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Breathing new life into building ventilation design

After gaining an undergraduate degree in engineering at Cambridge University, Shaun Fitzgerald turned to the subject of energy in the early 1990s, obtaining a PhD in geothermal power.

He then travelled to the US and took up the position of geothermal programme manager at Stanford University in 1995.

On his return to the UK in 1997, he accepted a position in the financial sector in the City of London, providing him with valuable commercial experience through working as a strategy consultant.

On his return to Cambridge in 2001, he renewed his focus on engineering, joining the university’s research programme on the delivery of low-energy buildings, with a particular focus on airflow.

“During that research programme, a couple of us in the research group really stumbled upon the big idea of how natural ventilation could actually be used properly in buildings,” says Dr Fitzgerald.

He describes the use of traditional methods to heat buildings as “heinous” in terms of the amount of energy required, especially when buildings generate a significant amount of heat.

Having determined that natural ventilation could be used to distribute warm air, a patent was filed through Cambridge University for the process in 2005.

“We then took it to the funding body, BP, which said it could transform the way we thought about the world and could certainly transform the way we thought about natural ventilation.”

The next discussion centred on how to bring the idea to market, which was solved by BP providing the funding for a new company to be established, run by Dr Fitzgerald and utilising both his technical and commercial knowledge.

A small team of three individuals worked on the development of a control system to use natural ventilation and save energy compared with conventional systems. The first example was created within eight months and installed at a new school.

“The remit of the first two years was to develop technology, and try to understand how you get this technology into the marketplace,” says Dr Fitzgerald. There was also ongoing discussion with BP about how this should be handled.

Through this process, it was agreed that Breathing Buildings was best suited to continue, due to its detailed specialist knowledge and expertise within the built environment. The company began operating as an independent entity at the end of 2007.

The ongoing process of development involved a number of conversations with building designers, who were impressed with the company’s approach.

The fact that it was offering a solution to ‘the winter issue’ was seen as particularly positive, using natural ventilation without creating cold draughts.

“You worry about the summer, but everyone forgets about the winter, whereas we spend most of our time in the UK under ‘winter’ conditions,” he says. “We have a wonderfully boring climate, which is perfectly suited to natural ventilation.”

Planning for growth

Having successfully established the company, the next issue to address was to decide the best way to continue its development.

Fortunately Dr Fitzgerald’s previous experience within the financial sector provided the means to create a strategy to secure further financial backing. The unfortunate aspect was that this coincided with the beginning of the downturn in late 2008.

Backed by an unshakeable belief that the company’s solution would continue to be welcomed by industry, a business plan was established and negotiations began to find additional support, despite the gathering economic clouds.

A deal was signed in 2009 with MMC Ventures, allowing the company to invest in product development while extending its sales team.

Rather than employing individuals with a sales background, the company recruits engineers. “The type of sales persons we hire are very different from many other companies in the industry,” says Dr Fitzgerald.

“Because they are nearly all highly qualified graduates or PhD engineers, they really understand the gory details of how you do [building] modelling and they don’t need to refer back to head office to ask ‘how do you model this?’.”

Thanks to careful investment in people, product and processes, the company now provides consultancy on an international basis, supplying advice and solutions around the area of the modelling of natural and mechanical ventilation solutions.

The company aims to use natural ventilation wherever possible, assisted by mechanical means to handle the peaks and troughs of demand.

Progress is continuing, with one of the most notable developments being the forming of a partnership with an American company to service the US and Canadian market.

Dr Fitzgerald says that although this requires some travel to the US, its transatlantic dealings are sometimes easier to manage than its UK operations in remote areas, due to the American acceptance of using online communication technology such as webinars and Skype.

While he feels it is essential for companies to concentrate on their core specialities to maintain their individuality, there is also room for carefully chosen peripheral services to be included, he says.

Using this model, Breathing Buildings provides the option of delivering additional expertise in areas other than ventilation to ensure that projects run smoothly.

The company is also seeking to establish partnerships with other organisations throughout Europe. This is expected to be particularly effective with companies that have knowledge of sales, marketing and manufacturing of mechanical ventilation equipment.

These are identified as the businesses with the most potential to profit from natural ventilation methodology.

Individual requirements

Breathing Buildings has established an adaptable approach to working with customers, in order to focus on the individual requirements of the business or building concerned.

This could, for example, involve a concentration on carbon reduction, where Breathing Buildings would identify where the greatest savings can be made.

For supermarkets, this could involve reducing the refrigeration load, or discussing more energy-efficient lighting for large retail organisations. The most important aim is to focus on providing the end solution that is the best suited for the building concerned, says Dr Fitzgerald.

One of its recent successes was the Houghton-Le-Spring Health Centre (pictured), which became the UK’s first BREEAM Outstanding healthcare building at the final stage.

Breathing Buildings designed the building’s low-carbon natural ventilation system for main contractor Willmott Dixon, helping it to achieve an impressive 85.31 per cent in the post-construction assessment.

Dr Fitzgerald says his driving force is a passion to improve energy efficiency within buildings: “What excites me is that I’ve got this heart for energy and I want to transform the world of the built environment and that’s what drives all these business decisions.”

Having been formed in the midst of one of the most severe recessions for many years, the business can now look forward with a measure of confidence, thanks to its ability to provide adaptable solutions to some of the built environment’s most pressing requirements.