How repurposed university building cut carbon

The development of a new medical school in Worcester offered an opportunity to showcase an award-winning approach to the sustainable reuse of an existing building – but it was not without challenges


  • Erik Dirdal

23 August 2023

Exterior of the renovated Elizabeth Garrett Anderson building, copyright BDP/Nick Caville

© BDP/Nick Caville

Situated on the banks of the River Severn, the site for the University of Worcester's recently completed Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (EGA) Building presented an opportunity to make a distinctive contribution to this developing area of the city.

However, what sets it apart from many academic facilities is the vision that the university and design team developed to avoid carbon-intensive demolition work and wholesale rebuild.

Instead, they took an existing newspaper press building and adapted it to accommodate the spaces required for the new Three Counties Medical School.

Building aims to meet demand for health students

BDP's civil and structural engineers and designers at Glancy Nicholls Architects accepted the challenge of transforming this formerly drab concrete structure into a striking, golden building.

By retaining existing components, the new structure also retains 70% of the embodied carbon of the original printing house.

Inside, the space has been transformed with the addition of a new atrium, simulated GP consultation rooms, light and spacious social learning spaces, and a cafe with indoor and outdoor seating.

The area that once housed the giant printing press is meanwhile home to a new anatomy suite with high-tech equipment, enabling students to learn about the human body and perform procedures in a controlled environment.

The introduction of new floors and stairs with level access, plenty of lifts and spacious toilets also ensure the building is inclusive and accessible to all.

Pro-vice chancellor, health and science, Prof. Sally Moyle estimates up to 1,500 students a week will be using the new building – named after Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who was the first woman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in the UK.

'The university has been investing in high-quality health courses for more than 20 years because we know just how badly the country needs these graduates,' she adds.

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Design prioritises sustainability to win SKA gold

The university has a strong record of sustainable new-build and refurbishment projects, and insisted from the outset that sustainability would be a key factor in the design of the school.

Having recently achieved a SKA gold award for the refurbishment of its Art House facility, the university was keen to continue this important work in the development of the new Severn Campus for Health, Wellbeing and Inclusive Sport, which is home to the new EGA Building. The EGA Building refurbishment has also achieved a SKA gold environmental rating from RICS.

SKA ratings are specific to refurbishments and not applicable to new builds. Wellbeing is an important feature within the EGA Building, and within the SKA system. The wellbeing assessment looks not just at the thermal comfort, lighting, acoustics and ventilation, it also considers outside views and personal storage.

A spokesperson from the university said: 'The University of Worcester is deeply committed to environmental sustainability and doing all we can to ensure our facilities have a low carbon footprint and make a positive enhancement to the area. We have carried out a number of refurbishment projects, and SKA allows us to ensure we are meeting the high standards we set for ourselves in term of sustainable practices.'

Given that SKA ratings are not significantly affected by civil and structural engineering, BDP also carried out separate studies on development options to determine the most sustainable approach. As with SKA, it is important to use an industry-standard calculation tool so that targets and benchmarks are properly understood.

The Institution of Structural Engineers has been instrumental in developing an assessment tool for calculating embodied carbon across the full range of structural designs.

Known as The Structural Carbon Tool, it is freely available on the website of the Institution of Structural Engineers. This has been developed further by many consultants, including BDP, to add and enhance the features, while maintaining the basic engine for consistency.

The tool provides statistics on projects in a way that allows for easy comparison between designs. Using a version of this tool, a range of differing options was assessed to establish which was optimal in the carbon-saving sense.

Engineering reduces emissions and enables efficiency

There were many compelling arguments to demolish the entire printing house for the new development. The building had been constructed in the early 1960s, and hence was already almost 60 years old.

Shortly into the design process, a number of defects were uncovered that had a significant influence on the design approach.

Reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) panels had been used in the original roof; this technology was popular at the time because it was lightweight and precast, but is inherently weaker than traditional concrete construction and prone to sudden failure. These panels were replaced as they had no justifiable residual design life.

Furthermore, most of the existing upper floor slab and roof were constructed using woodwool formwork, which had also been popular for its simplicity and speed of construction.

However, a common defect with this is that the fresh concrete leaks away from the reinforcement embedded in the slab and leaves it exposed to potential corrosion.

Although strengthening of the woodwool slabs was explored, these were ultimately replaced using a lightweight system so that the foundations could be reused.

Despite these challenges, the decision was taken by the design team to minimise the interventions as much as possible, with most of the existing building successfully reused.

In particular, effective reuse of the existing foundations and frame has saved significant carbon emissions compared to the potential impact of a new-build structure.

Refurbishment was preferred as a solution mainly to make carbon savings but also to retain and improve an existing and aesthetically striking building from a conservation perspective.

Other key elements of BDP's engineering approach included upgrading the glazing to provide a better-performing curtain wall with a new glazed entranceway, as well as replacing the roof with a lighter version that allowed for the installation of solar PV panels.

The overcladding of insulation to the facade, which was previously concrete-cased, also improved the energy efficiency of the building.

The gold-coloured inert copper alloy cladding that has been added to the exterior is an efficient, long-lasting material that will provide a weathertight covering to a thick layer of insulation, making the building inexpensive to heat or cool according to the season.

'By retaining existing components, the new structure also retains 70% of the embodied carbon of the original'

Avoiding demolition keeps legacy building in service

This project is an excellent example of how careful repurposing and retrofitting of existing buildings can provide state-of-the-art, sustainable and accessible new facilities that, in this case, will educate students for generations to come.

By taking this approach, we avoided the need for carbon-intensive demolition work, saved significant amounts of carbon, and ensured the building will provide a lasting legacy for the university.

Erik Dirdal is a civil and structural engineering director at BDP

Contact Erik: Email

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