In conversation with: Nicholas Pigula, Sustainable Construction Manager
As part of our Sustainability Strategy launched in 2021, Unite Students committed to net zero development by 2030. We believe this ambition will help us play our part in tackling climate change for future generations to come.
Here, we speak with Nicholas Pigula, Sustainable Construction Manager at Unite Students, to hear how the business is meeting its goal.
Q: You have been with Unite Students now for a year, can you tell us a bit about how the first year has gone?
A: It’s certainly been a busy year for us as we work hard towards becoming net zero carbon by 2030 – only seven years away from now. As a real estate developer, a significant part of this involves assessing the way we currently design and develop buildings – and figuring out how we can amend this process to cut embodied carbon and enhance operational energy performance.
A significant part of this year has involved establishing a robust benchmark in terms of the performance of our buildings for both embodied and operational energy. This has built a foundation from which we have been able to work with our project teams to begin to include net zero carbon design principles into our schemes and engage with the supply chain to begin to realise some of these opportunities in construction.
Q: That sounds like quite a mammoth challenge – do you feel like you’ve made good progress?
A: It’s involved a lot of work from a range of teams across the business – but yes, we are making good progress.
We’ve worked closely with our design team, for example, on identifying a number of low carbon alternatives, such as low carbon concrete solutions, including Ground Granulated blast-furnace slag (GGBS), a by-product from blast-furnaces, and the potential for recycled aggregates and low carbon brick slip façades. Internal finishes include biobased flooring as well as low carbon, healthy paints.
There have of course been some challenges.
The first is about balance – we need to find solutions that not only save carbon but do so without unreasonable cost implications for the business.
The sheer number of different parties involved throughout the development process – from architects to designers and builders to material suppliers – also makes this a significant task. It is critical that all parties are aligned and working towards the same end goal.
To help here, we are working on our ‘Sustainable Construction Framework’ – which will explain our approach to sustainable construction and what our aspirations are for sustainable development. While much of the focus here is on net zero carbon, this work also incorporates wider ESG issues – like health and wellbeing, the social impact of our construction activities and other elements like biodiversity.
We have also created a materials library, with our net zero carbon options. We have already started working collaboratively in developing this and sharing it with our consultants to support them in achieving net zero carbon buildings.
Q: As the framework takes shape, what have some of the key findings been?
A: There has been a fundamental shift. Sustainability is now front-and-centre in the development process, right from the get-go. This is where it needs to be.
Starting with our acquisitions team, we are out carrying out sustainable site analysis before even thinking about development strategies.
Moving through the process, it is then about identifying proactive steps we can take. Doing things like energy and embodied carbon modelling – as a standard practice – as opposed to a reactive step for planning reasons, for example.
Collaboration is also key – as a client, we need to challenge and also work with our supply chain to ensure that we can support them with the knowledge and resources they require to fully optimise the design and construction of our projects.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about how Unite Students is progressing in terms of achieving net zero carbon by 2030?
A: Overall, we are doing well as an organisation – with a number of new developments moving us towards the goal.
Morriss House, our new property in Nottingham, will make a significant contribution, for example. The building is aiming to achieve the RIBA 2030 climate challenge 2025 embodied carbon target which encourages architects design buildings that adopt practices to reduce operational energy embodied carbon and potable water.
We believe that Morriss House will be our most energy efficient and lowest embodied carbon new development project to date. Achieved through a combination of a highly efficient structural approach and low carbon brick slip, is combined with a high performing building form. The project will also be zero carbon in operations, through a combination of onsite renewable energy and 100% zero carbon REGO back energy procurement.
The project is also being used as a test bed for some new NZC pipeline initiatives including low carbon paint and flooring.
Q: Overall, how do you think Unite Students stands out from other PBSA providers?
A: We have really worked hard over the past 12 months to drive collaboration and ensure we are all working together towards these goals.
Being proactive is also key. Instead of doing the bare minimum to meet requirements, we are actively seeking out the most sustainable methods of development. Innovation is present across our portfolio. For example, at Jubilee House, our latest development in Stratford, London, we will be using GGBS concrete mixes – a low carbon concrete mix – which we identified through conversations with our contractors and designers right at the start of the development process. The use of this in the sub and superstructure is saving over 10% of the whole life embodied carbon compared to traditional CEM1 mixes.
Jubilee House will also be the first PBSA project in the country to achieve the IFLI Zero Carbon Standard for embodied and operational energy.
Across the Unite portfolio, we are looking at low carbon piling options including low carbon precast and reclaimed steel. Low carbon alternative glazing systems utilising timber and highly recycled aluminium manufactured using hydropower are also being explored.
Sustainability (ESG) is ingrained throughout Unite Students and there is real engagement – at all levels of the business. Everyone understands their individual responsibilities.