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The Kerslake Collection | Social purposes

Building net-zero campuses to support the community

In summer 2023, UPP, a leading provider of on-campus student accommodation, announced a collaboration with Architype, the multi-award-winning sustainable architectural practice. The partnership plans to advance sustainable campus development with UK universities, seeing Architype work with UPP’s existing and new partners to develop proposals to sustainably transform campuses. The partnership between UPP and Architype has already begun to pioneer and champion sustainable change across the university sector and supply chain, and aims to improve health and wellbeing, to cut carbon and to reduce universities’ running costs.

University buildings and estates form the fabric and are a cultural centre of many towns and cities across the UK. They have been part of the landscape for almost a millennium, and buildings that are developed now could last for hundreds of years. By the turn of the next millennium, the contributing factors of the climate crisis will have been solved, with clean energy universally established to heat and light our buildings. However, the impacts of lasting climate change will be significant, including water shortages, a lack of fertile ground and the mass migration of individuals from the most affected areas. While many universities will be protected from the worst impacts, they will retain responsibility for finding solutions and innovations to ease civic pressures.

Our knowledge and understanding of the climate crisis has been developed by universities. Universities continue to drive the adaptation of local communities to climate change and the global adaptation to a new world. It is important that these roles and outcomes are complementary, and one is not sought at the expense of the other. Societies’ ability to introduce new ways of working, backed by academic rigour and review, could form the basis of an approach to this adaptation. Universities are home to many, often from diverse backgrounds, including local people, nationals and international visitors. UK universities provide a window to civic society and to the world. As a nation, we should be proud to present our ideas and concepts in this way. 

It is right to consider the world and society that we want to see alongside solutions that are being implemented now. Zero-carbon ambitions should be balanced with other sustainability considerations, such as the ecological crisis, health crisis and simultaneous lack of high-quality urban space and empty buildings in city centres. The transition to zero carbon has the potential to exacerbate or relieve these parallel challenges in the context of limited and diminishing resources and an increasing population. 

Universities can link net-zero commitments to their civic leadership, by leveraging convening power, driving research and development and leading the way through their own development projects.

Universities, as major players in cities, can build relationships with a broad range of stakeholders. Encouraging discourse internally, between students, academics and professional services, is equally important. These groups tend to complement each other well, and in themselves represent a broad slice of the community. While these conversations should happen naturally, they are often neglected, to the detriment of a smooth-running university. And in an increasingly politically sensitive society, the ability to hear and acknowledge differences of opinions can be facilitated in universities. Beyond hosting free and open discourse, institutions can use their convening power to bring together a wide range of external stakeholders with diverse world views, to enable critical review of modern societal challenges.

As part of their research and campus-management ambitions, UK universities were among the first to focus on reducing the direct environmental impacts of their operations. We now see the evolution of the management of unintended consequences and the impacts of activity undertaken on their behalf. Future focus will include accounting for and reducing all carbon emissions, not only those relating to energy use and biodiversity impacts through the supply chain. Traditionally, these areas of impact have been seen to be outside the control of university operations teams, and have therefore been sidelined as ‘too difficult’. In the future, universities will need to use their combined purchasing and social leverage to engage with supply chains to proactively tackle and reduce these impacts. 

Over recent years, there has been a distinct shift in university building projects, which have focused on the decarbonisation of heat and on reducing the carbon intensity of buildings and other materials used in everyday life. Modern standards defining the thresholds to which buildings should be constructed set the bar for future policy interventions, if not in scale of ambition, then at least in fields of attention. 

Universities across the UK have demonstrated that decarbonising the operational phase of buildings is achievable. This is evident from efforts to remove fossil-fuel-based energy sources, increase fabric efficiency and buy electricity from renewable sources. Once the carbon sources associated with energy use have been addressed, the carbon emissions associated with construction and the supply chain during operation move up the priority list.

