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Cool under pressure

Student wellbeing is all about keeping cool by Kevin Pocock, Business Development Manager, Corporate Solutions, Mitsubishi Electric

In recent years, mental wellbeing and pastoral care have rightfully been given a greater focus by universities - and the overall quality of student experience, both inside and outside of the classroom, has become one of the most important concerns for all educational establishments. However, creating the happiest and healthiest conditions for students doesn’t end at pastoral care. It’s also important that facilities managers create environments which allow students to live and work comfortably.

For example, a recent study found that poor air quality can interfere with productivity, leading to lower exam results and a higher absence rate in schools. The same is true of freezing cold lecture theatres or hot, uncomfortable labs. A Future Workplace study also found that air quality was cited as the most positive influence on wellness for office workers – many of whom work in similar buildings and environments to university, high schools and primary school students.

Clearly, maintaining the right temperature all year round for students to help them study productively and providing a fresh air supply to allow them to stay alert and concentrate are both fundamental to health and academic success.

What’s more, these requirements extend far beyond just the lecture theatre and classrooms. A recent UCAS study found that accommodation was the most important factor influencing student wellbeing across UK universities, so creating a comfortable living environment, in campus accommodation, as well as libraries and cafeterias, is vital to the ideal student experience. 

Addressing air quality and comfort

Before looking at how to improve air quality for students, it’s important to understand why air quality may pose an issue to health. According to Opinium, the average Brit spends 90% of their day indoors, so the quality of the air which is circulated around buildings such as lecture theatres and student accommodation, and breathed in by occupants, plays an important role in how effectively individuals are able to live and work.

As far back as the 1980s, the World Health Organisation noted that as developers started to build  well-sealed and better insulated buildings, often with windows that couldn’t be opened, people were increasingly feeling unwell in indoor environments. To avoid this from happening, fresh air must be circulated around occupied spaces.

Maintaining an appropriate temperature in spaces where windows cannot be opened to let in cool air is also important to avoid an increase in tiredness and drop off in productivity levels. In fact, in the working world, employees experience a 2% decrease in productivity for every 1 degree above 25 degrees Celsius. It’s not a stretch to imagine that similar drop-offs are experienced by students working in the library or in lecture theatres.

Matching cost efficiency and carbon reduction

Although providing a comfortable temperature and well-ventilated spaces with high air quality is clearly important for universities, and may sound straight forward, it comes with a host of challenges.

Firstly, higher education establishments are under immense pressure to combat rising fuel bills and meet tough legislation on carbon reduction and energy efficiency. A review of existing HVAC equipment will highlight areas where quick carbon reduction wins can be achieved.

Any investment in updating air conditioning, heating and ventilation systems must ensure that they can run as efficiently as possible, regardless of the requirement, with the best systems able to recover heat from one area to save energy in another.

Research from NUS also found that 87% of students believe universities should promote sustainable development. With buildings accounting for nearly a fifth of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, they are right to encourage universities to look towards less energy-intensive options, and facilities managers need to find systems which meet the wants of an increasingly sustainably minded student body, whilst also helping reduce operating costs.

This means that a balance must be struck between delivering a quality student experience which prioritises health, while meeting sustainability demands and environmental legislation and still keeping full bills as low as possible.

The road to zero carbon

What is needed is a flexible heating and cooling solution, designed to match the individual building’s needs, coupled with the ability to regulate the temperature within separate rooms of a building, while also providing centralised reporting and control. 

These advanced air conditioning systems are ideal for single rooms, classrooms and lecture theatres or complete campuses and can link to heat recovery ventilation systems to increase efficiency further by recovering otherwise wasted energy from extracted stale air. Adding renewable technologies such as heat pumps for hot water and heating can reduce carbon emissions even further.

Universities, HE institutions and schools are increasingly mindful of the social and work pressures on their charges, providing brilliant pastoral care schemes and support networks to guide students through this leg of their education journey. But in order to create a truly holistic wellbeing experience, they also need to appreciate that immediate living and working environments have a huge impact here too.

The ultimate challenge for estate managers is finding ways to create the best, all round conditions for students whilst reducing both carbon emissions and running costs.

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