The Declaration, Volume 3, Number 2 : September 1999 [Operations]
By Leanne Gardiner
The University of Newcastle sits on a 150 hectare site, much of which is natural bushland. Tracts of dry open eucalypt forest, a wetland nature reserve and pockets of remnant rainforest have helped to earn the University a widespread reputation for nature conservation and environmentally responsible planning and development. With a student population of around 17,000 and over 2000 staff, the task of balancing the needs of a large institution with the preservation of this site is complex. It is being managed not just by grounds staff willing to experiment with innovative environmental management strategies, but by those responsible for the built environment who have ensured that the principles of ecologically sustainable development (ESD) are incorporated into all new buildings.
The University was established in 1965 and since that time the forested landscape has been altered to accommodate over 100 buildings, a network of roads and pathways, car parks, sporting fields and a commercial centre. Fortunately the University’s Planners valued the bushland and took early steps to ensure its survival, avoiding the British tradition of neatly trimmed and manicured gardens. Throughout this decade the University strengthened it’s firm foundation of good environmental management by implementing ESD principles and energy conservation programs, innovative waste reduction programs, pioneering landscape and catchment management techniques, rigorous environmental planning, and facilitation of increased alternative transport use.
THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT
Early development of the University introduced problems of soil erosion and compaction, changed drainage, and the intrusion of weeds. Rapid growth in student and staff numbers in the late 80’s placed further pressure on the campus environment. In the early 90’s an increasing awareness of environmental issues encouraged changes in landscaping policy which began to favor the planting of native shrubs and grasses. Now a firm policy is in place to support the use of Australian plant species and to reduce areas of mown grass. Hundreds of thousands of native trees, grasses and shrubs have been planted over the last eight years to regenerate existing bushland and to re-establish habitat in previously cleared areas. During 1998 over 100,000 native grasses and 25,000 native trees were planted campus-wide. Already in 1999 over 200,000 native grasses have been planted.
Visitors to the campus are invariably intrigued by its unusual landscaping. Grounds staff have perfected the technique of mounding and swaling (small hills and dales) to provide a successful method of fully utilizing rainwater. Mounds and swales direct and slow water flow, preventing scouring and erosion and allowing for soil water absorption. The technique has meant the elimination of artificial watering and has significantly reduced maintenance costs normally associated with extensive landscaping.
Community groups have taken an interest in ensuring the vitality of the University’s bushland, conducting frequent tree plantings and providing much-needed manpower in the removal of weeds. The University is eager for the campus to be a public place that is truly part of the wider community.
In 1995, the University convened an Environmental Management Advisory Committee (EMAC), comprising a number of academics, administrative and planning staff and student representatives with expertise in environmental matters. The goal was to provide advice on environmental matters to the University’s Vice?Chancellor. During the ensuing years the committee prepared formal environmental planning documents for water conservation, waste minimization, transport management, energy conservation, the promotion of environmental matters, management of the natural and built environment, and even the reduction of paper usage. Of 120 strategies documented in these plans, over 70 have been fully or partially implemented. As each of the planning documents have been formally approved by the University’s Vice?Chancellor, their progressive implementation is assured.
The University consumes approximately 630 kilo litres of water each day. Five years ago the University adopted a goal of reducing water consumption by using tap water more efficiently and harnessing rainfall in dams and tanks for irrigation of outdoor areas. Water saving equipment was installed in new and refurbished buildings and storage ponds were created to retain rainwater.
Since 1993/4 water consumption has remained constant even though the number of students has increased by about 35 percent since 1990 and a large new sports and aquatic center (which includes an Olympic swimming pool) has been constructed. Results are expected to improve even further when the University’s policy regarding the installation of rainwater collection tanks begins to take effect. This year, for example, during a significant re-modelling of a major building, the opportunity was taken to install four rainwater tanks, each with a capacity of over 13,000 litres, to harvest rainwater run-off from its roof.
During 1998 a comprehensive audit of the University’s solid waste stream was conducted which confirmed that over 60% of solid waste is made up of office paper and cardboard. A campus-wide paper recycling scheme, introduced four years ago, ensures that most of this material is delivered to a local non-profit disability services organization which sorts the paper. Each work station and photocopy unit on the campus has a distinctive blue recycling bin which is emptied daily.
The audit found that there was potential for the University to further reduce its solid waste by more than 60%. This would involve recovery of aluminium cans, glass and plastic beverage bottles, toner cartridges, food scraps, and increasing the effectiveness of the paper recycling program. A plan has been prepared to progressively address each of these issues.
Staff of the University’s Landscape and Ovals Section have expanded the concept of the backyard worm farm to make it into a commercially and environmentally viable venture. In doing so they have also helped create training opportunities for the unemployed, research opportunities for students, and helped earn the University an award for environmental excellence.
The worm farm started on a small scale to take food waste from the University’s largest refectory. Initially the scheme was labor intensive, but with the input of students and the assistance of participants in a federally funded ‘work for the dole’ scheme, the system was streamlined and now collects 80% of the University’s pre-consumer food scraps, green waste, cooking fat and shredded waste paper.
The worm farm is based on a travelling wall system where the worms work through waste from the back to the front. As they get through a section, the rich vermicast is removed for use, and then more waste is placed at the front. The farm, in effect, moves around in a circle, (thus the term travelling wall) and the rich soil conditioner can be moved by bobcat rather than by hand. The benefits of this new system have been tremendous. In its first year of operation, the farm generated considerable savings for the University in garbage disposal costs, and next year there will be further savings when the natural fertilizer from the farm begins to replace artificial fertilizers used on University ovals.
