Virtual reality tool to measure carbon emissions on display at COP26

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A Northumbria University academic is preparing to showcase an innovative virtual reality device at this year’s COP26 Climate Change summit which could help to revolutionise the construction industry.

As an expert in sustainable construction in Northumbria’s Department of Architecture and Built Environment, Dr Zaid Alwan realised that visualising the impact of carbon in homes and buildings from day-to-day activities and energy use was the next step forward for the construction industry.

With new digital technologies changing the way we live and work, Dr Alwan was inspired by his children’s immersive online gaming. The senior lecturer decided to try to recreate the 3D immersive reality environment used within virtual reality applications to allow people to navigate spaces and see how much carbon was being used in buildings.

He has developed the Digital Energy Estimation Tool (DEET) which utilises VR immersive reality to help architects, construction professional developers, planners, and even members of the public assess where energy is being used within buildings and make changes to make them more environmentally friendly. It can also be applied to larger-scale developments, including at a city planning and infrastructure level.

The DEET tool will help building and construction companies address the climate challenge objectives set by the UK government to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050.

The UK COP26 Universities Network has selected Dr Alwan to exhibit the DEET tool to the thousands of attendees expected at COP26, including world leaders, government representatives and businesses – all of whom are there to discuss and agree ways to bring climate change under control.

Dr Alwan hopes that when people can physically see the effects of climate change within a room or building, they will be more inspired to play their part in addressing it.

He explained: “A lot of people associate climate change with natural habitats but in fact, a lot of the damage that comes is actually from the buildings themselves and the energy we use in our day-to-day activities.

“We have the embodied carbon impact, from the materials used within the construction of the building, and the process to manufacture them, and we also have the operational carbon impact which comes through the energy we use for heating, cooking, and powering household appliances.

“We’ve developed a tool which actually visualises the total energy consumption, both operational and embodied, in a specific building.”

By wearing an everyday PC-powered virtual reality headset and controllers, people are able to walk-through homes and buildings to get a real feel of the amount of energy being generated by household appliances and heating systems, as well as understand the carbon impact of materials used within the building itself.

As the DEET tool analyses the energy going into building materials, anyone renovating a house or kitchen could evaluate the space and materials used and consider new ways to develop the building that may have less of an environmental impact.

“If you are refurbishing your house and replacing maybe a specific type of wood or considering putting granite worktops in your kitchen, our tool will help you to visualise the carbon impact of this,” said Dr Alwan.

“Granite is a good example – as a dense, heavy material which is likely to have been imported from another part of the world, it has a much higher environmental impact. When we visualise the full-life cycle impact of this we can then consider substituting it for a material that can be sourced more locally, or which has a lower environmental impact.”

Dr Alwan beat off stiff competition from hundreds of researchers across the UK to be selected by the COP26 Universities Network to exhibit at the conference.

Northumbria is one of the leading universities in the UK for using digital technologies to drive change, innovation, and transformation in the construction industry. For more information on Northumbria University’s work in the fight against climate change, visit www.northumbria.ac.uk/livesustainably

Chris Price
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