Universities pursue green built environment practices

Universities as institutions of learning, research and engagement are strategically placed to drive sustainability issues through the evolution of green campuses and the adoption of sustainable built environment practices.

As such, educational buildings on university campuses can play a part in reducing institutions’ environmental impact, including carbon emissions.

According to the World Green Building Council, ‘buildings are currently responsible for 39% of global energy-related carbon emissions: 28% from operational emissions, from energy needed to heat, cool and power them, and the remaining 11% from materials and construction.”

Sustainable built environment, therefore, seeks to improve and protect the natural environment and is instrumental in reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as in tackling the climate crisis by eliminating negative impacts emanating from design, construction and operation.

Professor Nicolaas Esterhuysen, the director of University Estates Engineering at the University of the Free State (UFS), South Africa, which is doing ongoing work in the field, said sustainable buildings align with the SDGs, notably promoting clean energy (SDG7), innovative infrastructure (SDG9), responsible consumption (SDG12), and partnerships (SDG17). They also support the African Union Agenda 2063’s aspirations for prosperity, resilience, cultural identity, social inclusivity, and global leadership.

There is a lack of funding to pursue green activities and projects, a lack of indicators to measure sustainability and sustainable buildings, a lack of construction standards and control from local authorities to ensure quality and safety, and a lack of supporting data on sustainable campuses due to limited research in the area.

In addition, there is limited knowledge and awareness among staff, students and local communities about sustainability and a lack of motivation from universities to encourage sustainability education and activities.

However, Esterhuysen pointed out that opportunities lie in leveraging solar energy, water-saving technologies, local materials, research benefits, partnerships and long-term savings.

A few universities have done so and have been successful in creating campuses that support the SDGs. In addition to the UFS, Strathmore University and Karatina University in Kenya have also been promoting green buildings.

Award-winning building

Earlier in 2023, one of UFS’s lecture halls or modular buildings received national recognition and was hailed as an excellent model of an educational building that offers flexible teaching and learning spaces.

The South African Institute of Architects (SAIA) awarded Roodt Architects, in partnership with GXY Architects, for the design of a modular lecture hall on the Bloemfontein campus of the UFS.

The awards were announced at the 2021-22 Corobrik SAIA Awards of Merit and Awards for Excellence ceremony in Johannesburg in April, 2023.

Adjudicators for the national merits award commended the educational building as a benchmark for rational planning and technical efficiency, which also helps complete the campus’ urban framework through its placing and material choices.

Teaching and learning spaces

Design architect Anton Roodt shared with University World News the design concept and some of the most noticeable features of the modular building, which includes a flexible layering of learning and teaching spaces.

“Buildings should be able to do more than one thing. The building is both concerned with its function, such as providing flexible lecture spaces and also with its role as place-maker and place-marker on the campus. It has been noted by the university that the building sits so comfortably in its setting behind the UFS Sasol Library that it appears to have always been there.

“The parallel organisation of the spaces allowed the creation of a covered walkway, an internal concourse which is 109m long, where students can meet and engage in group and individual study, and a series of small group and seminar spaces that, inter alia, allow differently-abled students to attend lectures.

“These small spaces also act as a sound barrier between the concourse and the large, flexible teaching and learning spaces. These lecture spaces represent a new type of teaching space where large numbers of students exchange knowledge and information and an environment enhanced and supported by electronic media,” he said.

Energy efficiency

Nico Janse van Rensburg, the senior director at UFS University Estates, highlighted that the award is part of the university’s Vision 30 and its longstanding goal to renew, rejuvenate, regenerate and revisit facilities and infrastructure.

“This award proves that excellence can be achieved with a reasonable set budget. Also, energy efficiency and green building principles can be achieved by careful planning and teamwork,” he stated.

One of the key features to emerge in sustainable educational buildings is the ability to use energy efficiently. The UFS modular building incorporated in its design various energy-saving measures, which included building orientation to optimise exposure to sunlight in spaces where it matters, seasonal sun control, double glazing and louvres for energy conservation, rainwater harvesting and storage on the roof of the building, trees and water-wise landscaping.

The university adopted technical guidelines for building design and development, following the rating systems and tools developed by the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA) which are used for the certification of sustainability performance in the built environment.

These guidelines, which apply to indoor environmental quality, energy, materials, land use ecology, emissions, innovation and water, among others, form part of measures used when new buildings developed.

Said Roodt: “We are currently monitoring the energy performance of the building and it would be exciting to see how closely life imitates art. The university also measures and tracks energy consumption in their other buildings.

“Unfortunately, not all of the goals are always achievable due to various factors, not least of which are financial constraints, programmatic issues and challenges beyond the control of the university,” he said.

Roodt also mentioned that the certification of buildings by the GBCSA was an intensive and costly endeavour which many learning institutions, including UFS, were yet to pursue.

The Green University Network

In Kenya, Strathmore University and Karatina University have been commended by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), among many others, for their efforts to develop their institutions into green campuses through sustainable learning infrastructure.

In 2019, UNEP brought together 18 Kenyan universities at the United Nations offices in Nairobi to establish the Green University Network in Kenya and university representatives agreed to a plan of action which included greening campus operations and sustainable educational buildings.

For Strathmore University, for example, sustainability entails a strong focus on green buildings, which emphasises energy and water conservation.

The higher education institution has received awards for three of its outstanding buildings, the Strathmore Business School building, the student centre and the management science building. The awards included the Best Green Building Development in Africa by the African Real Estate and Housing Finance Academy, as well as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification.

Some of the key features of the buildings include tensile structured glass roof wall systems which help to provide natural lighting, minimise the need for external lighting and reduce the use of electricity.

Also, the buildings have a water treatment facility which is a system that harvests rainwater, which is treated and used to supply 90% of the buildings’ demands, for example washrooms. Water is further recycled and treated for landscaping purposes.

An evaporative cooling system is also a key feature of the buildings and this helps to improve air quality within the buildings.

In February 2023, Karatina University adopted its Green University status and the Green Agenda which incorporated the environment, curriculum and sustainable green operations, including energy efficiency, renewable energy, the use of environmentally friendly building materials and use of locally available materials.

In partnership with a local company, the institution launched an innovative green construction project dubbed ‘Houses of Tomorrow’ in a bid to fulfil its sustainable construction agenda through low-carbon based building solutions.

The ‘Green Construction’ theme incorporated additional components in the educational buildings such as water harvesting and reticulation systems, solar grid systems to cater for lighting and water heating needs, as well as large windows, for natural lighting.