The future of environmental sustainability in PBSA
19 October 2023
Environmental sustainability is ever-more important within the purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) sector – but how can we get to net-zero in operations and development, and what does the future hold? Our expert panel explores some of the challenges and solutions.
Our Accommodation Matters podcast is back for its seventh series! For this series, we’re focusing on the future of sustainability within purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA).
First up is what most people would think of when hearing the word ‘sustainability’ – environmental sustainability. Our panel of experts explores how to tackle net-zero in PBSA, engaging students on sustainability within accommodation, how sustainable accommodation can improve the student experience, the possibilities of AI and much more.
Hosted by Jenny Shaw, HE External Engagement Director at Unite Students, this episode’s guests include:
- Simon Hooton, Director at Ash Futures
- Sarah Canning, Co-Founder at The Property Marketing Strategists
- James Tiernan, Head of Sustainability at Unite Students
We’re also joined by special guest Nicholas Pigula, Sustainability Construction Manager at Unite Students, who shares some insights on the challenges of sustainable construction and some of the ways that Unite Students are approaching this on new developments.
Accommodation Matters brings together sector experts to discuss the Higher Education sector’s key issues through the lens of student accommodation. This episode was recorded on 13th October 2023 and produced by Ed Palmer.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are the personal views of individual guest speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Unite Students and/or Unite Group plc.
‘The future of environmental sustainability in student accommodation’ transcript
Jenny Shaw: Hello and welcome to a brand new season of Accommodation Matters, where we look at big issues, topical issues that affect student accommodation today and in the future. I’m Jenny Shaw, and between now and the end of the year, we’re going to be looking ahead. We’re going to be exploring some broader issues that are already important in the sector, but likely to be more so as time goes on. Today we’re tackling a very big theme.
It’s something that will affect every part of our lives over the coming decades because we are talking about the future of environmental sustainability in the context of a growing climate crisis. Of course, what this means for student accommodation. I’m very pleased to be joined in the studio today by some top experts that can guide us through this weighty topic. Simon Hooton is the director of Ash Futures. Hi Simon.
Simon Hooton: Hi there.
Jenny: Sarah Canning is the co-founder of the Property Marketing Strategists. Welcome, Sarah.
Sarah Canning: Thanks, Jenny.
Jenny: James Tiernan is Head of Sustainability for Unite Students. Hi, James.
James Tiernan: Hi, Jenny. Thanks for having me here today.
Jenny: Thank you. Let’s start right at the beginning. There’s a lot being said – and I think a lot that’s not being said as well, at the moment – about climate change. Simon, can you remind us about why we are doing all of this? If we fail to take action, what are the next decades going to bring?
Simon: Jenny, thanks. I’ve got a couple of things to say at the outset, really, that may give some context to the discussion. I’m not going to beat about the bush. We are perilously close to falling off a cliff. Trying to keep within the 1.5 degree targets that everyone’s talked about – well, that’s long been abandoned. This year, we breached that target in June, July and September. We were trying to keep within it by 2050. We’re way past that. Generally, I guess people acknowledge now that we’re going to have a tough time keeping even to two degrees.
We’re heading much faster than we possibly imagined even a few years ago, to three degrees and maybe higher. We need to understand that’s not an incremental change. It’s not just, another few percentage points. Actually, it’s a point that ushers in – how can I put it? – the unthinkable, really. It means that we reach tipping points that will accelerate us even further. Rapid loss of sea ice, loss of mountain glaciers, and that provides drinking water for 2 billion people around the world. Collapse of ecosystems, such as tropical rainforests, from deforestation and fires, acidification of the oceans, changes in ocean currents like the Gulf Stream, and release of methane from permafrost.
All of those tipping points will be reached and breached when we get to three degrees. It’s incredibly important that we stay below those limits. It doesn’t mean just worse wildfires or droughts, or flash flooding or the sea level rise that we’ve been experiencing in this year and last. Actually, it’s more dramatic than that. It’s about that it will lead to starvation across large parts of the world, complete disruption of the global food system, mass movements of people trying to escape unlivable conditions in North Africa and Southern Europe, and conflict for resources, like water and fertile land.
