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Sustainable building for student wellbeing

James Willcox, Principal Sustainable Development Lead at Willmott Dixon, dispells the myths associated with sustainable buildings

Posted by Lucinda Reid | July 25, 2017 | Sustainability

As competition increases nationally to attract and retain the best students, there has been a noticeable uptake in educational institutions becoming more transparent and indeed more vocal, in their corporate social responsibility and commitments to the environment and student wellbeing.

As well as taking a more active role in reducing environmental impact - particularly in cases of rapid campus expansion catering for a larger student population or an influx of families to a local school -many institutions are now looking to provide an internal ecology taking into careful consideration the health and wellbeing of building users. As a result over the past 20 years, green construction has gone from a niche innovation to a primary factor in building design and development.

Why build sustainably?

Sustainability means something different to each client, based upon what matters most to them. The most generally accepted definition is the design and construction of a building to high environmental standards, thereby decreasing energy and resource requirements, while reducing building impacts on human health and wellbeing throughout the building’s lifecycle.

As the premise of sustainable building has developed, so have the potential benefits available to clients. We don’t believe a ‘one-fits-all’ approach works as clearly every client is different, so a technique which may work for one project may be the completely wrong choice for another. There are certain elements for us to consider such as specific build, customer or site when picking what is most appropriate for that project - natural ventilation may be great in principle but for a build next to a motorway, it is not going to work!

A major consideration for us during initial design stages is simply asking what the intended use of the building is and negotiating how to best leverage sustainable building methods to generate the greatest return on investment. For example, a Passivhaus build such as the recently completed Centre for Medicine at the University of Leicester, is a great fit for the HEFE sector as it resulted in economic benefits in the form of reduced running costs in the long-term, as well as reputational benefits for reduced environmental impact.

Short term capital for long-term gains

I think there is a misconception around automatically associating a sustainably built project with a larger bill. I think it is an easy assumption to make, but I personally don’t think it is necessarily the case for every build. It goes without saying that if a client and contractor are actively looking to go above and beyond building regulations then naturally works will come with additional fees, but that being said, it is rather short-sighted to suggest the premium of a sustainable build automatically means increased costs particularly when evaluating the whole lifecycle of the building.

Short-term capital investment, which is arguably where the misconception of high build costs often comes, can easily be offset later in the cycle when taking into consideration reduced maintenance costs, increased market value, reputational improvements and the health and wellbeing of those who intend to dwell in a building. Particularly for the education sector, the commitment to build sustainably can open up access to particular sets of funding, limiting the required upfront capital.

Particularly for public sector buildings -where budget may be tighter in the long-term - sustainable buildings often benefit from a much longer lifespan. Simple investments, such as increasing the calibre of build materials mean it is possible to improve the lifecycle costing. Needless to say, by investing more from the outset in better quality materials, renovations and upkeep will be less frequent and the associated upfront costs can be recouped in the long run.

The best of today with an eye to the future

I think the mind-set of sustainable building has always been very present in the industry. Construction is a collaborative process and we are constantly working with our supply chain partners to refine the processes of working together in the most effective and mutually beneficial way. We are often responding to the needs and requirements of our customers, so rather than saying that enough isn’t being done currently, a more fair reflection would be that we are constantly working towards improvement on our already very high standards.

Sustainable building often employs some more premium construction techniques and as such, lends itself well to innovation; the sector is as much about looking to the future as working with the best of what is available in the present. I believe much of this comes down to looking back at the fundamentals of building and logically working through the process and employing the best fit for each stage of a project.

I would say the only barrier to sustainable building is common sense and ensuring that you are doing right by your client and achieving the best possible results for that project, so we can say with total confidence that we have done the very best we can with the site and brief we have been given. 

For more information about Willmott Dixon, visit their website

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