There is a buzzword in building these days – a green, faintly fishy word. BREEAM. It’s an acronym for an international, sustainable standard of construction: the altogether less memorable, Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method.
At SOAS – as anyone who studies or teaches here will know – we care about the environment. And over the last few years the School has set itself the goal of being greener. We’ve already taken steps in this direction by fitting energy efficient windows in the main building and employing an energy officer.
Of course the North Block Project poses a much bigger challenge. Making sure the renovation was sustainable was one of the strict planning conditions imposed by Camden Council. But we want to achieve more than just the minimum requirements. We want to be environmentally friendly, sustainable and energy efficient. And we want to feel justifiably smug about it.
You guessed it. That’s where BREEAM comes in.
Since it was launched in 1990, over 200,000 buildings have been certified. Points are awarded wherever sustainable, safe and comfortable construction is a made a priority. These points are added together to produce an overall score of Pass, Good, Very Good, Excellent or Outstanding.
To achieve a pass in a listed building like the North Block is bound to be quite a struggle. That’s why we’re aiming for a score of Excellent. So how can it be done? Well there are ten main issues to address:
1. Energy: Operational Energy & CO2
Our number one priority is to reduce the carbon footprint of the building. In a new build you can do this by insulating the floors, walls and windows. In a renovation project you might construct an insulated façade and replace the windows. Fair enough you might say, but Senate House is a Grade II* listed building. We can’t fix a dirty great frontage on the outside. It would cover up all that beautiful Portland stone! We can’t obscure the lovely historic finishes on the inside either. Don’t even mention replacing the windows.
To achieve the important point for carbon reduction, our designers have had to look at the bigger picture of heating, ventilation and energy consumption:
- Heating – new boilers are being fitted in the Brunei Gallery which will be doubly as efficient when linked to North Block. More than 90% of the energy from gas will be transmitted to heat and piped around both buildings. There will also be an option to link the excess energy to the Central Heating and Power network in Bloomsbury in the future.
Ventilation – With around 80 people in a lecture theatre, just opening the windows isn’t the solution. But the designers came up with a cunning way to cool the North Block without the use of expensive, inefficient air conditioning. Going back to traditional methods, a series of fans is being installed to draw cool air through the building.
- Energy consumption – most of the energy consumption is through electric lighting, so LED lights, the most efficient and modern lighting solution, are being fitted throughout the building.
2. Management: Policy, Commissioning, Site Management & Procurement
To control energy use, electric lighting will be connected to a building management system. When you enter a classroom you’ll have to turn on the lights manually if it’s not bright enough. Wow – old school! But if people aren’t around, the lights will switch off automatically. The corridor lighting will also be managed by the system, controlling the number of bulbs ablaze late in the evening. It will also control the heating using much the same method.
3. Health and Wellbeing: indoor & external issues (Noise, Light, Air Quality)
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot we can do to combat this issue in the big, sleepless, smoggy city of London.
4. Transport: Transport-Related CO2 & Location Related Factors
Interestingly, we’re tasked with not only reducing the building’s carbon footprint but also the various methods people use to get to and from it. But with London’s excellent bus routes and cycle lanes, and because many of our staff get around just by walking, we should breeze this one. Additionally, the new building will provide excellent facilities for cyclists, including showers and safe bike storage.
5. Water Consumption & Efficiency
The installation of the 14,000-litre rainwater harvester will improve the building’s water consumption by collecting precipitation and channelling it to other parts of the building. The tank will collect water from the glass roof and clean it using ultraviolet light. The water will then be redirected to a tank on the 6th floor of the building and used in the toilets.
6. Materials: Embodied Impacts of Building Materials
The natural materials used in the construction of Senate House and the green measures designers have put in place far outweigh the achievements of even the most energy efficient new building. This is mainly because new building materials, such as reinforced concrete and steel, contain vast amounts of carbon.
7. Waste: Construction Resource Efficiency & Waste Management/Minimisation
The construction and demolition work at the site operates on a zero landfill policy. All the waste materials are being recycled. When the building is in operation, this policy will continue as much as possible with on-site recycling facilities for segregated waste.
8. Pollution: External Air & Water Pollution
Again, this is a factor that is out of our control so sadly we can’t count this as a credit.
9. Land Use: Type of Site & Building Footprint
As the renovation is being carried out on brownfield land, we score full marks on this category – more than making up for the lost points for air pollution. Bonus!
10. Ecology: Ecological Value, Conservation & Enhancement of the Site
This is perhaps the mission statement of the North Block project – to conserve and enhance Senate House and to bring ecological value.
Unfortunately – because of all the noise and smoke of central London – we can’t quite achieve the very highest accolade of BREEAM Outstanding. But our sights are set squarely on making Excellent. Besides, we’d never swap the capital – we are SOAS, University of London after all.