Navigation Toggle Icon

Sustainable construction: Our framework

5 December 2023

We are pleased to have made significant progress on reducing embodied and operational carbon at Unite Students, following the launch of our 2030 Net Zero Carbon Pathway in 2021.

The next step on our journey involves the publication of our Sustainable Construction Framework – a vital roadmap which formalises the Group’s approach to sustainable design and construction of new purpose-built student accommodation, refurbishments and retrofits. It looks at how we work internally, as well as with our supply chain, identifying core areas of focus.

With this new framework, we’ve aimed to provide a crucial resource for our own teams and also to meet the needs of various external stakeholders – such as investors, university partners, students and local authorities.

Any development activity impacts the surrounding environment, community and economy. While we consistently strive to deliver high-quality, affordable accommodation – providing great places to both live and work – it is critical we remain aware of our wider socio-economic impact.

Our framework is built around three core principles – ‘reduce’, ‘optimise’ and ‘enhance’.


We remain focused on reducing the whole life environmental impact of our construction projects. Here, carbon reduction, energy efficiency and a move towards a circular economy are core elements.

Our development pipeline will follow the operational energy and embodied carbon targets outlined in the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) 2030 Climate Challenge.

We’re focusing on a range of strategies here, including new full site context evaluations – which allow us to better identify opportunities to reduce new construction and identify opportunities for refurbishment. Wider use of modern methods of construction is also key, as well as more efficient on-site practices, to reduce waste as we build. We’re also working on the optimisation of building fabric, systems efficiency and better energy management – to enhance overall operational energy performance.

Accelerating the shift towards a circular economy is a part of all of this. We want to reduce the amount of materials we use in construction, especially new materials.  We stand to gain substantial benefits here – including costs savings, reduced price volatility, enhanced supply security and alleviated environmental pressures, such as supply, plus a reduction in Co2 emissions. These advantages start from the design phase and persist right through to development delivery.


We also want to go beyond reduction – we want to optimise the performance of our buildings. This pillar focuses on health and wellbeing, water and long-term resilience against climate change risks.  

Buildings need to promote the health and wellbeing of occupants. We are therefore reviewing our current pipeline against industry best practice, including the WELL Building Standard and are working towards establishing a target around certification for 2030.  This will mean we consider a range of wellness factors in development – from indoor air quality, to thermal comfort (including temperature and humidity control), to acoustics.

Water is a second key area under ‘Optimise’. Addressing water consumption and management is an increasingly important issue for everyone – no matter what industry you’re operating in. We are focused on integrating infrastructure that minimises potable water usage and enhances water quality. Strategies like smart water metering, leak detection and rainwater harvesting present significant opportunities in the short and medium term.

Thirdly, this pillar is about the long-term resilience of our buildings and their occupants. Climate change poses many unknowns – around rising temperature, rainfall and extreme weather. From 2024, Unite Students will implement new climate change risk assessments for development projects. These assessments will be carried out to support BREEAM certification, but will exceed the requirements. This will help keep us ahead of the curve and ensure the most prominent threats are identified and mitigated.


We’re also looking to enhance the wider impact of our projects – for people and the environment. Here, our framework focus is three-pronged – covering supply chains, biodiversity and social impact.

First up, our supply chain is crucial to enhancing our impact. We want to work on our existing partnerships – and forge new ones – to foster innovation to meet net zero carbon and sustainability aspirations. That is why we’re developing a new supply chain code of practice – with the aim to have all suppliers signed up by 2030. This will cover a host of terms – to help close skills gaps, drive better use of data and improve collaboration.

‘Enhance’ also covers biodiversity. Under the Environment Act 2021, Biodiversity Net Gain will become mandatory in England – so it is increasingly a key focus. We are prioritising green infrastructure and human-centred design here, but also on materials selection and the impact this has on biodiversity through the supply chain. This means more green spaces, as well as habitat creation, green terraces, living walls, sustainable drainage systems – among other features – incorporated into our buildings.

The final element here is social impact. This is an issue we consider to be incredibly important here at Unite Students and our commitment begins right from the conception stage of a project. Many of our recent developments incorporate community amenity space and we also run Positive Impact Programmes – whereby our team work directly with local communities to make a difference. To move this work forward, we’re currently in the process of developing a Social Value Playbook to formalise our approach and establish methods for measuring the social value generated by our projects.


In summary, our Sustainable Construction Framework is not just a plan; it’s a commitment to continuous improvement and innovation – internally, within our supply chain and beyond. Although relatively early on our journey to net zero, we are dedicated to meeting our sustainability aspirations, while ensuring that each project delivers a great place to live and work. We look forward to keeping you updated on our progress in the months ahead.

You can download the Sustainable Construction Framework here, and hear from Nicholas on our Accommodation Matters podcast series: