Three UK universities that are leading the way on sustainable buildings

The UK’s higher education sector hasn’t been hit as hard as other parts of the public sector since 2008 and greater autonomy has been granted in return for, largely, less money from government – at least, directly.

In the same period, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has all but abandoned its own sustainability strategy as it evolves in to its new incarnation.

With a lack of government policy and guidance, it has been for universities to determine how much of a priority sustainability is for them. It’s complex and the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC) is currently canvassing members on this very subject.

Alongside that, though, there is plenty of evidence of, not just good practice, but great practice in the universities and colleges across the UK. The 2016 Green Gown Awards shortlist has recently been announced and there are 115 shortlisted for a range of awards to be announced in November.

Among them are a number of great examples of sustainable construction, three UK universities: Nottingham Trent University’s The Pavilion; Swansea University’s Energy Safety Research Institute; the University of Brighton’s Cockcroft Building who are leading the way. While, it seems, government cannot relax building standards any further, why is it that universities and colleges still aspire to create exciting, architecturally innovative, sustainable buildings?

We’re starting to see universities recognising that exciting, functional, innovative, modern, sustainable buildings help to differentiate themselves from the competition. Recent work, undertaken by Buro Happold, shared at the EAUC’s conference in Bristol showed that prospective students feel positively about universities which have plenty of green space and have compelling, engaging and interesting architecture. While other sectors – and the rest of the public sector – have, on the whole, seen a reduction in construction, the higher education sector has continued to grow its footprint. That in itself presents a challenge – more buildings means more focus on heat, cooling, humidity, light and power needs and carbon targets are at risk if sustainable construction isn’t adopted.

There are some exciting new developments out there, here are just a few:

Enterprise Centre, University of East Anglia
‘We wanted to create the ultimate sustainable building,’ says John French, chief executive of the Adapt Low Carbon Group which commissioned University of East Anglia’s Enterprise Centre building and shepherded its construction. ‘Our brief was to make the Enterprise Centre low carbon, both in operation and during construction, and to stimulate the local economy.’ Although Thetford Forest wood is generally regarded as a challenging construction material, the team decided to source 70% of the wood used for the building from there. To minimise carbon emissions, Adapt and its architecture and construction partners thatched straw along the building’s external walls.

Enterprise Centre UEAThis significantly increases insulation and enables the Enterprise Centre to satisfy Passivhaus standards – reserved for ultra-low energy consumption buildings. The team uses special software to measure the building’s total carbon footprint, not just during construction but throughout its lifetime.

At £11m, ‘the cost came out about the same as a regular university building’, says Prof French. This is a key point. Sustainable architecture has been built for many years but has failed to catch on among the general public – not because people don’t want to live sustainably, but because sustainable buildings have been too expensive to build. ‘We need to demonstrate that eco-buildings are on par or cheaper than regular buildings, or otherwise [they] will remain marginal,’ says Prof French.

Carbon-Neutral Laboratory of Sustainable Chemistry, University of Nottingham
The stunning, architecturally inspiring, GlaxoSmithKline Carbon Neutral Laboratory of Sustainable Chemistry (pictured top of page) is the first carbon-neutral laboratory to be built in the UK. The building has achieved BREEAM Outstanding and LEED Platinum ratings and will achieve its carbon-neutral status after 25 years.

The laboratory, based at the University of Nottingham Innovation Park, is being constructed in partnership with HEFCE and Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, the university’s largest ever fundraising appeal to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. The campaign facilitated a £12m grant from GSK as part of its ‘green chemistry’ commitment first announced in 2010.

The building itself will incorporate the latest technologies to allow it to be carbon neutral over its lifetime. The laboratory will be built from natural materials and energy required to run the laboratory will be met by renewable sources such as solar power and sustainable biofuel. Excess energy created by the building will provide enough carbon credits over 25 years to pay back the carbon used in its construction and is being used to heat the nearby office development on campus.

As investment in science and engineering within universities continues, there is real interest in how to deliver new and refurbished buildings to the very highest sustainability standards. ‘It will not be a traditional chemistry lab where people have territorial spaces – in some respects this is like a research hotel,’ says the director of the new centre, Pete Licence.

Zero-Carbon Accommodation, University of Hertfordshire


The UK’s first true zero-carbon accredited student accommodation site looks set to open later this year after the University of Hertfordshire secured a BREEAM Outstanding rating for a new £120m campus building.

Scheduled to be completed in time for the new academic year in September, the project – which includes 3,000 bed spaces – utilises a new biomass fuelled energy centre as it strives towards achieving a true zero-carbon accreditation – which accounts for both regulated energy and unregulated energy.

‘Our estates strategy is a key part of the university corporate strategy and is in response to the macro changes in higher education, delivering real benefits to our students and staff and materially enhancing our campus experience,’ explains the university’s director of estates and hospitality, Andrew May. ‘This is why we are investing in both our academic estate and our residential estate.’

Construction consultancy Turner & Townsend acted as the independent certifier during construction and aided the delivery of the scheme, which saw a range of three to six-storey timber frame accommodation blocks constructed across the Hertfordshire campus. Investors backing the project include Meridiam, Bouygues, Derwent Housing Association and Legal & General.

The BREEAM Outstanding rating was given, by and large, for the use of the biomass energy centre, which incorporates a combined heat and power system at the heart of the development. The system will provide energy for a ‘significant portion’ of the campus, according to the university.


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