Of course, the climate crisis then has a huge impact on the nature crisis. It exacerbates things like the inequality crisis. It’s really fundamental. I think we all have to understand the seriousness of this, not just intellectually, but much more deeply, emotionally, viscerally. That’s got to galvanise us into action. If we don’t really feel the importance of this, then we won’t act fast enough or big enough.
Jenny: Thanks, Simon. It is an alarming message to hear, and it’s a difficult message to hear – I think almost too big to get our heads around. I’d like to invite reactions to this from James and from Sarah. What are your thoughts on this? What does it mean in terms of the way ahead, how we can respond?
James: It is alarming, even for sustainability professionals who work in this world every day. There, I think, is a human coping mechanism, sometimes people put up barriers in their head between what they know to be the fact academically and then what they really understand and what they live on a day-to-day basis. There is a real risk that without that, it can become overwhelming, sort of almost drive a paralysis and a cognitive dissonance on this. That probably is one of the key challenges we’ve seen.
I think the timescale as well, doesn’t help – the fact that it’s far enough away to be tomorrow’s problem in people’s heads, yet it isn’t. It’s today’s problem, as Simon has alluded to. This is going to affect us now. I think for a long time, people thought about this being the future generations who maybe aren’t even born yet. In reality, it’s the problem of everyone who’s alive on the planet today.
It’s easy to get really bleak about it, but there are solutions. There are ways of stopping things before they do go too far and we reach those tipping points. I think that is because for some optimism, albeit it’s not the sort of optimism that means we can forget about it and not worry. If we do everything that we can, in the way that Simon alluded to, there is still time to make a difference – but we really do need to take that on board, and actually start acting seriously.
Jenny: Thanks. I think we’ll get right into some of those practicalities in a moment. I want to come to you, Sarah, because you’ve been working with students on some of these issues. What are students feeling? How do they feel about climate change and environmental sustainability?
Sarah: I think part of the challenge for students… At the Property Marketing Strategists, we run a youth forum. We do qualitative and quantitative research on this. The reaction that we see from students is it’s too big and they can’t make a difference. A lot of the things we talk about is, “Well, what does it make a difference if I recycle properly or not? Because, in the grand scheme of things, that’s not going to make a difference.” We’ve even had students saying, “Well, we didn’t because this problem. It’s not our generation that should be fixing it.”
You’ve got the other end of the spectrum, where obviously, there are students who care deeply. I guess, the micro messaging in what they can do, and how they can make an impact is potentially getting lost in the bigger picture.
If we put this into the context of student accommodation, all buildings have had recycling points for many, many years. How much communication is there to say why, what’s happening to your recycling and what the benefit is? If you’ve got a message on the door as students are leaving saying: have you thought about walking or cycling, rather than driving or getting an Uber?
Because those sort of messages and tweaking them to make students feel that they are empowered and what they do does make a difference, would probably see a little bit more activism and a little bit more adoption of what we know is needed, as well as the bigger stuff that as a nation, as a government, as a world, we need to do.
Jenny: Yes, it’s about bridging that gap, isn’t it, between this huge existential crisis and those little changes and little actions that can be taken. I know we found that students are wanting to know, okay, well, so what are you doing? What are big businesses doing? You’ve got more impact than I have as a single person.
Maybe this is a good time to talk about net-zero carbon. James, it’s one of those terms that we kind of know what it means, but would probably, as laypeople struggle to describe it. Can you tell me what that actually means, particularly in the context of purpose-built student accommodation?
James: I can’t give you a textbook definition, necessarily, what net zero means, but I can give you our understanding from the Unite Students perspective of what it means, which I think is probably very much in line with most people’s understanding of this – probably in the wider real estate sector, at least. So, as both a developer and operator, there’s probably two sides to what net-zero means for us.
First of all, there’s the focus on achieving net-zero carbon in our operations business, so the way that we run our existing buildings and all of our corporate activity, I suppose, that’s part and parcel of that.
Then the other side of that is achieving net-zero carbon on our new development activity, which is a significant portion of our overall carbon footprint. Both of these are really important. One thing that’s really important to both of them under the net-zero carbon approach is that it’s not just about reducing energy use, and it’s not just about buying renewables, and it’s not just about buying carbon offsets.
