Build smart for a bright future

April 14, 2006

Higher education is in a unique position to realise the dividends of sustainable buildings, says Peter James. The rewards are not only fiscal and functional - the very best work is celebrated in Heepi's prestigious Green Gown Awards

The Green Gown Awards demonstrate that many UK universities and colleges are responding well to the challenges of sustainable development. In some categories, such as energy efficiency or innovation, winning and commended entries are only the tip of the iceberg. Elsewhere, those honoured have few peers because thus far the sector has few examples of good practice.

This is especially true of sustainable construction. The National Science Learning Centre at York University and the Administration and Student Services building at Southampton University demonstrate that modern structures can be designed, constructed and operated to minimise the impact on the environment. They also show that far from compromising a building's functionality, sustainable construction can enhance it. This is partially achieved through the building itself: using natural rather than artificial lighting and ventilation; optimising internal layouts; maximising use of solar and other forms of renewable energy; reducing waste water by recycling by other means; and using sustainable materials.

Moreover, buildings can be situated so that wind exposure is limited, solar gains are optimised and public transport access is straightforward. Such measures "keep on giving" throughout the building's lifetime thanks to lower operating costs, especially in periods of rising energy prices.

Higher education has faced a near doubling of electricity and gas prices in recent years, with more increases expected in the future. It is also facing pressures for better energy and environmental performance from revised building regulations, carbon minimisation measures such as the Emissions Trading Scheme and the implementation of the European Energy Performance of Buildings Directive. Many experts expect even more demanding requirements in future.

More sustainable buildings are therefore inevitable. The good news from experience elsewhere in Europe and North America is that the buildings'

high performance is not confined to energy and environment issues but extends to their functional features. Natural lighting and ventilation not only eliminate the need for energy consumption, they also help boost productivity and reduce illness and absenteeism related to sick-building syndrome. These benefits are especially important when one considers that the lifetime salaries of occupants often account for 100-200 times the capital cost and 20 times the lifetime operating costs of a building.

"Daylighting", natural materials and other green features also help to create the stunning buildings and campuses that contribute to student and staff recruitment, as recent research by the Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment has suggested.

Unfortunately, many (although not all) such buildings have had slightly higher capital costs than conventional structures. These are usually recouped within a short period, but if, as is generally the case in higher education, there is little linkage between capital and operating budgets, then even small initial cost increases can be unaffordable. Worse, the most cost-effective opportunities for environmental benefit generally occur in the early stages of the design process, through optimising factors such as building orientation, layout, and services. Unfortunately, environmental concerns are seldom considered at this stage. The evidence from the US is that the initial capital premium of sustainable buildings diminishes when multiple developments provide opportunities for learning. More collaboration is needed, both between universities and colleges and between them and external bodies such as regional development agencies.

UK higher education is distinctive in being one of the few sectors that can plan on long-term ownership and use of its facilities and can therefore reap the full benefits of wise investment in high-performance buildings.

Failure to invest will not only create a long-term cost burden, but will also disadvantage UK universities and colleges as more international competitors begin to take sustainability seriously.

Peter James is co-director of the Higher Education Environmental Performance Improvement project, financed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and based at Bradford University, which organises the Green Gown Awards.

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