‘Informing Future-Facing Higher Education Design’ - my involvement in this year's AUDE conference

A photograph of booklets at a conference

Earlier this year, I was invited to speak on the panel for the workshop ‘Informing Future-Facing Higher Education Design’, at the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE) 2021 annual conference. I gave my views on the sizeable task we face in reducing carbon emissions and the deadlines, which are fast approaching.

In order to achieve zero carbon by the year 2050, we will need to halve our emissions by 2030, which is incredibly soon and therefore a real challenge. The grid supply electricity network is decarbonising rapidly, so electricity provides us with a future-proof source of low carbon heat, and moving away from fossil fuels is a significant part of the journey towards zero carbon. If projects strive to meet challenging environmental standards, this will drive the move away from fossil fuels. Applying standalone targets with unambigious pass/fail criteria, such as BREEAM Outstanding and Dec A, can help to inform difficult design decisions.

Optimising what already exists in a building, opting for refurbishment, is a cost-effective way of making significant gains, but to get where you want to be, you need to know where you stand currently.  For the University of Portsmouth Masterplan, we at Max Fordham calculated the existing performance baseline to make the best use of what was already in place in the building. Controls, commissioning and the way systems are managed is extremely important in this regard.

Efficient space planning can reduce the amount of new construction on a project, which in turn reduces the embodied carbon of the building. We were involved in a project for the Biomolecular Sciences Department at the University of Nottingham, on a building shared by a number of academic groups, with a number of shared facilities. The way the groups had been using the existing space drove a very efficient floor plan, which also improved collaboration between the groups using the building.

Zero carbon deadlines cannot be met without reducing embodied energy and carbon. In an average building, embodied carbon typically represents about 20 years worth of operational carbon.  With this in mind, we looked at refurbishment versus the new-build option for the Nevill Holt Opera House, and the refurbishment option resulted in around a 40% lower embodied carbon content.

Undertaking an environmental materials assessment at early stages of the design will maximise the benefits. The BRE Innovation Hub started life as a pre-cast concrete panel façade building, but during stage 2 the building became a substantially brick façade, which was a big change, but also manageable within the context of the project.

Using rigorous methodology to drive decisions is crucial, and Passivhaus is a methodology that has rigour in both the way it is applied to the design, but also in its quality assurance processes. Max Fordham see applying Passivhaus standards as a practical way of achieving very low energy buildings.

In the coming years and decades, we are going to need buildings that are flexible and adaptable, especially at times when infection control is an issue. Early on in the pandemic, we realised that background ventilation rates needed to be about twice what they would normally be, so buildings that could adapt to being infection resilient or energy efficient would well suit our needs in the future. 

Below, you can read some of the questions posed on the panel  ‘Informing Future-Facing Higher Education Design’, and my thoughts on them:


What’s your opinion on zero carbon commitments in the context of the pandemic, and has this in any way reduced the imperative for the UK to meet zero carbon commitments?

"I may be slightly biased, but I would say absolutely not. I think that the COVID pandemic is probably a two or three year event, and we’re looking at a much longer timescale than that for zero carbon. Carbon emissions are pretty closely associated with economic activity at the moment, and they are predicted to bounce back to pre-COVID levels once the economy recovers. The response to the pandemic has shown that massive change can actually be achieved very quickly given the right will and impetus, and I feel that if we applied that same will to the carbon agenda we could make massive strides very quickly.


Also, there were some glimpses during the early lockdowns where reduced activity in cities, and subsequently lower emissions, created an awareness of the difference that lowering pollution can make to the quality of our urban environments." 


What are you seeing as likely major obstacles to achieving zero carbon emissions?

"There used to be a significant misunderstanding of the importance of the problem, but the landscape is changing rapidly now. One of the issues we face is the lack of objective knowledge, but this is now a rapidly developing field. I think sharing knowledge and publicising best-practice is a very important part of the process, as is using evidence gained from actual projects. Looking ahead even ten years, the landscape of the cost of energy and the cost of carbon is likely to be a very different one than today. At least part of the challenge is about shoring things up for the future.


Environmental buildings have had a slight reputation of being a bit worthy, but I think the language of architecture and Architects’ expressions of environmentally conscious buildings is changing significantly. The industry as a whole is in a process of becoming more skilled, but skill shortages are still a limiting factor currently."


What’s one key point you’ll take away from this workshop?

"Reducing carbon emissions is now a mainstream conversation, it’s front and centre. A lot of work has been done, but there is still so much to do, so we need to work together to meet the goals we are trying to achieve."