Happy campusCathy Stewart, director for higher education, PRP Architects, examines whether the sustainability agenda is achievable within higher education in these times of austerity.
After continuous growth and development over the last decade, the higher education community has abruptly witnessed government policies that have had a critical financial impact on the world of academia.
The changes in funding will influence the whole learning industry and will have an impact beyond the higher education institutions (HEIs).
The potential threefold increase in student loans generates a lack of confidence in the predictability of student numbers over the next five years. It is to be expected that students paying greater contributions towards their education will demand a better student experience. The dilemma for universities is whether to continue to build and hope students still come, or to wait and see if they come and then build. However, there is a risk that this may deter students.
How do you implement a vision in a future so short of clarity? The key will be to work out how to do more with less – the industry has to think smart. Looking at the existing value of the estate, the space-efficiency factors can reap effective accommodation within the existing physical environment. Sensitive refurbishment and re-planning will be more prevalent in the future. Carrying out the right refurbishment project with due accountability to the environment will make the difference.
Students are also looking to protect their environment and they expect sustainability to be rooted in the university ethos. The demands for improved 21st century learning environments and the regulations surrounding environmental targets imposed by the government are vying for the limited available funding.
The general view is that carbon reduction and sustainability are costly. If we are to care for our planet, we need to transform this mindset to consider sustainability as added value. Building and operating higher education buildings in a sustainable manner seems the right thing to do. Why wouldn’t a university want to save money, energy and planet Earth?
The industry standard for measuring sustainability in the built environment is BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method). Building projects are assessed at design and post-construction stages using a system of environmental issues grouped within categories including transport, water, energy and pollution. The building’s performance is expressed as a BREEAM rating, ranging from a ‘pass’ to ‘outstanding’.
PRP has deliberately developed in-house expertise for both assessment of, and consultation in, sustainability for the higher education sector, and we take the approach that effective sustainable design requires the expertise of sustainability consultants who are fully embedded into the design team from its inception. With this approach, the outcome offers greater added value and improved life cycle costs with minimum additional capital expenditure.
BREEAM Higher Education was developed in 2008 by the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE), working with BRE Global, HEFCE and sector bodies. It was developed specifically to reflect the needs of the sector using the existing BREEAM framework.
In the new methodology, laboratories have been given particular consideration, with the addition of a number of new assessment issues aimed at encouraging the use of energy-efficient measures without compromising safety. Features of the methodology include a campus-wide approach to assessing specific transport and waste issues.
BREEAM allows different estates to compare their buildings to each other, and acts as a means of accountability. Inevitably, with certification comes its own set of problems.
There is a danger that rather than rewarding good design, the certification exercise may encourage ‘point hunting’, diverting investment (of time and money) away from building-specific measures which are not rewarded but may provide a better sustainable outcome.
One area of recent focus is carbon. Grant letters (dated 2008 and 2009) from the then Secretary of State to HEFCE set out the need for HEIs to link capital funding to the government’s carbon reduction targets. To this end, HEFCE has proposed that universities should aim to cut carbon emissions by 50% by 2020 (against 1990 levels) and by 100% by 2050.
HEFCE is not requiring specific levels of performance for capital projects, but BREEAM is expected to play an important part because, under the second Capital Investment Framework (CIF2), institutes will be expected to commit to obtaining a rating for projects exceeding £2m in value.
Whilst new-build BREEAM looks at the ‘as-designed’ carbon emissions of the building, it is recognised that the carbon emissions of the building in use may differ quite dramatically for a variety of reasons, including occupant behaviour, management of building services and maintenance of plant. In order to meet the targets set by HEFCE, universities will need to be able to benchmark their current performance and develop plans to reduce carbon emissions in the future.
Less obvious opportunities for sustainability lie in the building stock. Now is the time to reconsider the whole-life value of the existing facilities and prepare for the future.
The question being asked is: “Is the current academic vision and estates strategy still viable?” Institutions that understand their estate can prepare for flexibility, identify possibilities to consolidate, and look at the potential to collaborate between faculties.
The academic timetable and the allocation of space will need to be re-examined.
Maximising the ‘working week’ to ensure that the extremities of the timetable are fully utilised will assist in greater space efficiencies. Incentives may have to be introduced in the first instance to encourage academic participation.
In recognising that not all universities will have this in-house expertise to investigate their campus environment, PRP, with Mosaic Space, has developed an initiative entitled, ‘Effective Learning Places Health Check’. It is a suite of services designed to be commissioned on an as-needed basis to complement the university’s estates department.
Learning from the commercial sector and engaging with businesses can reap rewards through strategic alliances for both academic funding and the student experience. As some universities have already discovered, investigation into consortium buying for greater purchasing power has considerable financial benefits and could be further developed into the possibility of cross-sharing institution administrative activities.
In preparation for the future, looking at the holistic view of the campus – be it urban or greenfield – offers enhanced opportunities for efficiencies. Cost-efficient ideas will emerge in many different guises. Perhaps opportunities to share facilities across faculties within the same institution might be attractive; however, a more academically challenging approach that may be worth considering would be to amalgamate schools from different neighbouring institutions – for example, business schools or medical training institutions.
In today’s education market, those that are adaptable will reap the benefits throughout the austere times and will be in a position to respond rapidly when uncertainly becomes the past and, given time, clarity is restored in the future.