Recently a pilot study began to collect food scraps from staff lunch rooms. A year-round supply of food scraps from staff will help sustain the worm farm during quiet periods on campus. Small bins were installed in key lunch rooms and a daily collection is taking place. Staff enthusiasm for the scheme is high, but the volume of food waste retrieved will determine viability of the collection as the study continues.
As the University grew rapidly in the late 80’s threats to the campus environment were exacerbated by lack of public transport. The demand for car parking far exceeded available spaces and “feral cars” were causing considerable damage to the bushland. A survey conducted in 1990 found that 62% of those attending the University travelled alone by car.
A total of $4 million has been invested in improving access to public transport. The University Railway Station was opened in 1995 after much political lobbying, to provide a connection with towns outside of Newcastle that are within commuting distance to the University. A new internal road, completed in ’96, provided campus access to public buses. A security shuttle bus service was also started for dropping students between bus stops, the train station and various buildings on campus. In collaboration with Newcastle City Council, extensive cycleways have been constructed through the campus and surrounding suburbs. Bike racks were installed across campus and additional lighting provided.
A car parking fee was first introduced in 1997 as a deterrent to car usage. Although a nominal fee of $1 per day was initially set, it provides enough incentive for some people to use other means of transportation. Another encouragement was a car pooling program where priority parking spaces were provided to registered users. This strategy has not been as successful as anticipated.
Traffic counts and utilization of alternative transport has been closely monitored for the past four years, and results show that the number of cars entering the campus has declined while student numbers have risen. Results also show a significant increase in the use of public transport, especially trains.
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
A firm policy has long been in place to site new structures carefully, retaining as many trees as possible. This regard for the campus environment developed into a goal to demonstrate innovation in managing both the natural environment and the built environment. Over the past eight years, the University has increasingly focused on ESD as an integral component of all building projects.
New buildings and extensions are designed to maximize natural light penetration and to enable cross-ventilation rather than air-conditioning, particularly in office spaces. Passive solar design is incorporated in the orientation of buildings, the installation of light and solar heat transfer panels, the use of shading where appropriate, and the placing of electric lights strategically to maximize use of window light.
Environmentally responsible materials are used wherever possible. Examples include recycled timber, woolen carpets and insulation, linoleum floor coverings (made from linseed oil and cork), and polypropylene (PP) and high density polyethylene (HDPE) piping instead of PVC. Ease of maintenance is considered in the selection of materials and finishes so that future funds are not wasted on unnecessary refurbishments or excessive use of cleaning products. Where feasible, components for new buildings are pre-fabricated (pre-cast wall panels, for example), so that building materials may be easily disassembled and re-used if alterations are needed in the future.
The Nursing Building is the newest addition to the University and deserves special mention for its advanced “environmentally friendly” design. The building is situated on the fringe of a spotted gum forest and necessitated the loss of only two advanced trees. Offices are shaded by an open sloping metal “fly” roof that allows rainwater collection and directs prevailing summer northeast breezes into courtyard areas.
The Nursing Building won an environmental achievement award this year and is considered an international benchmark for ESD. The air-conditioning system in the building’s 450 seat lecture theater is one of the first large scale systems in Australia to use geo-thermal energy to assist with heating and cooling. Other features include: reverse brick veneer insulated cavity walls to suit various climate conditions; above ground stormwater “creeks” which avoid the need for underground pipes (and potential blockages) and flow by gravity to a retention pond used for irrigation; water harvested from the roof which is stored in tanks to be used for flushing toilets that have six litre flush valves instead of the conventional nine litres. The building is a model for the future and a clear demonstration of the University’s determination to lead the way in the use of ESD principles.
The University is a high energy consumer with an annual energy bill in the order of $2 million. Thus apart from environmental considerations there is an economic incentive to reduce energy consumption. Though University energy consumption has been increasing at the rate of 5% per year for the past ten years, the energy conservation program has managed to limit this growth.
With the help of the Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA), a government organization, the University has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 830 tons per annum and has dramatically cut its operating costs. This is the first step in a five-year plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over 3,000 tons and save $150,000 annually.
Since introducing passive solar design and enhancing natural ventilation in new buildings, air conditioning plants are typically only installed where specific conditions are required for teaching or research. In areas where air conditioning is needed, systems use economy and night purge cycles and have motion sensors to prevent operation in unoccupied areas.
Examples of successful projects that have reduced energy consumption on campus include: the installation of a highly efficient air-conditioning plant for four major buildings that has saved $20,000 annually and reduced greenhouse emissions by 530 tons; one plant upgrade which had an electrical meter installed and indicated savings of 15% of past consumption, preventing over 200 tons of CO2 emissions. With the installation of a campus-wide energy metering system in the near future, the true success of this program will be accurately determined.
The University has been disseminating information about progress with the energy management program to staff and students. Energy awareness is an important component of the program and must be regularly reinforced in order to continue savings already achieved. This is particularly important when poor operation of otherwise efficient facilities can potentially erode conservation gains.
It must be said that many of the new and innovative practices used at the University of Newcastle were met at first with some scepticism. But they have proved highly successful. The ‘bushland campus’ attracts thousands of visitors annually and it has become a model for other institutions, local councils and government agencies to follow. A number of buildings have won important environmental awards, as has the campus landscape. Such success is very gratifying but it doesn’t mean that the University can rest on its laurels. The process is ongoing.
Leanne Gardiner was Environment Project Officer of Physical Planning and Estates at the University of Newcastle until August 1999. For more information, contact University of Newcastle, Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia 2308; tel: (02) 4921 7328; fax: (02) 4921 6515.