In the past, maybe the focus has been very much on one or maybe a couple of these; for a long time, people talked about becoming carbon neutral. You can become carbon neutral without making any changes to the way you do things, except buying a load of offsets. In the past, that was something that some businesses chose to do. It’s not enough. It’s not enough to solve the challenges that we’ve been talking about and deliver the decarbonisation needed to avoid those worst impacts of climate change.
I think probably the easiest way to think about net zero carbon is a three-step process. The first step is about taking genuine actions to reduce the emissions that contribute towards climate change. In the context of PBSA, in our buildings, that means reducing building energy use; the gas and electricity that’s used in our buildings by our teams and our student tenants.
It also means reducing the consumption of resource and materials, whether that’s in maintenance or services provided to us or whatever it might be, reducing the fundamental activity that drives carbon emissions.
The next step is about then decarbonising those sources of emissions. That means buying credible renewable power, reducing fossil fuel use from the energy perspective, and also selecting lower carbon products and services. That might mean building new buildings with lower embodied carbon and better energy performance, or it might be in buying products which have a lower carbon life cycle, whether that is floor tiles or paint or printer paper – whatever it might be.
Those two steps need to take us as far as we possibly can until we’ve got left is some residual emissions that we just physically can’t remove. There are always going to be some residual emissions. That final step is then about mitigating those residual emissions in a way which is credible and drives genuine reductions in carbon.
Traditionally, that’s carbon offsetting, but going forward, it needs to be more than just some of the traditional approaches to offsetting. It needs to be a focus on physically removing carbon dioxide that’s already in the atmosphere. Those three steps – reduce, decarbonise and then mitigate – are probably the simplest way of thinking of net-zero carbon.
Jenny: What sort of things are universities doing, James, in relation to their student accommodation, and how are we and other private providers working with them?
James: I think we’re quite fortunate in the student accommodation sector and PBSA. We’ve only got a very small part of the problem that universities have to solve. They’ve got to worry about laboratories and libraries and workshops and gyms. We’ve just got student accommodation.
I think we’ve got opportunity to really help the university sector by showing, look, this is what you can do in admittedly one small area, but we can get really good at reducing emissions in student accommodation. I think by them working with them more broadly – whether that’s around providing more accommodation for universities or working with them to share knowledge – I think there are opportunities for private PBSA to work with universities to help them deliver that bigger challenge that they’ve got.
Jenny: How much do students care about this, Sarah? Is it something that they recognise that universities and accommodation providers are doing? Is it something they would pay more for example?
Sarah: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there, Jenny. They do care very much, and they do want to live a more sustainable life, but they don’t want to pay for it. In one of our recent surveys, we asked students what’s more important to them, for example, when looking for energy for their homes. For domestic students, 81% said price over 6% the environmental impact. Maybe it’s because we’re in a cost of living situation at the moment. Maybe if we’d asked the question three years ago, it would have been different.
We have to respect the financial challenges that students have at the moment, and that will be directing their views in some way sort of negatively towards the environment. In other ways, it’s really positive. For example, we had a really great discussion in one of our focus groups about upcycling and buying secondhand products. Students are really thrifty and they’re very good at purchasing that. I think we have seen a change away from fast fashion, and I guess the commercialisation of certain products, because they are buying secondhand, they are buying from Vinted, they are buying from eBay, they are buying from charity shops.
Also, when it comes to food shopping as well, I think they are getting a bit wiser on how to shop and looking for things that haven’t been imported and not using plastics. I think those kind of things that have a financial benefit, as well as an environmental benefit are much easier for them to adopt, rather than things that we’re expecting them to pay over and above for, to make a building sustainable, for example.
Jenny: Yes. Students more likely to be vegan or vegetarian than older generations as well. Is that the case, Sarah?
Sarah: It does look like the numbers are much higher in the lower generation. Again, could this be driven by cost as well? I think there’s a move, not necessarily vegetarian or veganism, but more intuitive eating and flexitarianism.
Jenny: Now, I caught up earlier with Nick Pigula, who is the Sustainability Construction Manager for Unite Students, to talk about how to build student accommodation more sustainably. Here is what he had to say. Hi, Nick.
Nick: Hi there.
Jenny: What does it mean to be a Sustainability Construction Manager? What is it that you do?
