Sustainability masterplan

Sustainability masterplan

Sustainable living in a campus context by Michál Cohen and Ailsa Forsyth, Walters & Cohen Architects

In his book ‘The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus’, Mitchell Thomashow discusses three main strands: infrastructure (energy, food and materials); community (governance, investment and wellness); and learning (curriculum, interpretation and aesthetics). Architecture impacts on all three strands, and we believe your built environment can be seen as a showcase for your institution’s attitude towards sustainability.

One of our newest clients is an Oxbridge College: they’ve commissioned us to create a masterplan led by sustainability in its broadest sense, and we’re finding the consultation with students and staff very inspiring. It is evident that students feel passionately committed to the planet, and those running campuses are listening. For instance, CLOC is an initiative by students who have devised a Climate League of Oxford and Cambridge, giving colleges a rating along the lines of A level grades. And universities are becoming ever more transparent with their sustainability reports, specifically about how they are tackling sustainability in their building programmes. To take just two examples, the University of Manchester has a Campus Masterplan website, and the University of Nottingham website shares information about their current building developments.

The wider lens for universities is making sure that whatever they’re offering is sustainable in terms of continuing to operate well, being the best the institution can be, and attracting students and staff by being seen as a desirable place to work, live and study. Our clients know they have to consider the well-being of everyone on campus: people have such a wide range of needs, and your physical environment can help with issues around inclusion and diversity. As a minimum, the campus should be physically accessible, but we can go beyond that to provide a variety of environments – indoors and out – so that everyone can find a place where they feel safe and comfortable, from the group that wants an enthusiastic debate to the person who needs a quiet nook to themselves, and everyone in between.

Students are also keen that that their institutions invest ethically. This is a big move and clearly it’s not going to happen overnight, not least because of fears that if you invest ethically, you’re not going to get the returns you want. However, The Times reported in June 2022: ’There is no evidence that ethical funds underperform, in fact a number consistently beat many of their non-ethically screened peers.’ No doubt universities are keeping a close on eye this.

From our perspective as architects, we’re currently looking at two main strands with our client: the building of the campus, and the running of the campus. The former is self-evident; the latter includes big items such as energy use, and many details like the cleaning products you use, how everything is sourced, and how far things have to travel to be delivered. We’re discussing the impact of meat-free days on the university’s carbon footprint, and ideas like encouraging students to limit Amazon deliveries to certain days of the week, avoiding the sometimes dozens of daily deliveries.

In mitigation, one student pointed out that Amazon are electrifying their fleet, which brings us to decarbonisation. Last year National Grid ESO reported that the country’s electricity system is ‘on track to be powered free of fossil fuels and at 100% zero carbon in just four years’ time’. The BBC reported in April 2022 that the UK’s 11,000 wind turbines produce ‘nearly a quarter of the UK’s electricity’. This is very positive in terms of how we think about the refurbishment of buildings. A services engineer recently told me that seven or eight years ago, in order to make the desired carbon saving on refurbishment projects at Oxbridge Colleges, a lot of work was needed on the fabric of buildings to get the benefits we can now get thanks to the decarbonisation of the grid. That said, there are other very sound reasons for paying attention to the building fabric: the comfort of users is greatly improved if you fix leaky roofs, double-glaze windows where possible, make sure there are no air leaks, and get the right insulation into walls and roofs. All of this can be difficult if you have a listed building, but it’s important to make sure people are happy in their environment.

The students we’re speaking to are keen to do their bit for the environment. They’ll recycle and compost where those facilities are available, and many are comfortable with re-using – they’d welcome formal set-ups for pooling, lending and buying used goods. There’s a good understanding that reducing and re-using are environmentally preferable to recycling.

We’d love to explore ways to connect students to their energy and water consumption: if you’re paying a flat fee to live in halls, you might not be thinking about what happens when you have a long shower, or leave your heating on while you go out for the day, or perhaps have your radiator on and the window open. A smart BMS (Building Management System) can flag up things for investigation, for example a building that’s using a lot of energy even though it’s empty. If you can spot that and close the windows and switch off the lights and heating from a central hub, you’re saving resources.

There’s a great deal of potential outdoors too: how people use the outdoors can have positive effects on their well-being, and biodiversity has a much greater impact on your sustainability credentials than you might think. Often driven by students, a number of Oxbridge colleges are moving away from having manicured lawns everywhere, giving some of their outside spaces over to rewilding, or sowing wildflowers.

There’s so much to cover, but for brevity we’ll finish with some of the questions we are talking about with our clients:

  • What can you do to encourage good sustainable habits, to make it effortless?
  • Can everyone see what energy they are using, and can they control that?
  • Is recycling and composting easy?
  • Can you store your bicycle safely?
  • Is the campus big enough to warrant a bike-sharing scheme, including e-bikes?
  • Are your caterers able to plan so as to avoid food waste? Can you have meat-free days?
  • How can you use your existing facilities to the max, before building anything new?
  • Are your acoustics as good as they can be? Are people able to talk and hear comfortably?
  • If you have an architecture department, or are offering other relevant courses, what are they teaching their students, and are those departments collaborating?

Architects are curious by nature: we want people to be happy and comfortable in their environment, and doing that from a sustainable perspective is front and centre. If you want to create a sustainable campus there’s a lot you can consider, and there are links everywhere you look. A masterplan is a golden opportunity for planning charging points for electric bikes and scooters, putting in a repair shop, making a biodiversity corridor, and – above all else – getting the dialogue going so that everyone is aware of what is happening, everyone is heard, and the goal of being a sustainable campus becomes a shared responsibility.

Sources as they come up in the article:


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