NUS case study: Bright young things

5th June 2014


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  • Education ,
  • Public sector ,
  • Biodiversity ,
  • Natural resources ,
  • Employee engagement


Paul Stookes

the environmentalist learns about the innovative features installed at the new head office of the NUS

Sustainability is a key word at the National Union of Students (NUS) and the organisation has helped to embed a number of innovative initiatives in the higher education (HE) sector. One of its most successful is “green impact”, an environmental accreditation and awards scheme, bringing together HE staff and students with their wider communities to showcase positive changes in environmental practice.

Given the NUS’s strong record on sustainability, it is no surprise that its new head office in London is an ecobuilding. The environmental elements that are incorporated in the retrofit of Macadam House near King’s Cross range from the mainstream, such as a remote-access building management system (BMS), to a unique “native” green wall to encourage local biodiversity and an ivy habitat wall to help reduce air pollution. In addition, a pioneering LED lighting rental agreement with Philips includes a financial incentive for the Dutch company to help the NUS save energy.

Leading by example

Macadam House, which has been awarded a BREEAM “excellent” rating, is an illustration of the high priority that the NUS affords sustainability. As James Agombar, ethical and environment manager, says: “It would have been hypocritical of us not to develop a building with the highest-possible environmental credentials. We set out to make our new HQ a demonstrator of what an eco-office should look like, and plan to make it an education piece on sustainability for our staff, students, volunteers and visitors.”

Although the building is a tangible testament to the NUS’s commitment to minimising its carbon footprint, Agombar says that its design deliberately set out to incorporate the many sustainability features in a way that does not necessarily stand out as something special. “The aim was for Macadam House to feel like a modern building rather than an ‘eco’ one because we wanted everyone to think that its environmental features should be the norm,” he says. “Students are the future leaders of society and it is an opportunity for them to gain an understanding of what buildings of today and the future should look like.”

Some of the building’s groundbreaking environment features, therefore, are not as visible as they could be. The green walls, for example, are sited at the back of the building rather than in a place that would have greater visual impact. However, the current position is more suitable for the plants, which are striking when in full bloom – and so this was the decisive factor in determining where the green walls were situated.

Seeing the light

Under its agreement with Philips, the NUS rents state-of-the-art LED lighting from the supplier rather than buys the fittings. The “pay-per-lux” procurement deal gives Philips responsibility for the lighting over 15 years, while the NUS pays a quarterly fee based on how much energy it uses.

“The pilot we have developed with Philips includes a financial incentive for the company to help us save energy as part of the rental agreement; if we use more energy than the threshold we have agreed, Philips reimburses some of the rental,” says Agombar. “So Philips had an incentive to put in the most efficient and best designed lighting, and has an ongoing incentive to help us monitor and manage it.”

Agombar estimates that it would have cost the NUS about £120,000 to procure the lighting system – too high a price for a registered charity. There is LED lighting throughout the building, with combined daylight and motion sensors and a central management system to change sensor and dimming settings. In the 1,200m2 of office space, only 7.7kW of lighting is used for the 784 light points, achieving significant energy and carbon savings compared with traditional office lighting installations.

The NUS and Philips spent a year developing the “pay-per-lux” deal. Agombar says it is “all credit to Philips” and the company’s forward-thinking approach that procurer and supplier could broker such a progressive arrangement. “It’s a win-win situation because Philips benefits from guaranteed income for 15 years, while we benefit from the most energy-efficient LED lighting on the market, as well as the ongoing expertise of Philips,” says Agombar.

Because the deal includes service and warranty obligations, Philips engineers are available to help run the system. The supplier monitors the lighting online and reports back regularly to the NUS. Philips also advises on any new technologies that could deliver enhanced energy savings for the union.

Cradle-to-cradle carpet

Another pioneering feature of the new building is the carpeting. The carpet tiles are made and fitted by Desso, and are certified “cradle-to-cradle” products, which Agombar describes as “the next level in recycling”. It means that no harmful materials go into the flooring’s manufacture and every component in the carpets can be broken back down into its parts and reused in the manufacturing process.

In an agreement that mirrors the “pay-per-lux” deal with Philips, the NUS rents the carpet tiles for Macadam House from Desso. Agombar explains that fitting tiles rather than a whole carpet is more efficient and sustainable because they can be replaced individually if damaged. The rental aspect of the procurement model also inspires the manufacturer to produce hard-wearing flooring that will last, although the cradle-to-cradle nature of the design ensures the product’s enduring sustainability.