Nick: I develop our approach to sustainability on our buildings. There’s a big emphasis on the carbon associated with the materials and the construction process itself, which we refer to as embodied carbon. As well as carbon, there’s sort of a big focus on biodiversity – so the ecological impact – as well as the impact on climate change, but also benefits to people and the occupants of buildings as well, and their connection with nature.
I guess sort of building on from that, the social part of sustainability is really about how our buildings provide a good environment for those occupants within it. Providing good air quality, a sense of wellbeing, things like acoustics and lighting can all have an impact physically and mentally.
We think about sustainability across the life cycle of the building. That really starts from the mining of the raw materials and the impact on the environment and the people involved with that process, through to the construction of the building, and then, increasingly, the end-of-life impacts of the building. What happens to that building and how do we sort of preserve the resources and reduce the impact of the demolition?
Jenny: In terms of the actual development of buildings – because I know there’s been a lot of focus on this – what is possible at the moment in terms of reducing that embodied carbon, and what are some of the innovations that are going to take us further down that road?
Nick: Generally speaking, around 60% of the embodied carbon is located within the structure of the building. So that’s the foundations and the frame, the columns and the floors, et cetera. It’s generally concrete and steel. Not only are they found in large quantities within the building, they’re also quite carbon intensive.
What we’ve done is in the first instance, we’ve targeted that. We now use a cement replacement. Concrete is basically made up of cement, sand, water and aggregate. It’s the cement element that’s highly carbon intensive. So, we’ve been replacing the cement content with something called GGBS – which is ground granulated blast slag, a byproduct of the steel industry. In effect, we’re taking a waste product and we’re using that to massively reduce the carbon impact of our buildings.
One of, I think, the challenges that we’ve found is achieving very low embodied carbon within our developments. We see lots of commercial offices, and actually university buildings, where they’ve incorporated timber.
Jenny: What are the barriers to doing something like that in accommodation?
Nick: The challenge really is around building regulations in terms of the use of timber. Once you exceed a certain height, you’re unable to use timber as it’s potentially combustible. Insurance is a big issue. That’s quite a big blocker. Potentially there’s opportunities to use CLT, cross-laminated timber – which is a very efficient form of timber construction.
Jenny: You said it’s still quite difficult to get to net-zero in terms of the development, the embodied carbon, but how is that going to change in the future? What’s coming over the horizon that will help us do that?
Nick: Primarily, in the first instance – this is sort of visible on one of our developments, Bromley Place in Nottingham – we’re using an adaptive reuse of an existing building. We’re able to basically make huge carbon saves through the reuse of existing buildings and prioritising refurbishment over demolition. Something the industry is really driving now is this principle of the circular economy and resource preservation. The switch probably in the next few years will be slightly from carbon to, I think, resource preservation.
Jenny: [back to panel] Nick talked there about new materials and we are looking to the future today. How might advancements in technology and materials play a role in creating more sustainable student housing – or should we not be relying on these future technologies? Simon, do you want to start with that?
Simon: I think we absolutely have to rely on any technologies that we have at the moment or are likely to come in the coming years and decades. I think there are some really exciting things that are bubbling under that people and businesses can adopt.
Some of them have been tried and seem to work. I think AI can be quite interesting for managing building control systems, making it easy for people. It picks up on the point earlier about how important students think a lot of this is. I think if we can make the process as easy as possible, even take away some of the decisions, dare I say it, so that some of the management of the environment within buildings and so on is done automatically and is done in an environmental way.
If we can do that and that stops some of the issues around whether people are engaging or not, that’d be really important. There’s some terrific AI control systems that are coming on the market for a range of things around manufacture and construction, which I think would be great. We’re going to need to adopt more large scale renewables and do that sharing with the wider community, whether it’s geothermal, distributing systems.
I think one of the most important things for me, particularly for Unite as it’s building new properties, is trying to design them as flexibly as possible. Because such a lot of the carbon is embodied in the construction process, we need those buildings to last as long as possible. If the buildings can be flexible – so what student accommodation today could become, non-student accommodation or shops or offices in the future – if the building can last more than 60 years or so, it has the chance of really offsetting all of that embodied carbon.
James: Yes, I definitely echo what Simon said about trying to sort of engineer out or remove the potential for the ‘wrong behaviour’. We’re all only human. We know what we should be doing and we don’t always do it. That applies as much to students as it does to us.
