Towards zero carbon

Towards zero carbon

A quarter of universities are unprepared for a zero-carbon future

Working towards zero carbon and creating more sustainable estates are the long-term changes that many university estates teams are progressing – but almost a quarter (23 per cent) revealed their institution has barely started preparing for a zero-carbon future and need assistance, according to new research from global engineering consultancy Buro Happold.

In conjunction with Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE), the research surveyed 148 estates representatives to learn more about the current challenges, long-term changes and considerations for the future.

Almost two-thirds of respondents said that they saw changes to teaching and learning spaces as the main long-term change to university estates and more than half (59 per cent) saw the increased use of data and smart campus techniques as a key route to improving institutional performance, with key areas being efficient use of buildings and improvement of student experience. This was followed by a greater emphasis on refurbishment and reuse (42 per cent).

However, while data was recognised as being important to improving performance; almost a quarter said their institution was struggling to prepare for a data driven and smart-enabled future, and none felt they are well-equipped.

The biggest barrier to successfully implement positive change is seen as finance, followed by stakeholder resistance and uncertain market conditions. Student experience and satisfaction was voted as the main challenge with restarting for the new academic year.

More than 80 per cent of respondents revealed that transformation of energy provision away from gas was the biggest step that could contribute towards a net zero carbon university, followed by changes in behaviour and the reduction in size of the physical estate.

Dr Mike Entwisle, Project Principal at Buro Happold, said: “Like many sectors, Higher Education has had to adapt extremely quickly to issues raised by the Covid-19 pandemic. Much has already been written about what the future of learning may look like, but there has been little evidence gathered from students and staff as to how they see the future challenges and how the physical environment can enable this. The results from this authoritative study, with respondents from across the spectrum of UK universities, have been fascinating and paint an exciting future for those institutions who are prepared to embrace change and rise to the challenge.

“However, there are many that still need support. Reusing existing assets and intensifying their use can play an important part in the commitments many universities have made to zero carbon operation and can also reduce embodied carbon – improving buildings and campuses can benefit everyone and often provide exceptional value.  We are also turning our attention to emissions beyond the built environment, with staff and student travel being key issues in many institutions.

“With universities reassessing how they use space and evaluating opportunities to improve both efficiency and effectiveness, now is the time to look to a different future, where the physical estate is used to bring people together to discuss, debate, socialise, learn, and simply ’be’ together – as well as being prepared for a net zero and data-driven future. This survey has provided invaluable evidence as to how estates teams are responding to the challenges of the coming years; those that rise to these challenges will have a bright future.”

Jane White, AUDE Executive Director, said: “Around half of university estates’ carbon emissions come from natural gas usage – it’s no surprise that 80% of survey respondents identified a change to energy provision as the single biggest step they could take in moving to a net zero future. Investment in alternative low carbon heat sources such as air, ground or water source heat pumps, as well as biomass/biogas solutions and potentially hydrogen are firmly on the radar amongst university estates leaders. Great work in this area is going on at Keele, Nottingham and many more universities. But there are clear barriers too, including a lack of technical, political and economic certainty; general budget restraints mixed with a lack of clarity over the extent of investment needed; conflicting organisational priorities and organisational inertia, amongst others. Finding the affordable path to net zero remains a huge challenge but it is one that our university estates teams are actively and urgently engaged upon.”


About Buro Happold

Buro Happold is an international, integrated consultancy of engineers, consultants and advisers. Operating in 26 locations worldwide, with 72 partners and over 1,900 employees; for over 40 years we have built a world-class reputation for delivering creative, value led solutions for an ever challenging world.

About AUDE

AUDE works in collaboration with estates and facilities management professionals at universities throughout the UK and overseas. Our service is diverse, providing the opportunity for members to share knowledge and access the support they need to address industry issues, and meet the individual and universal objectives which are specific to the higher education sector. With a membership network spanning every UK university and an emerging presence overseas, AUDE’s is a unique voice for the professional estates and facilities community.

About the research

In conjunction with AUDE, Buro Happold undertook a series of surveys in December 2020 and March 2021, which together asked 148 estates representatives a series of questions regarding their key opportunities and challenges for the coming years.

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