Cut the gas — shed more light on a low-carbon culture instead

March 30, 2007

The 2006-07 awards are marked by impressive efforts to reduce waste and recycle more, underpinned by cash constraints and the need to cut energy use. Peter James explains

This year’s Green Gown Awards show how commitment, energy and innovation enable universities and colleges to respond positively to environmental and social challenges. They show too that universities such as Leeds (winner in the Continuous Improvement category) and Southampton (winner in the Energy and Water Efficiency category, and the only institution to win
or be commended in every year of the awards) are developing an impressive capacity to do this in a sustained way.

The awards also illustrate challenges for a sustainable estates strategy. King’s College London, winner in the Sustainable Construction category, proves there can be environmentally positive refurbishment. Financial pressures and slowing expansion in the sector will place greater focus on making the most of the existing estate through better use of space and refurbishment. Minimising newbuild is generally good for the environment as well as the balance sheet.

Sheffield Hallam University, a winner in one of the curriculum categories for its work in educating private landlords on sustainability, highlights a neglected area: residences. As a new report from Higher Education Environmental Performance Improvement reveals, there is potential for improvement here, but it can be hard to achieve. Divided responsibility between estates and residence managers for running university-owned accommodation often impedes action by either.
Several of this year’s winners have been participants in the Carbon Trust’s Carbon Management programme and are well placed to respond to new regulations on reducing emissions and increasing energy efficiency. By 2008, it is likely that most institutions will have to make a formal energy performance commitment and display an Energy Performance Certificate in many buildings of more than 1,000 square metres.

The business case for more sustainable buildings is becoming more compelling. Energy prices may fluctuate, but most experts expect them to rise. There is mounting evidence that some of the key environmental features of such buildings — for example, optimal use of natural light and higher indoor air quality through use of toxin-free materials — contribute to better work performance and cut sickness. The Royal Academy of Engineering estimates that the lifetime costs of a building are about 200 times the initial design and construction costs, with operational costs five times greater. The long-term benefits from even a 1 per cent to 2 per cent improvement in productivity, or a 5 per cent to 10 per cent change in energy performance, can be positive, even if additional capital outlay is needed.

A Heepi report on "high-performance" buildings suggests many of these benefits can be achieved with no, or minimal, additional capital costs. It also shows that the real comparison is often not with "cheaper" buildings that generally perform well but with "low-performance" buildings that don’t work for users and guzzle more utilities than stipulated in their design specification, making them costly to run — either because building use was not properly considered or because the equipment installed is bigger than needed. Poor controls that are over-complicated or badly installed also affect running costs.

These and many other problems can be avoided. Universities must set clear objectives, ensure these are implemented through the entire building process and allow time for an integrated design process to get key features right first time. It isn’t easy, but the evidence from the best performers shows it can be done.l

Peter James is professor of environmental management at Bradford University and co-director
of the Heepi project, which works with sector partners to organise the Green Gown Awards. For more details, visit   

Green Gown Awards 2006-07

The winners

Colleges: Winner
Pershore Group of Colleges

Colleges: Highly Commended
Trinity and All Saints College

Continuous Improvement: Winner
Leeds University

Continuous Improvement: Highly Commended
Cambridge University
University of East Anglia
Edinburgh University
Oxford Brookes University

Course Content (Degrees): Winner
Bristol University

Course Content (Degrees): Highly Commended
Gloucestershire University
Plymouth University
Queen’s University Belfast

Course Content (Vocational): Winner
Sheffield Hallam University

Course Content (Vocational): Highly Commended
Swansea Institute of Higher Education

Energy & Water Efficiency: Winner
Southampton University

Energy & Water Efficiency: Highly Commended
Bristol University

Student Initiatives: Winner
York University Student Union

Student Initiatives: Highly Commended
Loughborough University and Loughborough Student Union
Kingston University
North Devon College Student Green Group

Sustainable Construction: Winner
King’s College London

Sustainable Construction: Highly Commended
Dundee University

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