By Leanne Gardiner
The University of Newcastle sits on a 150 hectare site, much
of which is natural bushland. Tracts of dry open eucalypt forest,
a wetland nature reserve and pockets of remnant rainforest have
helped to earn the University a widespread reputation for nature
conservation and environmentally responsible planning and development.
With a student population of around 17,000 and over 2000 staff,
the task of balancing the needs of a large institution with the
preservation of this site is complex. It is being managed not
just by grounds staff willing to experiment with innovative environmental
management strategies, but by those responsible for the built
environment who have ensured that the principles of ecologically
sustainable development (ESD) are incorporated into all new buildings.
The University was established in 1965 and since that time the
forested landscape has been altered to accommodate over 100 buildings,
a network of roads and pathways, car parks, sporting fields and
a commercial centre. Fortunately the University's Planners valued
the bushland and took early steps to ensure its survival, avoiding
the British tradition of neatly trimmed and manicured gardens.
Throughout this decade the University strengthened it's firm foundation
of good environmental management by implementing ESD principles
and energy conservation programs, innovative waste reduction programs,
pioneering landscape and catchment management techniques, rigorous
environmental planning, and facilitation of increased alternative
THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT
Early development of the University introduced problems of soil
erosion and compaction, changed drainage, and the intrusion of
weeds. Rapid growth in student and staff numbers in the late 80's
placed further pressure on the campus environment. In the early
90's an increasing awareness of environmental issues encouraged
changes in landscaping policy which began to favor the planting
of native shrubs and grasses. Now a firm policy is in place to
support the use of Australian plant species and to reduce areas
of mown grass. Hundreds of thousands of native trees, grasses
and shrubs have been planted over the last eight years to regenerate
existing bushland and to re-establish habitat in previously cleared
areas. During 1998 over 100,000 native grasses and 25,000 native
trees were planted campus-wide. Already in 1999 over 200,000 native
grasses have been planted.
Visitors to the campus are invariably intrigued by its unusual
landscaping. Grounds staff have perfected the technique of mounding
and swaling (small hills and dales) to provide a successful method
of fully utilizing rainwater. Mounds and swales direct and slow
water flow, preventing scouring and erosion and allowing for soil
water absorption. The technique has meant the elimination of artificial
watering and has significantly reduced maintenance costs normally
associated with extensive landscaping.
Community groups have taken an interest in ensuring the vitality
of the University's bushland, conducting frequent tree plantings
and providing much-needed manpower in the removal of weeds. The
University is eager for the campus to be a public place that is
truly part of the wider community.
In 1995, the University convened an Environmental Management
Advisory Committee (EMAC), comprising a number of academics, administrative
and planning staff and student representatives with expertise
in environmental matters. The goal was to provide advice on environmental
matters to the University's Vice?Chancellor. During the ensuing
years the committee prepared formal environmental planning documents
for water conservation, waste minimization, transport management,
energy conservation, the promotion of environmental matters, management
of the natural and built environment, and even the reduction of
paper usage. Of 120 strategies documented in these plans, over
70 have been fully or partially implemented. As each of the planning
documents have been formally approved by the University's Vice?Chancellor,
their progressive implementation is assured.
The University consumes approximately 630 kilo litres of water
each day. Five years ago the University adopted a goal of reducing
water consumption by using tap water more efficiently and harnessing
rainfall in dams and tanks for irrigation of outdoor areas. Water
saving equipment was installed in new and refurbished buildings
and storage ponds were created to retain rainwater.
Since 1993/4 water consumption has remained constant even though
the number of students has increased by about 35 percent since
1990 and a large new sports and aquatic center (which includes
an Olympic swimming pool) has been constructed. Results are expected
to improve even further when the University's policy regarding
the installation of rainwater collection tanks begins to take
effect. This year, for example, during a significant re-modelling
of a major building, the opportunity was taken to install four
rainwater tanks, each with a capacity of over 13,000 litres, to
harvest rainwater run-off from its roof.