Constructive engagement

The NUS follows a philosophy of what it calls “constructive engagement” to encourage its stakeholders, including staff and volunteer students, to behave in a sustainable manner. The new building is viewed as an opportunity to further this agenda and the NUS is working with students from Westminster Kingsway College to engage staff and visitors. For example, in every office space there are “carbon culture engagement screens” that are linked to the BMS and display up-to-date energy usage throughout the building. There is healthy competition between the two floors of office space to achieve the lowest carbon footprint.

In terms of waste, there is only one waste bin to a floor and recycling points are available throughout the building, to encourage behaviour change. Recycling services also include food waste.

After feedback from staff and students, the NUS has worked closely with IEMA to refine its “green impact” training workshop and resources, and it is now an IEMA-approved training provider for the Institute’s course, “Introduction to auditing and evaluating environmental behaviour change”.

The NUS has so far trained 1,300 auditors to support its teams in embedding “green impact” into their universities and colleges. The union also wanted to ensure that its student volunteers leave the training course with something to add to their CV, and with the knowledge and skills to lead a more sustainable future, personally and professionally. “Our ongoing relationship with IEMA will help us to build stronger links with the professional body and its members, which, in turn will positively influence our work with staff and students across all our initiatives and communities in the HE sector,” says Agombar.

Moving in…

NUS staff have been working in their retrofitted head office for just six months, so it is early days to assess the building’s environmental performance compared with the previous headquarters. “We really need at least a year’s full data to make a meaningful comparison but the initial signs indicate a much-reduced carbon footprint,” says Agombar.

He is particularly pleased with the progress of the pay-per-lux arrangement with Philips and says that a collaborative partnership has emerged.

When asked whether there were any aspirational environmental features that had to be ruled out from the refurbishment, Agombar names just two: the NUS investigated the possibility of installing a lift that generated electricity but, with only a few floors to travel, it would have taken at least 60 years to gain any payback on the investment. “We also asked, belatedly, for staff key cards that would turn off electricity as do hotel room cards, but it was too late in the project to incorporate such a system,” says Agombar.

Because it is so early in the life of the new office, the sustainability features are still being tweaked to optimise their performance. For example, the sedum planted on one of the green walls did not flourish in the wet winter so the contractor, Scotscape, is considering an alternative planting scheme.

…and moving on

Bearing in mind the extensive raft of sustainability features included in the retrofit of Macadam House, the financial outlay was surprisingly low, with a total investment of about £200,000.

Agombar’s advice to other organisations considering a similar refurbishment is to pay attention to every detail of sustainable design and think beyond the parameters of an accreditation scheme. “There is always room to innovate, such as with our agreement with Philips,” he says.

“If a charity on a small budget like the NUS can achieve such a sustainable building, so can any organisation,” argues Agombar.

Key sustainability features of Macadam House


  • A solar photovoltaic system with a capacity of 6kW.
  • A solar thermal system which provides hot water.


  • Green roofs on the building’s bike shed and on a slab by its lightwell.
  • Bird and bat boxes have been installed, as well as measures to support insects, including clay and reeds for nesting, a butterfly and insect hibernation box and an underground bumblebee box.

Energy efficiency

  • Heating and cooling is via an efficient variable refrigerant flow (VRF) heat pump system, which provides four units of energy for every one used. The VRF is able to provide heating and cooling simultaneously by moving excess heat from one area to another requiring heat. The VRF’s fan speed can be adjusted and thermal zones configured to allow for flexibility of the office space in future.
  • The ventilation system has CO2 detection, which ensures ventilation matches occupancy levels.
  • The building generates no nitrogen oxide emissions because no gas is consumed on the premises.
  • The retrofit included installating high-efficiency double-glazing and insulation measuring 150–300mm.
  • The NUS has embraced server virtualisation by reducing how much computer equipment must be kept cool.
  • Print Manager Plus software has been installed to set printing targets and reduce paper and energy use.
  • Instant hot water machines have been fitted on hard-wired timers, so there are no kettles in the building. Also, only AAA*-rated fridges and ambient-air hand driers have been installed.
  • The lift uses variable speed drives and efficient controllers.

Water efficiency

  • 3,000 litres of rainwater is harvested to flush toilets.
  • All sanitaryware has flow restrictors and thermostatic mixing.
  • Sub-metering for cold water has been installed on each floor and is linked to the building management system (BMS).
  • The BMS can detect water leaks by comparing the out-of-hours and office hours consumption rates, as well as historic data.
  • Water shut-off valves on each floor are linked to the BMS.


  • 90% of the construction waste during the refit was recycled.
  • Each floor has multiple recycling points and only one waste bin.

Recycling services are provided by Paper Round and include food


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