Jon Edgar, bid director at contractor Forrest, outlines what’s driving university refurbishment trends and how energy efficiency can unlock the funding to deliver them.

More and more universities aspire to increase investment in their facilities. Rising fees are creating a more discerning student population, placing a higher value on modern, well-designed teaching facilities and accommodation. Consequently, universities face increasing pressure to make their buildings as appealing as possible.

But, while additional students create more revenue, it also leads to an increase in running costs – energy bills in particular. Older campuses tend to be very inefficient, and many universities are looking to kill two birds with one stone by incorporating energy efficient solutions into their capital investment plans.

Implementing on-site generation technologies such as biomass boilers, Combined Heat and Power (CHP) generators or solar panels are key ways that universities can reduce their energy bills. On a smaller scale, solutions such as efficient LED lighting can be easily included as part of planned building refurbishments, and offer significant long term savings on energy overheads.

Fundamental funding

However, funding these improvements can be less straightforward than would first seem. Higher education has experienced extensive funding cuts from central government and, despite a lucrative increase in student numbers, many smaller institutes are struggling to find the capital to make the improvements needed to stay ahead of competition. As universities cannot be assured of future student intake, this also creates a reluctance to plan major works beyond a year-on-year basis.

Universities must then begin to look elsewhere to fund these much-needed works. Again, energy efficiency could itself prove the answer to this finance catch-22. Interest from the private sector has begun to pick up towards investment in energy solutions, particularly towards larger innovations in on-site generation. Although universities still need to pay for the energy produced by third party funded projects, the energy is usually cheaper and future proofed compared to the established utilities providers. More importantly, private investment intervention in energy solutions allow Universities to divert their own money into making the campus environment more appealing to their customer – the students, whether better teaching, research, recreational or accommodation improvements.

Engaging specialist contractors with funding partners to thoroughly assess campus facilities can provide a clearer picture – where the high-energy use pressure points are, where the most savings can be gained and what solutions would work best to achieve them. Solar PV panels, LED lighting and CHP for example, are all key ways that a university can demonstrate a return on investment within a relatively short space of time.

Capital improvements and energy reduction must work together in tandem to achieve the end goal – a better learning environment for students, and improved efficiency on running costs. Again, working in partnership with a specialist contractor is a key way to ensure this, but even more vital is a commitment to a long-term investment plan that maximizes the opportunity to compliment the Universities investment with private sector funding. As more and more universities are taking the plunge and investing in improving facilities, it is likely that those who are slower to do so are likely to fall behind in the competition to attract students.