Canary Wharf: Europe’s largest Passivhaus scheme comes to London

Urbanest is delivering what will be the world’s largest residential development in Europe to meet Passivhaus standards of energy efficiency. The purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) and residential appartments in London’s Canary Wharf are due for completion in 2026.

Canary Wharf: Europe’s largest Passivhaus scheme comes to London

At a glance
Who: Canary Wharf Group, Urbanest, University College London (UCL) and Apt Architects 
What: 1,672 student bedrooms and 80 residential apartments across three towers
Where: Canary Wharf, Central London 
Why: To meet the growing demand for student accommodation in a more sustainable way
When: Finance and construction agreements signed 2023, completion expected 2026 

The challenge

According to the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), there were 370,000 people in full-time higher education in London during the 2020-21 academic year. Yet there were only 97,000 beds available in PBSA units across the capital.  

HEPI anticipates that London’s student population will continue growing for 12 years. Developers of PBSA in the capital will need to meet this increasing demand while also being mindful of the environmental and social goals set by councils and universities. They will also need to respond to the demand for high-quality accommodation in terms of wellbeing and community impact.  

The solution

Three towers with all residential units built to Passivhaus standards of energy and emissions performance. Passivhaus design standards seek to eliminate the need for space heating and cooling, while also reducing the need for non-natural lighting. When heating and cooling systems are used, they should meet high standards for heat recovery. 

As well as Passivhaus certification, Urbanest is targeting BREEAM Outstanding certification for the development. This is a broader scheme also covering land use and ecology, water use, health and wellbeing, pollution, transport access and material and waste management. 

How the project works

Urbanest is developing a total of 1,627 bedrooms for UCL students and 80 residential apartments across the three towers, which will also play host to a gym, yoga studio, cinema, communal spaces, a drive-thru restaurant and 40,000 square feet of office space.  

The towers have been designed with Passivhaus standards and BREEAM requirements in mind. They will be ultra-energy-efficient thanks to the design of, and materials used in, the structure. All-electric, whole-house ventilation systems will be used to heat and cool the rooms. All other appliances will meet the strict requirements of Passivhaus.  

Externally, the towers will feature living walls described as “sky gardens”. The gardens will continue across a bridge system linking the towers.  

Several businesses are involved in this major development. Urbanest is the developer, acting in partnership with UCL. Apt Architects has designed the towers, Midgard is the main contractor. Lending for the project is being provided by Lloyds Bank, Wells Fargo and Bank ABC. Aviva Investors Real Estate is providing ground rent finance. Canary Wharf Group is also involved in this regard. 

The results

The results remain to be seen as the project is yet to be delivered.  

That said, assessments of existing Passivhaus buildings have revealed that some use 90% less energy than the current building stock, while performing the same – if not better – in terms of daily functioning. This results in significantly lower energy costs without compromising in comfort.  

Business benefits  

Urbanest already hosts 4,000 student beds across London. It is currently delivering a scheme in Battersea in tandem with the Canary Wharf development, which will bring its total portfolio to more than 6,500 student beds.  

Urbanest has not disclosed how delivering the project to Passivhaus standards and BREEAM Outstanding standards will reduce costs relating to design, material procurement, construction or building operation.  

However, in working towards these standards, it is getting ahead of the curve in terms of legislation.  

Urbanest is also proving that it can deliver projects that would meet the needs of local authorities or land owners with stringent environmental sustainability targets. London City Hall is aiming for net-zero operational emissions by 2030 and hoping to decarbonise the capital more rapidly than England as a whole, for example. Canary Wharf Group has set a 2030 net-zero target supported by science-based emissions goals. 

Investment and savings

Co-lending for construction is being delivered through a £250m development facility with a five-year term.  

Urbanest has not disclosed the likely levels of rent for the units, nor how the development is likely to impact its bottom line.  

Industry context

As noted above, delivering PBSA in London is lucrative, with demand for rooms outstripping supply significantly. As universities, councils, investors and students themselves place more of an onus on social impact and environmental sustainability, developers leading in these respects will likely find it easier to build a strong business case for their projects.  

On energy and climate specifically, around 40% of the UK’s annual carbon footprint is linked to the built environment. This is split almost 50:50 in terms of embodied carbon (from supply chains and construction) and operational emissions (from energy use during building use).  

Recognising this sector’s contribution to emissions, many developers have set science-based pathways to net-zero ahead of the UK’s 2050 deadline, or set new environmental certification requirements for future developments.  

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