If we remove the options for students to have the heating set at 30 degrees whilst the window’s open and they’re not even in the room by having better control systems, then they’re not going to do those things. They’re not going to have to make a choice not to do those things, because as I said, we don’t always have time to do what we know we should do. It sometimes clashes with some of our other choices and priorities.
I think that probably sits actually at the heart of the whole climate challenge, the fact that it does require us to make changes to our lifestyles in ways that we’d rather not. It’s sometimes easier to ignore that and do nothing. If we can remove the need for that choice, we’ll give ourselves a boost. We’ve had great success with network heating controls that allow us to remotely optimise them to monitor what’s going on and to give students feedback. That’s something we’re hoping to do more often that will help drive those changes in behaviour.
I think when it comes to innovation and new technology, it’s absolutely going to have a part to play. But I think it’s important to not rely on that. We can’t just wait and wait with our fingers crossed, hoping that some new technology is going to come along next year, next decade, that will solve all of our problems. We really need to try and get to grips with the challenge in front of us with the tools that we’ve got available today. That’s definitely the approach that we’ve taken.
We’ve got plans for significant capital investment as part of our net-zero carbon pathway, which are all based on current proven technologies. It’s simple, straightforward measures like LED lighting, better heating controls, air source heat pumps, solar panels. We’re not waiting for tomorrow’s solutions. Almost certainly, we will end up using those solutions. That comes back to the point that was made earlier about flexibility. We need to do what we can now with what we’ve got, but be able to adapt to emerging technologies and ways of doing things in the future that will hopefully help us achieve what we need to do faster and cheaper.
Jenny: I know we’ve talked about this before, James, that sometimes people’s net-zero pathway has this sort of fuzzy bit in the middle that says: “There’ll be some technologies that’ll deal with this bit for us here,” but you’ve got to go with what you’ve got and then anything else is a bonus.
Something else that Nick talked about was biodiversity. I’m just really interested in what the possibilities here are, because, we’ve seen things like sedum roofs, we’ve seen wildflower meadows and so on. What does good look like? Are there any good examples of that, either in student accommodation or elsewhere?
Simon: There are all sorts of ways of greening buildings and the neighbourhoods, really, from a biodiversity point of view. Sedum roofs are common, as you say. I would look at green walls that have been very effective.
I would look at trying to maximise, as you say, wildflower. Planting for bees anywhere you can within a city is going to be a good thing, even having hives on the roof. I think planting as many trees as you possibly can in the neighbourhood hugely improves air quality. It cools down the cities. Trees absorb carbon. They are win-wins. People love being by them. They feel their wellbeing is improved when there are trees around. Some of that’s just really simple.
Sarah: The only thing to consider with that, Simon, and I completely agree with what you’re saying, is: have we got a skilled workforce that can help support that? I’ve been in many student buildings who talk about wellbeing, but their buildings are full of plastic plants because they don’t have the budget or the skills to know what to plant, where to plant it, how to maintain it and really maximise what the benefit could be.
James: I think you hit on an interesting point, Simon. I think you did too, Sarah. None of these are individual solutions that operate in isolation and just deliver one single outcome. There’s huge interdependency and co-benefits to be had between different measures. It may be that if we’re looking to address biodiversity through enhancing the habitat around our local buildings, that’s not just about creating habitat for flora and fauna. There’s a whole load of wellbeing benefits there around biophilia, whether that’s inside or outside the building.
You’ve got, as was mentioned, the sort of biogenic cooling effect and reducing the impact and trying to mitigate that impact of climate change as it’s being realised. It’s not just a single solution. It’s a solution which has a whole load of co-benefits. I think that applies to lots of the challenges we face with climate change. Almost any of the measures that we need to deploy to deliver those energy and carbon reductions required have an equal range of co-benefits.
Jenny: I think that’s really interesting. It was something that struck me in what Nick said as well, that one of the considerations around sustainability in a building is how well it’s going to work for the students and how that’s going to make them feel, how it’s going to be promoting their wellbeing.
There’s a clear link, I think, between biodiversity and having a lot of flora around and wellbeing. What about going beyond that? Is there a tension between how you might build sustainably and what might be good for students? Are there some other areas where it is a bit of a win-win?
