Sustainable higher education architecture that doesn’t cost the earth

It’s a busy time for architects working in the sector, and buildings must be genuinely sustainable without costing the earth. How do you meet the brief? Neven Sidor sets out a blueprint

With 57% of project completions across our UK, US and Australian studios this year being university buildings, our firm is well placed to assess the challenges currently facing universities worldwide. We believe the sector is in search of more: more space for transdisciplinary research and learning, more space for multigenerational learning, more adaptability leading to greater space utilisation, and more magnetic, vibrant and enriching environments for students seeking face-to-face learning experiences as an antidote to the current abundance of virtual learning. However, other imperatives stress the need for less: less carbon through net zero buildings as a response to the climate emergency, and, of course, less financial expenditure – particularly in the UK – as a response to pending tuition fee reform. More with less has become a mantra within our practice. To be effective, this mantra must be informed by three sets of values.

More numbers, less rhetoric

We were recently privileged to engage with the late Sir David MacKay, a world-leading authority in sustainable energy and author of the book Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air. He was a vital contributor to the brief for our recently completed Civil Engineering Building at Cambridge University. MacKay was concerned with the proliferation of what he called “architectural green bling” in the built environment, a worry shared by many in the industry who acknowledge the emerging gap between the predicted and actual performance of many modern buildings. Using the Civil Engineering Building as a test bed, Grimshaw worked with MacKay and other leading academics from the Cambridge University Department of Engineering to develop a tool called the Energy Cost Metric (ECM) in the hope that it would assist the construction industry in delivering truly low-energy buildings within a cost-conscious framework. By combining life cycle energy and costing assessments into a single equation, the ECM provides a new way to objectively evaluate the costs associated with an energy minimising initiative over a building’s lifetime. We find it much more incisive than conventional metrics in this area and are using it on subsequent schemes. We are consequently much more careful with our rhetoric.

What really matters is that the building is what the institution needs, and allows it to pursue its ambition

More adaptive reuse, less rubble

We are passionate about repurposing existing buildings where appropriate. Large quantities of carbon are embedded in new structures. The longer their useful life, the greener they are. Sir Alex Gordon’s famous phrase “long life, loose fit, low energy,” is as relevant today as when he first proposed it. We are currently repurposing the (now listed) Herman Miller factory as the Bath School of Art and Design. It was conceived 40 years ago as a kit of parts, just like the furniture systems manufactured inside. This won it a Financial Times Award for architecture in the late ’70s. It then served Herman Miller well for four decades. Now the company has sold it and we are reconfiguring this same kit of parts again to suit a completely different use.


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At Duke University in North Carolina we have created a student social hub by repurposing the existing three sides of a 100-year-old quad and placing a small modern cube of multi-storey accommodation inside it. Old and new face one another either side of a vibrant internal food market. By repurposing and adapting existing facilities, universities can also deliver new, flexible spaces and resources that meet their changing needs, while reducing their financial expenditure.

More enquiry, less assumption

Architects are always the ones to stress the more subjective aspects of quality in a building project. They speak of the value to be gained from ‘lifting the spirits’. But exactly whose spirits are they measuring? The hardest thing to learn as an architect is that you are not designing for yourself. During our 30 years designing buildings for higher education, only one client has commissioned its own post-occupancy survey of the building we created for them. We recently completed the University of Southampton’s new Boldrewood Innovation Campus following a 12-year period of planning and delivery. We commissioned our own post-occupancy survey following completion of the first phase, and though the feedback revealed our assumptions were correct, the exercise would have been just as valuable if it hadn’t. We intend to repeat this for the subsequent phases.

University of Cambridge Civil Engineering Building

In achieving more with less, we are helping universities overcome the challenges facing the higher education sector. Following the recent completion of its new School of Materials Science and Engineering building in Sydney, Peter McGeorge at the University of New South Wales described it as “a highly efficient, highly rational building, but one that has an inherent beauty in it”.

What truly matters is that the building delivers what the institution needs, and allows it to pursue its ambition of excellence in science and engineering research and innovation.

As the challenges confronting universities continue to grow and evolve, we will continue to use architectural expertise to meet them head on. Our working lives just got a whole lot tougher.


Neven Sidor is a partner at Grimshaw: grimshaw.global

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