Back to basics

Atkins | 04 Dec 2008 | Comments

Just because a high-tech solution exists doesn’t mean it is the right option. When it comes to achieving long-term cost and resource efficiency, sometimes keeping things simple is best.

“People often think that for something to be sustainable or innovative it must have moveable parts and be all ‘whizz-bang’, but that isn’t always the case,” says Atkins’ Natalie Sarabia. Sarabia led the project from 2005 to 2007 to create Northumbria University’s City Campus East, a landmark development that has won a number of awards for its innovative design. “It’s about using the most appropriate solution, whether that be high-tech lighting or simple, common sense,” she says. “There’s no one size fits all approach.”

According to Trevor Thurlow, director of estates at Northumbria University, sustainability is an issue that’s becoming increasingly important for universities. “Students are very aware of the sustainability agenda,” he says. “Our own experience and the outcome of surveys such as People and Planet’s league table of ‘green’ universities show that environmental credentials are becoming more important in influencing young people’s choice of university.”

But, while there’s a temptation to simply throw technology at the problem in order to tick the green box, doing so can actually cost more and be less efficient in the long run. This is something that establishments such as universities can ill afford.

Neither do students demand high-tech facilities, says David Fisk in the Department of Engineering at Imperial College London. “Students won’t expect that – their fees are paying for it after all,” he says. “First and foremost, buildings have to be fit for purpose. There’s little point designing a trendy, high-tech university if in 10 years’ time it looks awful and no longer works properly. Students today are very focused, pragmatic people.”

Universally challenged

At City Campus East, some of the simplest design solutions have been the most successful, for example, when addressing the issue of solar gain and lighting in the various rooms. As well as finding technical answers to the problem – the use of a translucent material to diffuse the light, and solar shading to keep buildings cool – Sarabia and the Atkins team looked at how each of the rooms was being used.

“We positioned study rooms, in which there would be a lot of computer use, on the inner side of the buildings, where there is less glare,” Sarabia explains. “Administrative or academic offices were designed on the outside, where you get great views of the city.”

According to Thurlow, the benefits of such features have been both practical and measurable. An example of this is the light well that pierces the full height of the Newcastle Business School and the School of Law Building.“This natural light delivers a wow factor when you enter the building, but also has practical advantages in reducing artificial lighting installation and energy utilisation costs,” he says.

Sarabia is now working with Thurlow on a new state-of-the-art sports facility on campus, where similar common sense approaches are taking centre stage.

“We could have used both greywater and rainwater harvesting to flush the toilets,” she says. “But as there are plenty of flat roofs on which to collect rainwater, that is sufficient. If we had also installed greywater tanks and all the associated piping, it would have worked out less efficient. It’s not about doing something for gimmick’s sake, but looking at what will actually work best over the long term.”

The fact that low-tech solutions such as this require less maintenance is a real plus for universities.

“Universities tend to be capital rich but revenue poor,” says Fisk. “So, while they may initially receive lots of money to build something, they don’t have the resources to maintain it. It’s essential that buildings are financially viable in the long term.”

Another key factor in giving a building longevity is making it flexible, he adds.

“A longer-life design means it can adapt with the changing ways that we teach, learn and live. The more natural and simple the methods of lighting and ventilation, the easier it is for that building to be flexible,” he says. “If, for example, you artificially ventilate a large open-plan office, it is very difficult to later change that into a partitioned one.”

Standard fit

Careful choice of materials can also help ensure a building not only meets sustainability criteria but lasts longer, and costs less over its lifetime.

Decisions can’t be based on initial outlay alone, but must factor in building and planning regulations, longevity and waste, and whole lifecycle costs. Sarabia explains: “While there might be a concrete yard just down the road, the embodied energy used to make a reconstituted block could be higher than a natural product, sourced from further away.”

At Northumbria University, hardwood skirting from a renewable source made the most sense. “It cost more initially, but it will last longer and require little maintenance, so the total lifecycle costs are lower,” says Sarabia.

Where possible, the parts and materials used in the design were also standardised from one building to the next. Fewer different types of material meant what went unused on one site could be used on another.

Thinking ahead like this is what Carbon Critical Design is all about, says Sarabia.

“We have to engage with clients such as Northumbria University and factor carbon into the designs right from the start.”

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