The consideration of reducing carbon emissions in the build phase is more challenging. Recent tragedies relating to building fabric materials have led to a natural aversion to flammable materials, or those perceived to be flammable. Therefore, and unlike in other parts of Europe and North America, the use of lower embodied carbon bio-based materials and innovative technologies such as cross-laminated timber are avoided. More carbon-intensive materials, such as steel and concrete, are being given the green light by insurers and funders, and well-rehearsed narratives about longevity are used to counter lower environmental credentials.

But universities of all places shouldn’t accept this narrative. Timber, well detailed, can last hundreds of years, and is excellent in fire tests. There is a significant opportunity to demonstrate that this most versatile of renewable building materials can be safe, even in residential buildings, while significantly reducing emissions. Using locally sourced UK-grown timber can further improve the carbon outcomes of projects, and importantly cultivates and creates connections with local forest-based industries. New university buildings should be regenerative, not degenerative.

Universities, as centres of research and innovation, also have the potential to lead on the development of a new generation of bio-based materials, which can reduce emissions in other parts of the build, including cladding and finishes, while making use of lower-emissions homegrown crops, rather than imported material. Such materials are also usually significantly less toxic, and therefore healthier in use, promoting superior indoor air quality. 

And in the race to zero carbon, other components of genuine sustainable specification are pushed to one side. Universities should be countering this and using materials that are selected using a more holistic approach, employing for example the six pillars of sustainable construction as selection criteria. These are: health and wellbeing; resource efficiency; whole-life carbon; ethics and transparency; technical performance; social value.

Universities can influence future design and build projects by testing and innovating in their construction methods. This supports building new skills markets by growing long-term demand, and will provide robust case studies to influence commercial building decisions and practice. The creation of skilled contractor teams, supported by demonstrable business cases based on complete buildings, creates new marketable service offerings for those contractors. In this way, it should lower the marginal build cost of more advanced solutions. 

Appropriate resource planning through the construction stage would also reduce the lifecycle impacts, beyond the operational stage. Buildings can be viewed as resource banks. If the design is undertaken in such a way that buildings can be disassembled at the end of their life, rather than demolished, these materials can be directly reused in the next iteration of development. Even where this has not been considered during design, it is often the case that pre-demolition surveys can highlight opportunities to recover materials, from internal fit-out items to structural components, that would have otherwise found their way to the material recovery facility – or, worse still, to landfill.

Reusing and reclaiming materials and circular thinking are a fundamental component of reducing emissions, and universities have the potential to demonstrate leadership in this area through the ambitions written into their sustainability design guides. Design and construction teams for projects shouldn’t just be given zero-carbon targets, but should be set industry-changing benchmarks for reused, reclaimed and recycled materials. The introduction of materials passports and digital twins, so that university estate teams can quickly understand what materials and components have been used in a building, will help make circular thinking more commonplace.

Furthermore, could universities, often with large estates, even host material exchanges, providing a place for local communities to purchase affordable reclaimed materials and play their part in reducing emissions? Currently, the high-quality materials that come out of demolition projects are hard to store, and this would be transformative for the industry, while creating local employment. 

Given the scale of the climate emergency, universities should be going further, and posing the question: should we even build? Blessed with a huge range of existing assets, universities are perfectly placed to demonstrate the potential for adaptive reuse – taking existing buildings and giving them new leases of life, rather than expending vast quantities of embodied carbon to create new structures. Universities can become civic showcases for sustainable retrofit, demonstrating to local communities the power of regeneration rather than replacement. 

Use of existing assets in universities is often extremely poor. New buildings, at a great cost to the environment, are created when others in the same university are only 10 per cent utilised. It’s time for change. Universities are in an ideal position to embrace (useful) artificial intelligence and get maximum use of all assets. This endeavour could even free up space for local business and enterprise, especially in the low-carbon economy, as well as for community use.

As universities have a constant capital-development cycle, they offer rare opportunities to take a living-lab approach. Higher-education buildings can invariably be aged by their design style and material make up. It is therefore possible to break this cycle and try different archetypes simultaneously. 