During 1998 a comprehensive audit of the University's solid waste
stream was conducted which confirmed that over 60% of solid waste
is made up of office paper and cardboard. A campus-wide paper
recycling scheme, introduced four years ago, ensures that most
of this material is delivered to a local non-profit disability
services organization which sorts the paper. Each work station
and photocopy unit on the campus has a distinctive blue recycling
bin which is emptied daily.
The audit found that there was potential for the University to
further reduce its solid waste by more than 60%. This would involve
recovery of aluminium cans, glass and plastic beverage bottles,
toner cartridges, food scraps, and increasing the effectiveness
of the paper recycling program. A plan has been prepared to progressively
address each of these issues.
Staff of the University's Landscape and Ovals Section have expanded
the concept of the backyard worm farm to make it into a commercially
and environmentally viable venture. In doing so they have also
helped create training opportunities for the unemployed, research
opportunities for students, and helped earn the University an
award for environmental excellence.
The worm farm started on a small scale to take food waste from
the University's largest refectory. Initially the scheme was labor
intensive, but with the input of students and the assistance of
participants in a federally funded 'work for the dole' scheme,
the system was streamlined and now collects 80% of the University's
pre-consumer food scraps, green waste, cooking fat and shredded
The worm farm is based on a travelling wall system where the
worms work through waste from the back to the front. As they get
through a section, the rich vermicast is removed for use, and
then more waste is placed at the front. The farm, in effect, moves
around in a circle, (thus the term travelling wall) and the rich
soil conditioner can be moved by bobcat rather than by hand. The
benefits of this new system have been tremendous. In its first
year of operation, the farm generated considerable savings for
the University in garbage disposal costs, and next year there
will be further savings when the natural fertilizer from the farm
begins to replace artificial fertilizers used on University ovals.
Recently a pilot study began to collect food scraps from staff
lunch rooms. A year-round supply of food scraps from staff will
help sustain the worm farm during quiet periods on campus. Small
bins were installed in key lunch rooms and a daily collection
is taking place. Staff enthusiasm for the scheme is high, but
the volume of food waste retrieved will determine viability of
the collection as the study continues.
As the University grew rapidly in the late 80's threats to the
campus environment were exacerbated by lack of public transport.
The demand for car parking far exceeded available spaces and "feral
cars" were causing considerable damage to the bushland. A
survey conducted in 1990 found that 62% of those attending the
University travelled alone by car.
A total of $4 million has been invested in improving access to
public transport. The University Railway Station was opened in
1995 after much political lobbying, to provide a connection with
towns outside of Newcastle that are within commuting distance
to the University. A new internal road, completed in '96, provided
campus access to public buses. A security shuttle bus service
was also started for dropping students between bus stops, the
train station and various buildings on campus. In collaboration
with Newcastle City Council, extensive cycleways have been constructed
through the campus and surrounding suburbs. Bike racks were installed
across campus and additional lighting provided.
A car parking fee was first introduced in 1997 as a deterrent
to car usage. Although a nominal fee of $1 per day was initially
set, it provides enough incentive for some people to use other
means of transportation. Another encouragement was a car pooling
program where priority parking spaces were provided to registered
users. This strategy has not been as successful as anticipated.
Traffic counts and utilization of alternative transport has been
closely monitored for the past four years, and results show that
the number of cars entering the campus has declined while student
numbers have risen. Results also show a significant increase in
the use of public transport, especially trains.
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
A firm policy has long been in place to site new structures carefully,
retaining as many trees as possible. This regard for the campus
environment developed into a goal to demonstrate innovation in
managing both the natural environment and the built environment.
Over the past eight years, the University has increasingly focused
on ESD as an integral component of all building projects.