Sarah: I think part of the challenge with a lot of things that involves the construction or the operation of the building, and I’m coming here from a marketing perspective, is we don’t often tell the students. We’re expecting them to behave in a certain way. We’re expecting them to turn their lights out and shut their windows and to recycle.
What evidence are they seeing from an operator’s point of view of what they’re doing? Because there’s some fantastic things that people are doing, and I don’t think that it’s very aware from the student’s point of view. How was the building constructed? What eco-friendly solutions are in place? What investment has been made from a course point of view on putting these things in place?
There’s so many things that we think could be communicated better to students. Just one example – we’ve spoken to a provider that monitors energy in rooms. I asked, well, have you been asked to put the same technology in your management office? They said no. People want to monitor how the students are using their energy, but they haven’t invested in monitoring how the management team are using their energy in their office. I don’t think that you can do one or not the other. It’s got to be a full business strategy. It can’t just be something that’s reliant on student behaviour.
Simon: I think that’s really important. It goes back to something you said earlier, Sarah, which is about students wondering, “Well, what difference am I going to make?” It’s important that individuals stop thinking it’s their fault, or it’s all about their actions, because of course, it is the sum total of everybody’s individual actions that could be meaningful.
It’s really important that they also feel that the really big changes will come from big companies, will come from government, passing new laws from policies, the way in which global companies behave. That’s really what is going to make the big difference. They, as students, as individuals need to hold those people to account. They can’t hold them to account without information. Providing them with information about what’s going on, what the company’s doing, seems to me absolutely fundamental for them to one, celebrate the success, but also challenge them to go further.
Jenny: We’ve talked about net-zero carbon in operations, in construction, we’ve talked about biodiversity, we’ve talked about sustainable practices among students, among those who are running student accommodation. The question that comes to my mind, and I think this is one for you, Simon, is this enough? Because we started off on a very apocalyptic note, and we’re now in very sort of polite management speak, is this enough? Do we need to be more radical still?
Simon: Bluntly, no, it’s not enough. I think we all have to – as individuals, as communities, as companies, definitely as governments – …we need to up our game. I think we have to do everything we can think of, and then some. I think for me, the holding people to account, I think is a really important issue because it gives people a sense of some sort of control or power over what’s happening, is that they really do need to become active.
I think one of my messages back to students would be, you have actually a lot more power than you think to change things. You need to utilise that power because the big change is going to come from governments, and big business. You have options, how you can engage with that, perhaps in a way that a lot of students feel that they don’t at the moment, they don’t see much point in politics. I’ve seen some quite stark statistics about that. I think that is the way that sufficient change is going to happen and it will happen. Once we get that tipping point, if I can use that word, politically, it can happen quite fast.
Jenny: I think as well, all of us who are involved in running student accommodation, talking to students through marketing and communications, we can amplify that message as well, about what can be done. I’m going to invite you all to look to the future and paint a picture of what truly sustainable student accommodation might look like in say, 10 years from now.
It’s just a bit of a flight of fancy, I think, but probably an informed one. What might it look like in 10 years’ time? What would cutting edge practice look like?
Simon: I think there are a few things I would suggest. One is, particularly in the PBSA sector, and there is a huge demand for new accommodation, is that as far as possible, we reuse existing buildings. I know that Unite have done that in Nottingham, and to refashion other buildings, whether they were offices or even factories, and turn them into student accommodation can be really high quality. I think it would be accommodation where just the mere running of the accommodation and the property and the building would be as green as it could possibly be in all the ways that James and Sarah have talked about.
I think also, it would be accommodation where students feel that they have a real input, they have a say. It’s much more of a sort of an engaged process so that they can feel that if they have an issue or they want to do more, that there’s a company that’s willing to respond to that.
Jenny: Thank you. There’s so much there, isn’t there, in the relationship between who’s running the accommodation and the people that live there. James, Sarah, if you’ve got anything you wanted to add to that or a vision of your own.
James: I think Simon probably hit a lot of the key points there. As Simon alluded to, it’s not about continuous building of new buildings, we need to move to a more circular model and a consideration of the full life-cycle, but those buildings need to have low embodied carbon, they need to have low operational energy use and all the things we’ve been talking about, but also they do need to be great places to live.
