What makes a Sustainability Leader? Case study: University of Reading

With deadline day for entry to the 2015 Sustainability Leaders Awards closing on Thursday (30 July), we take a closer look at the outstanding energy efficiency initiative from the University of Reading that won over last year's judges.

By delivering annual savings of £90,500, 343 tonnes of CO2 and a payback period of less than three years, the University of Reading has shown how identifying and tackling specific energy-intensive activity can drive impressive results.

Having ascertained that its science buildings accounted for approximately one third of its carbon footprint, the university made reducing energy use in this part of the estate a clear point of focus. Within those science buildings, or more specifically the laboratories, the fume cupboards – which are used to limit exposure to hazardous or toxic fumes, vapours and dusts – were found to consume substantial amounts of energy. This is both in terms of direct electricity usage for extraction and ventilation and secondary gas used for heating, the heat being lost through the extracted air. Therefore, with 337 fume cupboards across Reading’s campus, improving their efficiency was key to driving meaningful savings.


The initial scope of the project was for 44 fume cupboards, representing an investment of £250,000, which was part-funded by Salix Finance. The works comprised installing new highefficiency extract fans in the cupboards, which were 32% more efficient than previously, and intelligent ‘variable air volume ‘controls, to adjust input and extraction rates based on demand. The ventilation to chemical storage cupboards was redesigned meaning the majority of the fume cupboards could be switched off when not in use and, to combat the human error element, PIR sensors were installed and linked to a warning system to remind users to close the sashes on cupboards
when not in use. 

To allow for detailed analysis of the savings, and to evaluate the scope for rollout across the rest of the campus’ fume cupboard stock, electricity sub-metering was also installed in the building. The results they measured speak for themselves. 

Electricity use reduction: 


  • 51-59% reduction in annual consumption for the whole system
  • 144-165 tonnes of CO2 saved per annum
  • £35,073-£40,208 in annual savings (against a projected £32,000)

Electricity use was not the only story, however. The reduction in extracted ambient air, which, during colder weather had of course been heated, added to the savings, as air changes were reduced from 36 per hour to just 10.

Heating costs have been reduced by 77% – helped by other initiatives including reducing overnight temperature settings from 22°C to 14°C.

Gas use reduction:

  • 208 tonnes of CO2 saved per annum
  • £50,793 in annual savings
  • 77% reduction in heating costs

Such was the success of the project, it has become a vehicle for both stakeholder engagement within the university and for promotion of its sustainability activities. As part of its annual Green Week, for example, Reading ran a competition to design an interactive display to illustrate how efficiently the cupboards are now running. The winning design has been custom-built and installed, and demonstrates simply and visually the energy savings the project has driven.

The project is now acting as a ‘springboard for an estate-wide review’, says the university, and a working group chaired by the dean of science has been established to review the energy efficiency opportunities in the remaining 293 fume cupboards on campus.

The group, which reports to the university’s Carbon Management Board, aims to appoint technical consultants for the next phase of work before Christmas.

Having identified a specific energy drain on site, the University of Reading then not only carried out the necessary works, it engaged with key stakeholders, promoted its activity and installed meters that allowed it to measure the results and therefore, ultimately prove the business case for an institution-wide roll out. Successful, scalable savings – making the University of Reading a 2014 Sustainability Leader.

What the judges said:

The results and deliverables in the University of Reading’s work were extremely impressive and highly replicable at other universities. They clearly want to be a beacon for the higher education sector and want the whole sector to follow them – and that’s fantastic.

Final submission deadline for the Sustainability Leaders Awards 2015 was Thursday, 30 July.

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