‘Evolution is the key to net zero and data-driven future’

Dr Mike Entwisle, Buro Happold, and Jane White, AUDE, discuss what work must be done to prepare campuses for a net-zero future

Much has already been written – particularly in the last year – about what the future of learning may look like, but there has been little evidence gathered from students and staff as to how they see the future challenges and how the physical environment can enable this.

We wanted to explore this, so colleagues at Buro Happold and AUDE undertook a series of surveys in December 2020 and March 2021, which together asked 148 estates representatives a series of questions regarding their key opportunities and challenges for the coming years.

The research revealed that working towards zero carbon and creating more sustainable estates are the long-term changes that many university estates teams are progressing – but almost a quarter (23%) revealed their institution has barely started preparing for a zero-carbon future and need assistance. In addition, qualitative feedback in response to ‘what is the one long-term change you would like to set in motion now?’ also revealed that almost a third was related to the transition to net zero carbon.

While 23% have barely started preparing for a net zero future, it’s important to recognise the huge amount of work that has been carried out by many universities to address net zero, particularly alongside the pressures of the last year. Until relatively recently, very few universities had net zero carbon strategies and now more than three quarters of universities do have a plan in place – and this proportion is continuing to increase rapidly, which is encouraging. This is really positive for the HE sector, although it does vary greatly from one institution to another, as each has its own timescales, resource and barriers that affects the implementation of a strategy.

One such barrier is the cost of turning net zero. The last 18 months has placed university finances under even more pressure, coupled with wider factors such as the impact of Brexit. What our surveys highlighted is the broad range of additional challenges facing universities, but many of these have financial implications in order to create more net zero carbon environments. These challenges include changes in teaching and learning space requirements, which was recognised by almost two-thirds of respondents as the main long-term change to university estates.

Also, an additional challenge raised by more than half (59%) of respondents said they see the increased use of data and smart campus techniques as a key route to improving institutional performance, with key areas being efficient use of buildings and improvement of student experience, but this also requires investment. Our research also revealed a greater emphasis on refurbishment and reuse, which came as no surprise, with uncertain space requirements, challenged budgets, and the importance of embodied carbon all playing their part.

The solution is less about addressing the financial obstacles, but more about determining spending priorities during a period of uncertainty. There are good opportunities emerging for universities to secure external funding, particularly regarding the transition to net zero carbon. That said, universities need to be agile and responsive in securing these funds which often need to be spent in tight timescales.

Financial pressures can often lead to resistance to change, but how does this manifest and how can it be addressed? A typical example is the individual needs or preferences of academics being at odds with the aspirations of the estate team to develop the built environment in a certain direction – such as moving away from cellular offices and retrofitting older buildings, which might take decades and attract significant costs to implement.

Our research revealed that stakeholder resistance was seen as a key blocker to successfully implement positive change, according to 41% of respondents, so it’s likely that some new ways of working and learning may still take more time to become fully accepted, particularly as people continue to readjust to working online and developing new skills. In addition, communication and collaboration will also play a central part in agreeing the best approach forward; if the end goal is to create a more sustainable estate, then it’s vital that everyone buys into that vision, otherwise it won’t happen, so some compromises may need to happen to drive progress forward.

So, what help do universities need?

A clear direction is a key priority in making change happen. However, it needs to be delivered affordably within a manageable timeline that will futureproof the university for generations to come. Reusing existing assets and intensifying their use can play an important part in the commitments many universities have made to zero carbon operation and can also reduce embodied carbon – improving buildings and campuses can benefit everyone and often provide exceptional value.

With universities reassessing how they use space and evaluating opportunities to improve both efficiency and effectiveness, now is the time to look to a different future, where the physical estate is used to bring people together to discuss, debate, socialise, learn, and simply ’be’ together – as well as being prepared for a net zero and data-driven future.

Related news: Quarter of universities ‘barely started’ net-zero planning, survey suggests

Read more: University of Birmingham turns to smart campus sensors to lower emissions

More related news: Carbon emissions drop but fewer universities publish green data

Dr Mike Entwisle, Project Principal at Buro Happold and Jane White, executive director at AUDE

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