Green Gown Awards: Eco-warriors battle to clean up the act

March 30, 2007

This year’s winners had new spins on fuel efficiency, bicycle recycling, environmentally friendly building renovations and course content. Martin Ince reports

The Green Gown Awards are designed to acknowledge achievement in areas where higher education meets the environment. Of the seven categories, two recognise the vital need to green the curriculum itself, with one award for degrees and a second for vocational courses. Two more emphasise universities as users of space and resources in their own right. These awards are for top performance in the use of water and power, and for sustainable construction. Another award is for student-led initiatives, and a further recognises continuous improvement in achievement, while the seventh is specifically for colleges rather than universities.

The colleges winner this year is the Pershore Group of Colleges. It is a land-based college with the interest in sustainability that one might expect of an institution with its own farm and nursery.

A variety of initiatives over several years has allowed it to reduce fuel use, cut chemical use on its land and enhance biodiversity, and save money. There have been benefits for staff, students and the local community in Pershore, Gloucestershire.

Staff awareness of the issues has been enhanced by training, for which external funding has been obtained. All students learn about sustainability, and the college is involved in a European Union Leonardo project to develop sustainable land use education across Europe.

Although much progress has been made, the college has more plans, including a 50 per cent cut in carbon output by 2020. The judges found that the Pershore programme could be applied to the whole of the college sector. They were especially impressed with its community connections and its link to local businesses.

The Continuous Improvement category was won by Leeds University for a series of initiatives that have been taking effect since 2002, although the university began using combined heat and power and recycling its paper in the 1990s. Transport, waste, carbon emissions and other main concerns have been identified and tackled over time.

Some areas have been marked by steady progress — for example, a doubling in paper recycling and a growing emphasis on buying recycled goods. Major projects include specific consideration
of the environmental impact of any new or significantly refurbished building. The university is heavily involved in environmental research, and its School of Geography was the UK’s first carbon-neutral university department.

Leeds regards its commitment to fair trade as an integral part of its sustainability. It became a Fairtrade University in 2005.

The judges praised the university for its "articulate strategic approach" and the way it has involved both staff and external organisations in its plans.

York University Student Union had the winning student initiative. Its Bike Auction is an innovative approach to greening transport and keeping scrap metal out of landfill. York has many keen cyclists, but some students leave the university without taking their bikes with them. In the past, security staff removed unwanted machines, which were consigned for scrap or to landfill. Now the orphan bikes are tagged for removal but handed to the student union, not the rubbish collectors. And the bikes — 80 in 2006 — are auctioned to students at the start of the academic year.

The money raised is used to fund ethics and environment work by the union and elsewhere. Some of the cash has paid for bikes to keep doctors in Africa mobile so they can visit more villages and treat more people.

According to the judges, Bike Auction "encapsulates everything student initiatives can achieve, is inexpensive and highly replicable across other universities and colleges".

At the other end of the technology scale is the top conserver of water and power, Southampton University. The main aim of its Highfield district heating and combined heat and power scheme is to reduce the university’s carbon footprint by using more efficient equipment. Other priorities are to reduce the whole-life cost of the operation, expand capacity and lower the temperature and pressure at which it operates for heating. This allows heat loss in the system to be cut and in turn reduces the size and cost of the pumping equipment it needs.

The programme involved replacing and refurbishing valves, pumps, heat exchangers and other equipment, the installation of new generators and the connection to the system of buildings that previously had their own, less efficient, plant. The judges point to the very detailed and practical engineering of this scheme, with its clearly defined benefits.

The Most Sustainable Construction project award went to King’s College London. The building on its Strand campus in central London was built just after the college was founded in 1829. It is
Grade I-listed and, while it needed extensive refurbishment, this had to be taken into account.

King’s decided to adopt a sustainable approach to the task. The newly restored building makes maximum use of natural light and solar heat. The windows can be opened, reducing the need for air conditioning. Perhaps most intriguingly, King’s claims that the relationship between circulation spaces and staircases has been restored — encouraging people to take the stairs instead of the lift. The building will reduce electricity by 830,000 units a year, saving 383 tonnes of carbon dioxide — and £77,000. The restoration involved extensive demolition, and there was a target of recycling 80 per cent of the resulting material. As much as possible was reused, and the contractors had a range of environmental goals to hit. The judges praised the whole project for "simply doing all the right things".

Of the two awards for course content, the top vocational innovator is Sheffield Hallam University, with its Landlords for Excellence programme. This course for private landlords is run by the university’s facilities directorate alongside Development and Society, an academic school of the university. It helps landlords reduce the blight and mess associated with much private rented accommodation, including student housing. As well as green issues, it teaches them about substance abuse, fire safety and marketing. For the university, there have been several benefits including a better relationship with the local community. It has also built links between the university and bodies such as the city council, the police and organisations representing the local black community.

The judges felt Landlords for Excellence was an innovative approach to a significant environmental and social issue that engages a hard-to-reach group effectively.

The winner for course content is Bristol University. Its Sustainable Development: Teaching against the Grain course unit was first presented in 2005-06. It was intended to take an interdisciplinary approach to a subject that was not strong at Bristol. The content of the course, which any student can take, ranges from energy generation to congestion charging, and tackles approaches from the scientific to the legal.

The benefits of offering the unit are hard to quantify. The academics involved have gained a sense of involvement in green issues on the campus and now feel less isolated. The students — drawn from 14 departments in the first year alone — have learnt things that will allow them to be greener in their student and their later life. And the university is now preaching what it practises.

The unit is described by the judged as an exciting innovation for a university that can seem more traditional than most. It has also opened the door to more interdisciplinary teaching in Bristol.

Martin Ince is contributing editor,
The Times Higher .

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