Green buildings in Australian universities: are we walking the walk?

What are some of the drivers and challenges for the built environment in the university sector in Australia?
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Research has discovered that greening university buildings doesn’t necessarily lead to greater occupant satisfaction.


It could be argued that the university sector should be “walking the walk” on green buildings, since they are responsible for the next generation of future young professionals, leaders and the workforce in general.

Moreover, most universities own their own buildings, so they can influence the traditional design, build and operate, and recovery/end of life of buildings. 

In other words, universities can influence the whole life cycle of buildings, including procurement and supply chains. Therefore, there is a greater onus for universities to raise the bar to “do the right thing”.

Not just buildings themselves, but every aspect of university life and campus operation needs to be considered if universities are to truly embrace sustainability outcomes. 

A key driver to influencing green buildings in universities may be attributed to Julia Gillard’s education revolution, where funds provided by the federal government spurred the improvement of educational campuses.

As a result, not only was a spate of building work undertaken in educational facilities such as schools, universities and vocational education across Australia, a new Green Building Council of Australia education rating tool was also developed that spurred the green building movement.

However, does this mean that if a building is designed as green, it will automatically perform as a green building, leading to a reduction in the use of resources, and the production of less waste, while also making its occupants productive and improving their well being? 

A doctoral research program set out to find out, and studied green buildings across three universities in Victoria to understand if these buildings performed as expected for staff and higher degree research students.

The performance was measured in the form of post-occupancy evaluation (POE) using BUS (Building Use Studies) surveys, consisting of 63 questions across 12 lines of enquiry.

These included occupant profiles, modes of travel to work, building design, image, response times for work variables, usability of building and individual work areas, overall comfort, perceived productivity and perceived health, indoor environment quality variables and the response of building facilities.

“Building users’ specific needs have not been met” 

POE results showed clearly that building users (staff and students) are not completely satisfied with all variables and that their specific needs have not been met.

However, after triangulating the outcomes and looking at the broader context, all three buildings met their key parameters in terms of Green Star certification and energy performance. 

Each of the buildings were Green Star as Design rated and therefore represented Australian excellence (5 Star) or World Leadership (6 Star) under GBCA’s rating system.

What worked well for all buildings were exceptional teaching and learning spaces, student study areas, building design and institution image. 

But it also begs the question… does an exceptional teaching and learning space automatically optimise learning outcomes for students?

results showed clearly that building users (staff and students) are not completely satisfied with all variables and that their specific needs have not been met

Building variables that did not work well included a lack of consultation with end users, and basic design faults or technical issues.

A sustainable university considers more than just its buildings – it looks at every aspect of university life.

Focusing on building sustainability alone is not sufficient 

The research indicates that focusing on issues of building sustainability alone is not sufficient for a building’s success from a green perspective. 

Being “green” is only one important feature of building success. Other aspects (such as being cognisant of user needs, and consultation with users to ensure the brief matches their needs) must be considered at the outset.

While the focus on the “green” aspect in building form and structure has created more interesting buildings, it has also missed entirely the reasons why buildings are built in the first place — for the occupants. 

These results re-emphasise the “missing link” of a lack of a communication loop between building users and the management ultimately affecting the overall building performance.

While the priority of university management is to achieve targets for sustainability such as lower energy and water use, the use of green energy, and other resource efficiency targets; occupants have other considerations. 

While the focus on the “green” aspect in building form and structure has created more interesting buildings, it has also missed entirely the reasons why buildings are built in the first place — for the occupants. 

They want spaces that serve their needs, and serve their needs well. Green building as an output of an educational campus is only one dimension of a multi-dimensional problem, and therefore needs a multidimensional approach to solve the problem.

A successful university environment goes beyond the lecture halls and classrooms
Photograph courtesy of University of Western Sydney

Detailed research findings

The BUS survey included not just staff and students who occupy the study buildings, but also staff managing university facilities who are often called up to fix problems in the buildings. 

The surveys were in a standard format, using a seven-point Likert scale, with 1 being highly unsatisfied and 7 being highly satisfied. 

In addition, there were sections where respondents were also asked to comment openly on aspects of the building that helped or hindered their work. 

The buildings or universities cannot be named; they are referred to as A, B and C. 

Response rates were 68.5 per cent, 71.4 per cent and 45.8 per cent respectively across the three buildings, with numbers of academic and professional staff respondents being 37 (N=54: Building A), 30 (N=42: Building B) and 60 (N=131: Building C). 

Student responses numbered 95 (Building A), 125 (Building B) and 131 (Building C). 

The following key observations of staff and students’ responses may be made:

  • Most of the responses indicate that overall the three study buildings have a good or satisfactory response to factors such as building design, image, IEQ factors, user needs and facilities response under the 12 lines of enquiry of the BUS survey. 
  • The BUS survey highlighted a small number of aspects of the study buildings considered to be poor: the ability to control the space such as HVAC (heating, ventilation, airconditioning) and lighting and noise came at the top of this list.
  • The results found that the staff in Buildings A, B, C scored as Satisfactory or Better than Satisfactory (89 per cent of respondents) for “overall building design” and “building image” to visitors, and scored as unsatisfactory in variables related to the building space such as; meeting rooms, space at desk and space in the building.

On the other hand, students in the same buildings rated as Satisfactory or Better than Satisfactory (90 per cent of respondents) (except for the amount of space in Buildings A and C) building design, student spaces in the building, and teaching and learning spaces. 

  • In relation to perceived productivity by staff and students surveyed, the results are affected greatly by a decrease or increase in the use of staff and student spaces and the thermal and acoustic conditions in the building. The staff mean scores were 2.1, 1.9 and 2.4 for buildings A, B and C respectively, higher than the benchmark building mean of -0.67 for Australian similar size and faculty in academic buildings. 

In contrast to the staff results, student mean scores for the three buildings were not good;  -2.09, -1.77 and -2.23.

The low score in student productivity may possibly be explained by the higher number of people in students’ work areas, that is, a greater number of students per square metre occupancy (as compared to staff), as well as lower satisfactory levels in lighting and higher noise levels in their common and general study areas.

  • For other workplace variables, the results demonstrated reasonable correlation between responses from both staff and students, having scored as Satisfactory or Better than Satisfactory for variables such as overall comfort (mean score for staff of Buildings A=3.79, B=3.09 and C=4.39, and students, of Buildings A=3.91, B=3.68 and C=4.03 respectively), “thermal comfort” (mean score for staff of Buildings A=3.93, B=3.06 and C=3.99, and, for students, of Buildings A=3.60, B=3.24 and C=3.19 respectively) and “acoustics”, (mean score for staff of Buildings A=3.18, B=3.55 and C=4.05, and students of Buildings A=3.91, B=4.00 and C=4.26 respectively) and Unsatisfactory for “perceived control” over the building IEQ conditions (mean score for staff of Buildings A=1.27, B=2.22 and C=1.69, and students of Buildings A=1.40, B=2.63 and C=2.11 respectively).
  • Results from all the buildings also highlighted potential health and safety concerns, primarily due to technical design faults for work station designs, floor material, elevators and low perceived control in these spaces.
  • Overall, upon comparing the three buildings, Building C performed better with respect to the summary variables, scoring higher mean scores for staff as well as student responses.

The results confirm that when considering the staff cohort, most believed that the building did “meet their needs” in general, but had several basic maintenance and operational issues that needed to be resolved. 

Therefore, the results may imply that the buildings are better suited for students as temporary occupants, compared to staff as more permanent occupants. 

A best practice model would assist in not just the design response for such educational buildings but take a “whole of life” approach to embed multi-pronged outcomes, as noted by the SDGs.

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