Often this approach is blocked by inaccurate build-cost estimates and incremental costs. However, the opportunity arises to set a gold standard with specific, present derogation options, and then only to apply derogations when cost is deemed excessive. It is very difficult to estimate the build cost until the detailed design stage of the project. Any derogation or change away from the stand can be logged and costed up until this point. Taking this approach enables greater innovation in design and build techniques, and enables innovation to flourish and develop rather than to be stymied at concept stage. 

Furthermore, universities are often partnered with or situated in close proximity to further-education facilities. This provides the opportunity to involve students from a wide range of disciplines – from Bricklaying to Life Sciences, Groundswork to Actuarial Science – to become involved in practical delivery of projects in real time, through apprenticeships, engineering doctorships and research initiatives. 

We have set out a range of approaches that universities can take to put their ambitions into action on their own estates. But, critically, they are among a minority of institutions that have the funding and influence to see innovation through. There are not many other organisations with the clout to challenge authorities to deliver, innovate and change the status quo.

Capitalising on the opportunity to innovate is also likely to boost productivity in the sector. A move toward prefabricated building systems enables sections to be built offsite in controlled conditions, creating greater precision, which is essential for low-carbon building, less waste and a smoother supply chain. Barriers still exist to prefabrication, for instance in the arena of Passivhaus or for large and unique developments, but the economies of scale provided to student accommodation or standard office buildings is significant. This is especially so when combined with deep retrofit. A move to pod-based student accommodation reduces time spent on site and improves the health and safety risks associated with onsite working. 

Looking to the future, there will be many challenges to realising a low-carbon and ecologically sound development sector within higher education. A significant opportunity to accelerate change is to work with planning authorities to identify ways to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, while remaining sensitive to their history. This can be supported via retrofit, rather than rebuild, and supplemented with passive and natural solutions to climate-change mitigation. The introduction of passive cooling techniques will be increasingly important. Would we prefer to work in an artificially air-conditioned space, dry and draughty, or in an office sheltered by trees, the heat absorbed by grass verges in place of black roads and pavements? Cooling air can be introduced from externally shaded areas, and overnight air purges result in a fresh and invigorating environment as you enter the office. This approach reflects the natural ventilation and cooling techniques employed in heritage estates, and completes their historic significance. 

The introduction of passive and natural cooling also offers the dual benefit of an opportunity to enhance biodiversity in the vicinity. Green walls, which don’t affect building fabric, and greater levels of robust native species will ensure appropriate habitats for the ecological vernacular. There is also a growing trend for urban planting to offer edibles as well. This could include fruit trees, more likely to attract birds than scholars, or it could include verges or planters supporting vegetables and legumes. There is an opportunity to engage university and civic society in these projects, increasing the value of the resource presented by the university. 

It should also be acknowledged that heritage buildings tend to be lower carbon. Across a university estate, it is not the older sandstone terraces that consume significant energy but the glass and concrete laboratories and research facilities. These monolithic installations arguably have a shorter lifespan and lower heritage value than their picturesque counterparts, and could therefore be more readily and sensitively updated. 

Contributing to the civic community goes beyond the construction of buildings. There are many opportunities to involve communities in this development. Examples discussed already include developing the local workforce to provide greater skills and making those skills available to domestic properties. A question often raised is: ‘Who will service my new air-source heat pump?’ Developing low-carbon buildings can be contentious, and in all arenas, from the planning hearing to the site hoarding to the conversation in the pub, development provides the opportunity to increase engagement. We are all still learning the best ways to combat climate change: this is an agenda that should be shared by all. Universities can lead this key part of the new civic agenda, but they should steer clear of being arrogant or going alone. It is crucial to be good neighbours as well as good ancestors, reliable partners as well as research pathfinders.

Universities, such great places of teaching and learning, have the power to be didactic in the way that they are built and operated, to be catalysts for change, and to demonstrate a holistic, sustainable approach. Moreover, they are the perfect civic venues to bring people together to tackle the climate crisis, and to define a beautiful, zero-carbon future.

Tom Yearley and Ben Humphries

Estimated Read time: 12 Mins

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