Retrofitting university estates: what can be learnt from other industries?

Kelly Crews, head of decarbonisation, shares some of the decarbonisation and retrofit approaches that we’ve implemented in other industries that could translate well to a university estate.

“I’ll be attending AUDE later this month, where I look forward to discussing how we continue to advance and embed sustainability in university estates. It is a great opportunity to share experiences, best-practice approaches and solutions to creating a sustainable estate.

We should also be considering how transferrable learnings from other industries could help to achieve a sustainable university estate, particularly when it comes to decarbonising and retrofitting existing buildings.

For most universities, creating a sustainable estate is high on the list of strategic priorities – there are net-zero deadlines, the student voice is demanding more sustainable universities, and many institutions have committed to ambitious targets in their sustainability strategies. Combine this with the need to update existing buildings to provide the latest facilities to meet end-user expectations, and it’s easy to understand the pressures university estates teams are facing.

A university estate has a challenging composition as, typically, no two buildings are the same. Whether that’s due to the vast range of uses - from offices and lecture theatres to leisure centres, to student accommodation – or the age of buildings that need retrofitting or decarbonising - from listed or heritage buildings, to buildings created in the last fifteen years – the outcome is an estate full of distinctively different buildings.

Below are three examples from other industries that could be particularly valuable for universities looking to improve the campus experience and decarbonise their estates.

1. Commercial buildings: implementing circular economy principles to reduce embodied carbon

TBC.London, a back-to-the-frame retrofit project in central London, is being extensively refurbished to transform it from an inefficient, outdated office block into a modern, net-zero carbon in operation building.

However, it’s the reduction of embodied carbon that is particularly impressive and is a real learning point for all industries. Undertaking a back-to-the-frame refurbishment rather than a demolition and rebuild is saving 6,365 tonnes of CO2 from being unnecessarily emitted into the atmosphere.

A circular economy approach to raw materials has also been adopted, with bricks and soft furnishings being upcycled and reused. A particularly innovative element is the reuse of steel from a former House of Fraser department store on Oxford Street. The reuse of this steel makes TBC.London the first UK construction project to reuse steel from a pre-1940s building.

It is also the largest percentage of a structure ever constructed with reclaimed material, with 20% of the required steel being reclaimed and the remaining steel containing a minimum of 56% recycled content.

The sixteen tonnes of 1930s steel beams salvaged from the former department store will save an estimated 48 tonnes of CO2 compared to using new steelwork. This is the equivalent to driving a car around the planet 50 times.

As universities look to achieve the Government’s carbon targets and upgrade their building stock, this approach is a fantastic example of making sure embodied carbon reduction is on the agenda alongside operational carbon.

TBCLondon_1930s steel beams installed_2023 (1).jpg

2. Listed and heritage buildings: taking a sensitive approach to decarbonisation

Many universities have heritage and/or listed buildings in their estates. These can be some of the most challenging buildings to decarbonise and retrofit, but with a sensitive and well considered approach, significant improvements can be made.

We completed a three-year-long complex refurbishment programme at the Grade II listed Old Admiralty in central London. Across 250,000 square feet and five floors, the iconic external façade now houses a building that provides a modern and flexible working environment.

The full scope of works included a major opening up of the building to add new steelwork, new lifts, full M&E replacement including plant and equipment, and an asbestos removal programme.

To improve energy efficiency, our team also modified the MEP services, added cladding to risers and chillers, installed new ceilings, partitions and raised floors, and refurbished and added secondary glazing to the windows. All of this was achieved while meeting the English Heritage requirements for a Grade II listed environment.

This is a prime example of how the right approach can improve heritage buildings, make them more energy efficient, and update the spaces to make them fit-for-purpose - all whilst ensuring the character and integrity of the building is maintained.

Old Admiralty.jpg

3. Hotels: an efficient approach to retrofitting student accommodation

Student accommodation plays an important role in the campus experience, providing students with a ‘home away from home’. For universities looking to retrofit purpose-built student accommodation, adopting Travelodge’s approach could deliver tangible benefits.

We’ve been working with Travelodge for over 10 years to refurbish rooms and communal spaces. Where this model may be of significant interest to universities is the speed and minimal disruption that can be achieved.

For each Travelodge site, our team deliver an average of 20 bedrooms every 5 days. In 2023 alone we completed 34 projects with over 4,000 rooms being refurbished.

The works are carried out in a live environment, enabling the hotels to remain operational, and are often on constrained sites. Our expert team overcome these challenges through an innovative and complex phasing programme that minimises disruption to residents and staff.

For universities looking to transform their outdated student accommodation, this model could be an efficient way to breathe new life into spaces with minimal disruption. It could also provide the opportunity to upgrade communal facilities and create a sense of community away from the main campus.

Travelodge Kew Bridge low res

Get in touch

Firstly, if you’re also attending AUDE, come over to our stand and say hello to the Willmott Dixon team! We’re looking forward to catching up with attendees, meeting some new faces and discussing how we can support universities in delivering their estate strategy – whether that’s creating new sustainable buildings or decarbonising existing assets.

If you’d like to find out more about how our specialist team can help you with your decarbonisation and retrofit strategy, find out more about our Decarbonise Today service here.

Alternatively, if you’d like to speak to a member of the team, click here to get in touch."