sensors and increasing theoverall building management system. This type of research has direct impact by feeding into larger projects such as Reclaim the Rain.

We are constantly collecting baseline data at the Smart House from indoor environment and air quality sensors, embedded sensors in the building shell, and the exterior weatherstation. This has been collated into data packs to share with suppliers, researchers and students. Most recently data was presented to students at our annual environmental data hackathon, sponsored by BT and the IET, it focused on connected places smart and sustainable living. Students explored data, responded to business and community challenges, and presented solutions, developing understanding of the data, technical andsoft skills.

As well as exploring technology in daily life, the Smart House gives us an opportunity to address material use in construction. This has led to a collaboration with Natural Building Systems (NBS), who have built a prototype garden room adjacent to the house, using their unique, climate-positive, biobased, modular construction system. This small prototype is being monitored by the university, alongside the Smart House, for fabric performance and is designed to be demountable; the panels can be adapted, reassembled, and reused, and is one of several ongoing research collaborations with NBS.

The Smart House presents us with a wonderful opportunity to share our research and to collaborate with others. If you would like to discuss research ideas or enquire about thesmart house and the work we are doing at the Suffolk Sustainability Institute please email

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