World-first facility to answer questions on air quality, from pollution to airborne infections

UCL’s new CAVE laboratory
UCL’s new CAVE laboratory

Construction of UCL’s Controlled Active Ventilation Environment (CAVE) laboratory, designed to research climate and airborne hazards, has been completed.

Located at the LondonEast-UK Business and Technical Park, Dagenham , CAVE is the first facility of its kind in terms of its advanced capabilities to carry out research at full scale into air quality and ventilation challenges in buildings. It is designed to answer questions relating to indoor air in urban environments, such as the effects of traffic pollution, infectious diseases or other airborne hazards, and how can indoor air be protected and improved.

The facility is due to be officially launched in early 2024 and expands UCL’s significant investments in a suite of experimental facilities at LondonEast-UK, following an initial investment of nearly £40M in the Person Environment Activity Research Laboratory (PEARL), which was completed in 2021.

CAVE is a complex climate-controlled and ventilation-controlled space with an area of 206 square metresand a height of nine metres, which can be set up to mimic external environments with temperatures ranging from -5C to over 40C.

Fully monitored, full-scale ’living labs’, such as two-storey modular buildings or large vehicles, can be constructed inside CAVE to facilitate experiments on the relationship between external environmental factors and indoor air quality in realistic conditions.

CAVE will place people and their health and wellbeing at the centre of research to explore how real indoor environments function when they are occupied, and how to make these spaces safer, healthier and more resilient to current and future challenges.

The inspiration for CAVE came from the COVID-19 pandemic, which highlighted the need to improve ventilation standards across the building and transport sectors, following years of poor design, focused solely on energy efficiency, and scant consideration of the consequences for health and wellbeing. It became clear that the world faces huge challenges to provide safe, healthy and people-centred spaces for growing urban populations.

Associate Professor Liora Malki-Epshtein (UCL Civil, Environmental & Geomatic Engineering), Director of CAVE, said: "When the idea for CAVE emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, we quickly realised how little real world air quality data we have in all sorts of contexts, from keeping medical and public spaces clean and safe from infection transmission, to ventilating homes to reduce illness. Air quality is affected by everything that we build and has not received enough attention until, sadly, people lost their lives or were seriously at risk. The criteria that we’ve been using to evaluate ventilation efficiency and performance have been imprecise and inadequate up until now. I hope that the data that CAVE generates will have a positive impact on industry standards and contribute to a more joined-up approach to design."

One of the missions of CAVE will be to support the development of air quality and thermal comfort solutions that tackle climate change in a sustainable, equitable, healthy and socially beneficial manner. A key objective will be helping the UK to meet its environmental sustainability strategy objectives through research on clean air. CAVE will also support the UK innovation strategy in Energy and Environment Technologies, by advancing sustainable ways to reduce UK energy demand by 40% by 2050.

Professor Jose Torero Cullen (Head of Department, UCL Civil, Environmental & Geomatic Engineering) said: "Climate change and the transition to a low-carbon economy mean the data that CAVE will generate has never been more important. If we consider an electric bus, for example, the vehicle’s battery is a finite energy source that needs to power everything, from the engine to the heating to the ventilation system. If these demands aren’t balanced, ultimately the range of the vehicle is reduced. We need to be as efficient as possible for this transition to succeed."

The £9.4 million CAVE project was designed by architects Perkins & Will and built by construction company VolkerFitzpatrick at the LondonEast-UK Business and Technical Park, Dagenham.

Professor Nigel Titchener-Hooker, Executive Dean of UCL’s Faculty of Engineering, said: "UCL has a strong tradition of tackling important challenges in engineering. The CAVE laboratory follows UCL’s investment of £40M in PEARL, delivering a unique suite of facilities in Dagenham in terms of scale and their potential to help answer some of the big questions around how people interact with the built environment and how infrastructure design affects people. This is arguably one of the most pressing global concerns in light of our rapidly changing climate and the need to move to a low-carbon economy."

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