Oxford’s Zero Carbon College: Eliminating carbon emissions from a Grade II listed estate

Oxford’s Zero Carbon College: Eliminating carbon emissions from a Grade II listed estate

Wolfson College is well on its way to eliminating its carbon emissions for good, after securing a highly competitive £5M government grant reserved for decarbonising the public sector including higher education.

The ambitious project reinstates the College’s foundations as a progressively modern institution, leaving behind its current 20 year carbon footprint of 24,000 tonnes of CO2. The College was founded in the 60s to combine modern values with academic excellence, providing graduate students and Fellows with an egalitarian home by the Cherwell River. Its cherished Brutalist buildings by Powell and Moya, the same architects behind London’s iconic Barbican, were completed in 1974 and are now Grade II listed. But its design, before the 1970s oil price shocks, does not reflect the College’s commitment to a minimum impact on the environment.  

In 2020, the College made a formal announcement on its ethical investment policy. It’s now fully divested from integrated oil, coal and gas companies, and companies which derive revenue from the exploitation, ownership or extraction of fossil fuels. In its 2020 Estate Strategy, the College then made decarbonisation its top priority, and commissioned an energy audit and decarbonisation plan, which was carried out by environmental building consultancy Max Fordham LLP.

Bill Watts, Senior Partner of Max Fordham LLP, uncovered the complex and costly challenge of the project given the estate’s unique architecture, original 50-year old gas heating system and massive elevations of single glazing. His work showed that all combined insulation methods identified in the audit would lead to an 80% reduction in the buildings’ annual space heating requirement. More specifically, replacing the gas boilers that currently provide the heating and hot water with modern heat pumps running on clean electricity would reduce the main estate’s carbon footprint by at least 75%.

The cost of this work, changing from gas to electric heat pumps and triple glazing, is currently estimated to cost around £10M, which would be an impossible sum for Wolfson without the game-changing £5M Government grant. This was provided by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Phase 2 Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme, and was overseen by the Department’s delivery partner, Salix Finance.

The College’s Governing Body has since added a further £3M at least to the grant, to create an £8M project that will see the main site of the College changed from gas to electric heat pumps, and for the replacement of 75% of the windows with ultra-thin, triple glazing and associated insulation by the end of March 2022. 

Whilst heat pump technology has been around for a few years, this will be one of the largest heat pump programmes ever undertaken in the UK and one of the largest to be retro-fitted to an estate of this complexity. The heat pump selected avoids the use of environmentally damaging refrigerants and instead uses CO2 (ironically, the greenest of refrigerants) in its sealed system, putting Wolfson at the vanguard of proving the efficacy of this technology on larger estates. 

The replacement of the windows, the majority of which are large, bespoke and form the external “wall” of most rooms, has been a key challenge for Original Field Architects Andrew Dawson and Marion Brereton. They’ve now designed and sourced ultra-thin, triple glazed windows that will achieve the lowest possible heat loss, with frames that will replicate, as identically as possible, the original windows. 

In addition to this, further work will follow as soon as additional funding becomes available. With a further £6M, the College will be able to replace the remaining 25% of the windows, as well as re-roof all of its original, flat-roofed main buildings, where the roofs have come to the end of their useful life. This re-roofing will be done with maximum insulation to further reduce carbon emissions, and with additional photovoltaic panels installed on the new roofing to generate electricity. The College will also move all of its lighting to LED, and install a new 1MWh electrical storage battery, which will allow it to draw electricity at peak “green” times, storing energy for use later when it might otherwise have to draw from non-green electrical supplies. 

Thrilled to play its part in the global effort to reduce carbon emissions, Wolfson College is starting work with the window replacements this August. Wolfson President Sir Tim Hitchens said, “Thanks to the support of the £5 million Government grant, commitment of the College and expertise of architectural and engineering consultants, we can turn a 1960s building into a place fit for the 21st century, without disrupting the fluid composition and striking structure of the original design. This project shows that the tide can be turned on climate change. One of Oxford’s worst emitters can become net zero, and inspire others across higher education and the public sector.”