They need to be places that support people’s wellbeing, where they can build that sense of community and thrive, and they need to be operated in a way that helps those students adopt really lasting, responsible living habits that they take on with them. It’s a really key transitional moment in someone’s life, moving into independent living for the first time. We need to make sure we’re equipping them with the knowledge, the skills, the ways of living that they take on so that legacy of a lower impact once they’ve moved on would be a great legacy to achieve if we can.
Sarah: I think I’d like to refer to what Simon said about re-purposing buildings and refurbishing, and I think it has so many benefits. I think, the first thing is actually from a cost point of view for students as well. I think if everybody just builds new or refurbishes the life out of an old building, you’re losing that tier one affordability level because everything becomes so fancy and so amenitised, obviously it works for the environment, but it also can really work for students as well.
I think the other thing is being a little bit more innovative with the student accommodation product, because if we have to repurpose existing buildings, the traditional layout that we’ve all become accustomed to, that’s very efficient to build, can’t happen. We can’t be having, six bedroom cluster flats along a corridor with three doors on each side and a kitchen at the end. That might not work in a converted office building or in a factory building.
We’ve done a lot of research with students talking about different layouts and what they want and what’s being built at the moment is not necessarily what students want. Again, you’ve got this whole sustainability thing is that the buildings have got to be fit for the future. What comes out of the ground today, the students aren’t going to be moving in for about another three years anyway.
We’re going to be moving quite quickly from Gen Z to Gen Alpha. We have to, I think, look forward to the product so that it doesn’t become outdated and it doesn’t get wasted and we don’t end up ripping everything out in five years’ time because it’s been outdated.
I think the other things really are about that nudge behaviour. We were in Amsterdam for a conference a couple of weeks ago, and we’d stayed in student accommodation and in their bins, they had recycling bins that you access through your student card. I don’t understand the technology quite behind it, but what they can tell is if somebody hasn’t used the recycling bin for a while, that, they haven’t effectively checked in, then they can address that. “It seems like you’ve been using the non-recycling bin quite a lot recently. We need to do a bit of education around that.”
If you’re looking at educating, we at the Property Marketing Strategies have all done the carbon literacy training. Why can we not put the students all through carbon literacy training? Because then quite a lot of these things they’ll realise for themselves anyway.
We’re dealing a lot with international students and every country has different levels of engagement and education around it. We need to make sure that we’re all working towards the same thing and our international students understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. We don’t just want them to be cold or have really short showers for no reason. There’s a reason why these things are in place and maybe those things aren’t explained because we’re not educating.
Jenny: Finally, in the spirit of taking action, I’m going to come around and ask each of you for a tip for listeners. Just one small thing that we could do today or this week that would make a real difference, that would reduce carbon or promote biodiversity in some way. James.
James: It’s in some way an easy question, and a difficult question. It’s an easy question because there are really clear things, but it’s a difficult question because I think we probably all know them. We all know what we need to do. Really, it’s about doing them.
I think probably the one bit of advice is try and take some time, sit down for five minutes and think, what can I do that is going to have the most materially significant impact? I think that’s the point. There’s a lot of activity we could do that has a small impact. What in your life, in your work is going to have the biggest impact? It’s worth just reflecting on that because it may not be the things that spring to mind straight away.
Jenny: Thanks, James. Sarah.
Sarah: One of the pledges that I made when I did the carbon literacy training, I will repeat here, really, which is looking at the end-to-end cycle. If we put that into the context of student accommodation, it means not just talk from operators talking about being a sustainable operator. It’s looking at where are you ordering your pens for your office from? Are you ordering them imported from Amazon? Because if so, then why can’t you just go down the road and get them from a local source?
Where are you ordering your food for your student parties from? Can you go plant based? Can you order from a local supplier? What are the local suppliers’ eco credentials? That’s really my key takeaway is looking at the whole supply chain. You’ll get much more credibility and I think much more buy in from students if they can see operators taking affirmative action rather than just telling students what to do and how can they make changes.
Jenny: Thanks, Sarah. Simon.
Simon: I think most importantly for me, because we need change at scale, is getting people to hold others to account. Get active, pressure your company, pressure your university, your MP, the government, challenge them, be a thorn in their side, because the more other people you can pressure to do better – particularly big companies and government – the bigger the change we’re going to get.