Building futures: how estates directors can deliver net zero

Terry Spraggett discusses the critical role of estate leads, the impact the construction industry can have and the approach that will drive success

Terry Spraggett's avatar
16 Jun 2022
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University estates are facing their biggest challenge ever over the next decade, driven by investors, public opinion and, importantly, students. While high on the agenda for all industries, decarbonisation presents opportunity and challenge in equal measure for universities.

As owners and operators of broad estates, universities have the opportunity to lead from the front, to demonstrate action on a truly impactful scale.

However, the challenge of ageing property portfolios, many of which include listed buildings, coupled with increasing utility costs and reduced government funding, is understandably sending many estates leads into a spin.

Radical change is needed, and at speed, but it’s a change in approach that will turn the tide.

The construction industry has long had a reputation for tradition; one of delivery but not necessarily one of innovation. However, over the past few years, there has been a strong focus on research and development – ploughing large-scale investment into trials – and it’s now paying dividends.

For the higher education sector, the answer to carbon reduction lies in tapping into this resource, as well as being mindful of the opportunities to directly control impactful change. Below are three key areas for universities to engage with as they move towards greener estates:

Understand your risk profile

The biggest threat to success remains the scale of ageing estates – buildings that are no longer viable and pose a long-term reputational and commercial risk. The UK Green Building Council states that 80 per cent of the buildings that will be around in 2050 are already present today, so our priority must be to decarbonise our stock.

Retrofit over new build, therefore, has to be the answer, but so often the associated costs act as a deterrent. In reality, it is rarely the case that retrofitting is less commercially viable than new, particularly when you apply a carbon tax. Technology has advanced in the past few years, and economies of scale are finally driving down costs.

Data-based decision-making is key. The first step is to track where improvements are needed, so that where retrofit is viable, action is taken sooner rather than later. The second step is the early identification of properties that may be sold on. The opportunity here being to minimise the risk of being left holding stranded assets as new regulations come into play.

Material passports are becoming a leading way of digitally tracking and storing essential building information, which is a revolutionary step in helping with the longevity and future adaptability of a development site. They are practical and sustainable, providing an important record of materials, products and components that contribute to long-term, circular use.

Draw on your students’ energy and ambition

Students are in the driving seat. They know what they want, aren’t afraid to speak out and will vote with their feet.

Universities are in a unique position, with direct access to the most engaged generation, not only passionate but highly knowledgeable about climate change and the developing solutions. This impactful audience group just happens to be the end user, too, so it would be remiss to not collaborate with such an educated resource who often see opportunities where we see challenges – and who will share their views publicly if they aren’t listened to.

Last year, students came together as part of COP26 to call for better access to educational opportunities that will prepare them more broadly for the climate crisis. It is important that we listen and respond to such calls through our respective industries.

Alongside industry and sustainability experts, estates directors should aim to bring in students as early as possible on construction programmes to ensure that their estates are being shaped by the end user.

Be a challenging client

The construction industry is transforming at a rate of knots in its endeavours to reduce its carbon footprint. Clean tech, zero diesel sites and smart facilities management systems are just a few recent innovations. With emerging technology that automates programmes over large, complex portfolios, plus innovative design and delivery methods that impact quality, time and cost as well as carbon emissions, not to mention low-carbon material alternatives, the solutions are no longer pipe dreams.

As a client, early engagement and demand is critical to success. Push for more. Ask for more ambitious plans, demand to see the data, request evidence and pledge support.

Concrete has been favoured by the construction industry for decades, but cement (its key ingredient) is thought to be the source of at least 8 per cent of global carbon emissions caused by humans. More sustainable alternatives to concrete are emerging, with options including a growing choice of cement-free solutions and new mixtures incorporating the latest advanced materials.

While supply remains a challenge for such alternatives, demanding locally sourced materials can help, too (although not always, as lower carbon materials sourced from far away can sometimes be a better choice than materials that are closer but inefficiently processed).

Once a university building and/or estate is operational, smart technology and data intelligence can also play an essential role in running energy efficient and zero-carbon buildings.

Universities are yet to reach unanimous agreement on how, and when, the sector will reach net zero. In the meantime, the world is speeding towards action, and students are being clear on what matters to them. Waiting for the answer isn’t an option – reaching out for it is.

Terry Spraggett is managing director of public sector construction at Mace. His career in construction spans more than 30 years, in which he has delivered a range of groundbreaking higher education buildings for institutions including the London School of Economics, UCL and the University of Oxford.

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