Q&A – David Kelly

Materials World magazine
1 Aug 2018

David Kelly, Group Director of the UK’s Building Research Establishment’s Innovation Parks Network, talks to Gary Peters about how the organisation is engaging with the sustainability agenda, and how it developed its dementia-friendly and flood-resistant homes.

Tell me about your career to date.

I joined Building Research Establishment (BRE) in July 2002 as a consultant, before spending the next seven years working on building forensics, investigating materials and building failures from a broad range of clients within the UK and Europe. 

Crawling around in attic spaces and harnessed in to cherry pickers provided some interesting, and ultimately valuable, experiences. I was then given the opportunity to go on secondment, firstly to the Scottish Construction Centre, then to Construction Scotland.

Then came the Innovation Parks. Firstly, I worked on the BRE’s first purpose-built innovation park in Ravenscraig, Lanarkshire, which I led from the concept stage through to completion and operation, before I was asked to lead the BRE Innovation Parks Network and look after our interests established in countries around the world.

What’s the vision of the Innovation Parks?

The vision is to establish a unique and unparalleled research and demonstration network, which inspires and develops innovative solutions that will inform the development of the global built environment.

How did you end up with the BRE?

I started life as an academic, getting a PhD in building physics before continuing as a research fellow working at Glasgow Caledonian
University and the University of Strathclyde, UK. I started to get involved in projects BRE was undertaking on materials performance and this led to me joining BRE in 2002.

Any particular career highlights that stand out?

Developing the park at Ravenscraig involved a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and was a real milestone when it was officially opened in September 2012. I also managed to provide BRE with a zero carbon visitors’ centre, which allowed us to deliver our objectives and grow our operations.

At BRE, you created a dementia-friendly home. How this project came about?

I started looking at housing for an ageing population in late 2015. It was obvious that the shift in demographic towards a growing and ageing population would put increasing pressure on housing, care services, the NHS, and other public sector services. 

When you look deeper into the role housing has in supporting people, it is obvious that homes can be designed and adapted for people to age well. The breadth of stakeholders involved in dementia care is significant and ranges from clinicians, to carers, police and fire services, and design and housing professionals. Communication is not always consistent or productive, so how could we use the Innovation Parks to develop integrated solutions for housing and dementia, and establish greater collaboration between the stakeholders involved? That has been my main driver for progressing our work in this area.

What are some of the features that make it dementia-friendly?

We were very fortunate and created a multi-disciplinary team. Working closely with Loughborough University, Halsall Lloyd Partnership, and Liverpool John Moores University, UK, we drew upon extensive research knowledge and experience in developing housing and supportive environments for people with dementia.

The team spent approximately six months designing the demonstration home, using detailed research findings from across their backgrounds. We worked to take our combined knowledge of dementia care, architecture, building performance and operation, to develop a design that supports the users to live well with dementia. 

As part of Loughborough’s ongoing research, academics will also study how some of the home features are used with a view to further improving ways to support homeowners with dementia. We will also use the principles of line of sight, colour, lighting, accessibility, and furnishings, in combination with emerging sensor technology to monitor movement, behavioural patterns, safety, and the internal building environment.

Are homes of this ilk the future?

I would certainly hope that greater consideration is given to the shifting demographic of the UK. That does not necessarily mean that we should be building more homes for the elderly, but perhaps more homes that can be easily adapted to meet the varying needs of an ageing population.

The approaches we will demonstrate in the dementia home will be relevant to new build and refurbishment projects.

You also worked on flood-resilient homes. 

What are some of their features?

The cost of flood repair is often significant. In areas where flooding occurs regularly, the cost of home insurance can be at a high level, or difficult to obtain in the first place. One of the solutions to is repair homes using flood resilience techniques, so that the home can recover quicker in the aftermath of a flood event, and the cost of repair can be reduced.

Our demonstration presents some basic principles of flood resilience, such as elevating white and electrical goods off of the floor, and some more intrusive measures such as sub-floor pump and sump, non-return valves to prevent sewer flooding, and waterproofing membranes within the walls and floors.

What’s been the reaction?

Needless to say, the building has received a great deal of interest, not only in how it performs under test, but how the measures can be fitted into existing homes. I can’t recall anything we have done on the Innovation Park that has been more dramatic than the fire and rescue services spraying thousands of litres of water into a demonstration building. This is what the Innovation Park is all about.

Would you agree that sometimes not enough attention is given to the link between materials and society, and how materials are integral to healthy cities?

Given my background, I am very aware of the role materials play in the performance and operation of buildings. Often, the focus on materials specification is on thermal performance and durability – and rightly so. 

However, it is equally important to recognise the role they play relating to air quality. Whether it be a through a positive impact on indoor air quality, or absorbing carbon emissions, the role of materials in creating healthy environments cannot be overlooked.

Looking back, how has the built environment changed during your time in the industry?

The recession of 2008 had a real impact. Before that, I had seen and welcomed a growing acceptance of improved building performance, considered use of materials, and open views on innovation. This is gradually returning and with some positive and consistent messages from the government, hopefully this continues. 

I also see an increasing focus on health and wellbeing. The built environment is at the core of our everyday lives – in our homes, our work places, schools, and hospitals, as well as our daily commute and travel. The quality of this environment and how it affects and contributes to wellbeing is becoming more accepted by those who make policy and regulation, as well as clients and customers.

Do you have any predictions as to how it will change moving forward?

I have no doubt that digital technologies will become embedded in how we develop and deliver the built environment of the future. In many cases, that future is already here as we explore the use of robotics and automation to deliver building elements. There is likely to be exciting stuff with opportunities and challenges of equal measure keeping us busy in the coming months and years.