New buildings and extensions are designed to maximize natural
light penetration and to enable cross-ventilation rather than
air-conditioning, particularly in office spaces. Passive solar
design is incorporated in the orientation of buildings, the installation
of light and solar heat transfer panels, the use of shading where
appropriate, and the placing of electric lights strategically
to maximize use of window light.
Environmentally responsible materials are used wherever possible.
Examples include recycled timber, woolen carpets and insulation,
linoleum floor coverings (made from linseed oil and cork), and
polypropylene (PP) and high density polyethylene (HDPE) piping
instead of PVC. Ease of maintenance is considered in the selection
of materials and finishes so that future funds are not wasted
on unnecessary refurbishments or excessive use of cleaning products.
Where feasible, components for new buildings are pre-fabricated
(pre-cast wall panels, for example), so that building materials
may be easily disassembled and re-used if alterations are needed
in the future.
The Nursing Building is the newest addition to the University
and deserves special mention for its advanced "environmentally
friendly" design. The building is situated on the fringe
of a spotted gum forest and necessitated the loss of only two
advanced trees. Offices are shaded by an open sloping metal "fly"
roof that allows rainwater collection and directs prevailing summer
northeast breezes into courtyard areas.
The Nursing Building won an environmental achievement award this
year and is considered an international benchmark for ESD. The
air-conditioning system in the building's 450 seat lecture theater
is one of the first large scale systems in Australia to use geo-thermal
energy to assist with heating and cooling. Other features include:
reverse brick veneer insulated cavity walls to suit various climate
conditions; above ground stormwater "creeks" which avoid
the need for underground pipes (and potential blockages) and flow
by gravity to a retention pond used for irrigation; water harvested
from the roof which is stored in tanks to be used for flushing
toilets that have six litre flush valves instead of the conventional
nine litres. The building is a model for the future and a clear
demonstration of the University's determination to lead the way
in the use of ESD principles.
The University is a high energy consumer with an annual energy
bill in the order of $2 million. Thus apart from environmental
considerations there is an economic incentive to reduce energy
consumption. Though University energy consumption has been increasing
at the rate of 5% per year for the past ten years, the energy
conservation program has managed to limit this growth.
With the help of the Sustainable Energy Development Authority
(SEDA), a government organization, the University has reduced
its greenhouse gas emissions by 830 tons per annum and has dramatically
cut its operating costs. This is the first step in a five-year
plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over 3,000 tons and
save $150,000 annually.
Since introducing passive solar design and enhancing natural
ventilation in new buildings, air conditioning plants are typically
only installed where specific conditions are required for teaching
or research. In areas where air conditioning is needed, systems
use economy and night purge cycles and have motion sensors to
prevent operation in unoccupied areas.
Examples of successful projects that have reduced energy consumption
on campus include: the installation of a highly efficient air-conditioning
plant for four major buildings that has saved $20,000 annually
and reduced greenhouse emissions by 530 tons; one plant upgrade
which had an electrical meter installed and indicated savings
of 15% of past consumption, preventing over 200 tons of CO2 emissions.
With the installation of a campus-wide energy metering system
in the near future, the true success of this program will be accurately
The University has been disseminating information about progress
with the energy management program to staff and students. Energy
awareness is an important component of the program and must be
regularly reinforced in order to continue savings already achieved.
This is particularly important when poor operation of otherwise
efficient facilities can potentially erode conservation gains.
It must be said that many of the new and innovative practices
used at the University of Newcastle were met at first with some
scepticism. But they have proved highly successful. The 'bushland
campus' attracts thousands of visitors annually and it has become
a model for other institutions, local councils and government
agencies to follow. A number of buildings have won important environmental
awards, as has the campus landscape. Such success is very gratifying
but it doesn't mean that the University can rest on its laurels.
The process is ongoing.
Leanne Gardiner was Environment Project Officer of Physical
Planning and Estates at the University of Newcastle until August
1999. For more information, contact University of Newcastle, Newcastle,
New South Wales, Australia 2308; tel: (02) 4921 7328; fax: (02)
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