Technical Study: Cutting 75% of emissions from Powell & Moya’s Wolfson College, Oxford

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Embarrassed by being one of the worst carbon culprits in the region, the college set out to be net zero by 2030. Retrofitting 763 windows was just the start of it, finds Thomas Lane

When philosopher and founder of Wolfson College Sir Isaiah Berlin decided he wanted a modern, forward-thinking institution back in the 1960s, energy efficiency did not feature on his agenda. This was the era of nuclear power expansion, when the talk was of electricity that would be too cheap to meter and vast reserves of natural gas were being discovered in the North Sea. Discussions on global warming were confined to a few obscure committees while people carried on with their lives blissfully unaware of the extreme heatwaves and flooding that were coming down the track.

Berlin selected the architectural practice Powell and Moya to design the new, all-graduate University of Oxford college which sits on the banks of the River Cherwell a couple of miles north of the city centre. It features the quadrangles typical of an Oxford college and two fingers which extend down to the river enclosing an expanse of lawn. Generous floor-to-ceiling glazing allows students to make the most of the views over the sylvan landscape.

Unfortunately, the windows are single-glazed and recessed behind uninsulated concrete block fin walls that transmit every nuance of the external climate back into the building. The cold is kept at bay by a 50-year-old, 2.5MW heating system. “So, while we are very proud of the buildings and the architecture, the impact on carbon emissions is huge and I suspect we are probably one of the worst emitters in this region,” says Richard Morin, the bursar of Wolfson College.

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