Tips for building greener campuses

Whether rebuilding or refurbishing hallowed halls, the move to make campuses more sustainable should be an eco-friendly endeavour, says Aidan Bell 

November 23, 2019
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More than a third of students now consider the sustainability and quality of a university’s  buildings, facilities and physical environment when choosing where to study.  Universities have an opportunity here to showcase the innovative technologies their research has pioneered through the buildings on their campuses. 

To rebuild or to refurbish?

When constructing greener campuses, higher education institutions have to weigh up the costs and time required as well as the impact on students and of course the environment itself. 

Smaller, constant wins over huge, expensive redesigns can be a more time- and cost-efficient way for universities to construct a more sustainable campus, at least in the short term. And there are plenty of ways in which they can achieve this.

The University of Sussex, for example, boasts the largest photovoltaic (solar panel) installation at any UK university. Three thousand solar panels are spread across some 30 buildings on the campus, generating enough energy to power the university’s library for a year.

Even if not on such a large scale, installing solar panels around campus is an excellent way to help reduce overall energy usage. From libraries to student accommodation to teaching facilities – universities possess a plethora of buildings in a variety of locations. For optimum energy yield, a south-facing roof is ideal, however a southwest- or southeast facing-roof would normally be fine too.

Utilising existing building stock

Making several, less expensive modifications can also generate large, sustainable returns. The refurbishment of the University of Exeter’s Devonshire House, for example, included roof insulation and floor insulation to minimise heat loss and gain, window double glazing, a new centrally controlled radiator heating system, sun shading structures to reduce heat and an overall switch to energy-efficient LED lighting. The institution also ensured that all building materials were recycled on site where possible to minimise overall waste output.

This refurbished building was awarded a “very good” rating by the BRE Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), an internationally recognised certification of a building’s sustainability credentials. 

The University of Exeter has committed to achieving an “excellent” rating for all new builds and “very good” for the refurbishment of existing buildings, which can come with certain limitations because of their original features. 

UCL, however, has turned this potential disadvantage to its advantage with their newly refurbished building at 22 Gordon Street. By preserving the concrete structure of the building, construction-related carbon emissions were hugely reduced, as well as providing a tangible link to the structural history of the building. Housing the Bartlett School of Architecture, the building is now an inspirational space for future architects and didn’t create the environmental taxation of a demolition. 

Starting from scratch

New builds permit vastly greater creative licence when it comes to design and material usage, but with this freedom may also come larger expenses and environmental impacts. 

One way in which to mitigate the negative effects of a new build can be through modular construction. Swansea University constructed its Active Building Centre through off-site modular construction (constructing the building’s components off the building site), to reduce the impact on students and the environment. 

An Active Building is one whose aim is to be entirely self-sufficient by using a range of technologies to create more energy than it produces. Designed by SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre, an academic and industrial consortium at the university, and built off-site in eight months by modular buildings supplier Wernick, the construction also utilised commercially available technologies to show that it could be reproduced elsewhere.

Although initially expensive, excess energy can be sold back to the National Grid to make it economically efficient, long-term. The university also received £36 million in funding from the government to develop these green energy technologies to help the UK meet its pledge to cut energy usage at least in half by 2030. 

The bigger picture

As universities grow, with that comes the demand for more and larger buildings. As much as the negative impacts can be mitigated, constructing a new building on a green space is nevertheless going to destroy precious habitats for increasingly endangered wildlife.

The University of Bristol has worked to increase biodiversity on campus through the addition of living walls and green roofs. Not only do living walls return vital habitats to insects and small mammals, they also create a healthier environment for students with more carbon dioxide being converted into oxygen. The green roof on the university’s students’ union building is home to more than 27 species of native wildflower, nearly double the amount you would find in a normal-sized garden. 

And working with contractors Willmott Dixon, the University of Birmingham recently constructed Green Heart, a 12-acre parkland on campus. Its purpose is to be an open, environmentally friendly space for students, staff and the local community, with a focus on increasing biodiversity and native wildlife. 

Sustainable construction creates better environments for students and staff, ultimately improving their learning experiences, productivity and health, not to mention the positive impact on the planet itself.

Green campuses may be seen simply as an attractive selling point at the moment but will increasingly become the norm as we build a greener society to benefit all.  

Aidan Bell is co-founder of EnviroBuild, an environmentally friendly builder’s merchant.

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