The winds of change

Universities are committed to strategies to enhance the environment and are building on these foundations, reports Damon Jones

Higher education’s existing architecture perfectly embodies some of the formidable challenges facing the nation, as it strives to meet carbon reduction targets. Whereas university new builds offer gleaming showcases for novel technology and holistic energy-saving concepts, vintage properties present opportunities for different types of enhancement.

Commenting on nationwide green building trends, McGraw-Hill construction, in a 2013 report, found that: “In the UK, the most significant area for planned green activity is in existing building renovations and retrofits, reported by 65% of firms…Therefore, there is tremendous opportunity for business benefits to come from green building investments.”

But this statistic doesn’t diminish the importance of flagship constructions, which allow universities to flaunt their green leanings. McGraw-Hill’s report suggested that 41% of respondents’ firms would participate in such builds throughout the ‘institutional’ sector, which includes HEIs. Through accreditations and schemes such as the Green Gown awards, conscientious constructions can reap kudos, whilst simultaneously delivering budgetary savings during a structure’s lifetime. “There have been some fantastic BREEAM higher educational buildings which have inspirational designs, impeccable sustainability credentials and perform really well for their occupants,” comments Linda McKeown, Head of Communications at the Building Research Establishment (BRE), which administers the widely used environmental assessment method.

As exemplars of best practice, McKeown highlights the BREEAM ‘Outstanding’ rated Saw Swee Hock Student Centre (SAW), a new LSE landmark completed this year. “As well as being aesthetically creative and inspirational, it’s a highly sustainable building. It has natural ventilation and cooling systems, maximises daylight, and uses a range of innovative materials in its fabric,” she says.

Another up-and coming candidate for plaudits is the University of East Anglia’s Enterprise centre – set to provide an innovation hub for green businesses and innovations in the region. Designed to achieve a BREEAM ‘Outstanding’award, the building will also use novel materials – including Norfolk straw and heather, alongside timber from nearby Thetford forest, which was removed as part of a road-widening scheme.

“What these buildings also do is educate occupants about sustainable living and motivate them to apply sustainability to other areas of their lives,” says McKeown. “This is hugely important if we are to meet our tough UK carbon reduction commitments.” To achieve this goal, she perceives that BRE’s clients, “are really challenging themselves, and pushing the boundaries in terms of sustainability and the innovation that supports it.”

New solutions

Despite the potential risks and initial expenditure often associated with implementing unorthodox solutions, there’s ample evidence to demonstrate that some universities are rising to meet the challenge. BREEAM’s 2014 awards ceremony celebrated another trailblazing HEI which achieved an ‘Outstanding’ rating – received by less than 1% of new builds – becoming the first UK research lab to receive the award.

The University of Nottingham’s Energy Technology Building, opened in 2012, successfully incorporates numerous different aspects of environmental design into a holistic space which illustrates the opportunities available to ‘green’ different forms and functions. “We not only want to research into sustainable low carbon technologies, but we also want to showcase these technologies too,” explains Gavin Walker, Professor in Sustainable Energy Technologies – a discipline which is now homed in the structure. “What better way than to have the research building as a low carbon demonstration,” he emphasised.

If one considers the structure as a paragon, then its many facets have several lessons to impart. Made with recycled concrete, the facility is ventilated using passive ground source heat, electrified using photovoltaic systems, and has opted for ‘brown’ and ‘green’ rooftops, which can support local ecosystems through providing new habitats for wildlife.

Energised using a Biofuel CHP (combined heat and power) system, which also supplies the adjacent Institute of Mental Health to optimise efficiency, the premises can supply a more radical form of power – a hydrogen vehicle refueller – to commuters of the future. Several of the building’s features are also set to be employed in a new science facility, the Carbon Neutral Lab – again designed to achieve BREEAM ‘Outstanding’, and designed to export surplus energy to offset the carbon used in its construction.

