Dr Ben Roberts
Lecturer – Architecture, Building and Civil Engineering
Dr Ben Roberts has expertise in building performance measurement and modelling. He has led research projects exploring ways to reduce indoor overheating – both in the UK and Ghana – and to minimise the risk of transmission of airborne pathogens, including SARS-CoV-2. In recognition of the significance of his work, Ben has been awarded an EPSRC Doctoral Prize Fellowship to investigate ways to reduce extreme heat and exposure to poor indoor air quality in hospitals in tropical climates.
Mitigating the risks of extreme heat
During summer 2020, three periods met the Public Health England heatwave definition, and cumulative excess all-cause mortality related to these heatwaves was the highest observed to date. Studies demonstrate that temperature is a global health risk factor, and climate change is exacerbating the threat. Ben’s work – in line with the UN SGDs – is finding ways to reduce indoor overheating – helping to address the challenge and reduce fatalities.
My current work addresses the critical issue of ensuring healthy and comfortable indoor environments in a warming climate. My particular focus is on reducing both indoor overheating and the transmission of airborne pathogens. My research is based in the UK and Ghana.
Extreme heat in tropical regions is negatively impacting people’s health and wellbeing, with the urban poor disproportionately affected. My Doctoral Prize Fellowship and the REFIT project are allowing me to explore ways to control extreme heat in homes and hospitals in Ghana. I hope this research will be translated to span other tropical countries in the Global South – and beyond.
I’m working with researchers from the University of Ghana and the University of Development Studies, gathering data from four experimental buildings (that we’ve constructed to test a variety of heat mitigation measures), 60 homes and workplaces, and four hospitals in Ghana.
For various reasons, air-conditioning is not necessarily the answer. So, I’m investigating passive cooling strategies that could be implemented via adaptations to existing buildings or at design stage in new ones.
These interventions – including natural ventilation – could improve thermal comfort while also reducing the airborne transmission of disease. My research in hospitals has shown that recirculating air-conditioning systems – without supplementary ventilation – cause the indoor air quality to deteriorate and increase the likelihood of airborne pathogen transmission.
In 2021, I was involved in the largest field trial of its kind worldwide – the UK Government’s Events Research Programme which examined the risk of transmission of COVID-19 from attendance at mass-gathering events and explored ways to enable people to attend a range of events safely.
As part of the AIRBODS project, I monitored the indoor air quality at a number of events including the first nightclub event, theatre performance, and music festival since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, the work enabled the reopening of large, mass-participation events in the UK for the first time since the pandemic began in 2020 – a massive boost to the events industry.
Another large field trial I’ve worked on was the first evaluation of SMETER technologies. Led by the University – in partnership with Leeds Beckett University, UCL, and Halton Housing – we evaluated new methods to measure the thermal performance of homes using smart meter data. These methods could revolutionise the way we assess the energy efficiency of the UK housing stock.
My PhD sought to give people advice for keeping their homes cool in heatwaves without using air-conditioning. I conducted experiments in a matched pair of synthetically occupied test houses using ventilation, shading, and other modifications to occupant behaviour to mitigate overheating. I measured temperatures and ventilation rates using tracer gas.
The data collected allowed me to run an exercise to validate dynamic thermal models of overheating – which have recently been introduced into UK building regulations. The work was awarded the CIBSE Carter Bronze Medal for best research paper in 2020.
I’m proud that my research is creating new knowledge around thermal comfort, air quality, and the transmission risks of airborne pathogens in a variety of domestic and non-domestic buildings in the UK and Ghana – enhancing safety and saving lives.
My research journey
I studied Geography as an undergraduate at the University of Exeter and became interested in global energy demand during this time.
So, when I graduated, I stayed at Exeter to extend my studies with an MSc in Energy Policy. Focusing on consumer acceptance of the retrofit policy – the Green Deal – I gained a good insight into the human aspects of the challenges we face in reducing home energy use.
I was able to apply this learning as part of a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) between Anglia Ruskin University and Aran Services Ltd. My KTP Associate role also allowed me to work with Suffolk County Council to author a report on the Green Deal scheme for the UK Government.
This experience cemented my interest in this area and, in 2014, I moved to Loughborough to complete an MRes in the Built Environment: Energy Demand Studies. I explored energy use in buildings, collecting data from test houses relating to energy demand and the impact of various heating controls.
Next up – my PhD in Building Physics, also here at Loughborough. It was a rewarding and demanding five years of experimental research, exploring the effects of occupant behaviour on overheating in UK homes that allowed me to co-ordinate a building simulation exercise with four industry partners.
Since then, I’ve been involved in a range of projects including SMETER, REFIT, IMPROVE and AIRBODS.
My recently awarded EPSRC Doctoral Prize Fellowship will support my continued work in Ghana, allowing me to investigate ways to reduce extreme heat and improve air quality in hospitals in tropical climates in the Global South.