Electricity generation via photovoltaic, or solar power, has proven enduringly popular throughout HE and the UK – stimulated by reduced unit costs, and government subsidy incentives. “What we have noticed is that new university buildings are tending to have maximum PV installed rather than green bling, although the BREEAM system is not particularly rewarding for large renewable energy systems, as opposed to a token one,” comments Richard Harris, a Renewable Energy Consultant and Architect from specialist PV installation firm Solar Sense. “One of the main issues I think universities face is procurement obstacles,” he asserts, “as PV is classed as a service rather than works, so universities can only place orders up to a fairly modest value with a single supplier, before they have to re-tender.”

“Budgets are not limitless, but we have found universities also tend not to think very creatively with alternative finance models such as asset (lease) finance, or third-party ownership whereby the university can avoid CAPEX completely and get discounted electricity in return for a 20-year PPA,” continues the architect. However, he believes, factors such as carbon reduction targets, mounting inter-university competition and planning authority requirements to install renewables are continuing to drive demand.

Some of Solar Sense’s recent projects include installations at the universities of Bath, Cardiff and Bristol’s UWE, and its latest venture is a system which will generate a peak of 229 kilowatts (kWp) at the University of Nottingham, as part of a structure intended to be the first authentically ‘zero carbon’ HE building in the UK. The facility will consist of 666 panels supplying 330 watt peak high efficiency, attached to a roof membrane via a bonded rib system. According to Harris, PV can typically recoup on initial expenditure between six and eight years after deployment, and may deliver an internal rate of return of around 13.5%–15.5% – although some future opportunities for development are currently inhibited by poor business cases.

If conscientious enhancements and green blueprints don’t seem to add up, then perhaps, to ensure their benefits are correctly assessed and understood, the sector needs to embracefresh criteria which acknowledges their merits. According to Rupert Cook, a Director from architectural practice Architecture PLB and joint convenor of the RIBA’s Higher Education Design Quality Forum, some HEIs are eschewing BREEAM due to cost, and policy decisions to prioritise energy performance and minimise carbon outputs. As an alternative, he notes the gradual take-up of Passivhaus, a ‘fabric first’ standard, which seeks to reduce requirements for space heating and cooling, whilst ensuring air quality and comfort, at educators including Leicester and UEA. Another alternative, suitable for refurbishments, is SKA – an assessment administered by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), which is growing in popularity but, since it was originally developed to validate office and retail spaces, may require some adaptation to fully meet HE’s needs. A hitherto unprecedented, and possibly game-changing standard Cook would like to see enter the HE marketplace is the Living Future Institute’s ‘Living Building Challenge’.

 “The purpose of the challenge is straightforward – it defines the most advanced measure of sustainability possible in the built environment today, and acts to diminish the gap between current limits and ideal solutions, rather than designing a building then adding things on to enhance them,” says Cook. “Projects that achieve this performance level can claim to be the ‘greenest’ anywhere, serving as role models for others that follow.” Two contemporary projects Cook believes exemplify the sector’s commitment to this ethos are the University of Leicester’s new Centre for Medicine – which meets Passivhais criteria, as does the UEA’s Enterprise Centre, which will use local, bio-renewable materials, such as thatch cladding, in its architecture.

Reflecting that some 40% of the UK’s university estate dates from the sixties and seventies, Cook considers it important that more knowledge about refurbishments is shared via organisations such as the Higher Education Design Quality Forum (HEDQF) – and that perhaps new awards could be devised specifically for retrofit scenarios, to encourage best practice. Indeed, the most common environmental projects endorsed by HEFCE’s revolving green fund, established to provide recoverable grants to HEIs, includes several such ventures, typically involving deployment of LED lighting and pipework insulation.

 To ensure their relevance and legacy, Shaw argues that a more comprehensive approach to design is crucial at policy level. “The lowest cost (per square metre) is too often being used as a determining factor for overall build price, and hence the area of building to be delivered, rather than long-term value,” he says. Instead, proposes the architect, “We should be designing buildings that are to last longer, be lower in energy use and are able to be converted or adapted to several different uses. But this will not achieve the lowest cost. This approach requires strategic and long-term perspectives to be considered at the commissioning stage.



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