Green Element Weekly Podcast Interview with Alan Donnachie, Head of Estates and Facilities – Regents University London 

Alan Donnachie is the Head of Estates and Facilities at the Regents’s University London.

In this episode Alan talks about the challenges of greening a university that is part of the Crown Estates and within a Royal Park in central London.


  • installing of a BMS systems
  • working with international students who are not used to the winter weather 
  • having effective windows in old buildings
  • environmental efforts vs perception
  • how to get more savings from sustainability efforts
  • priority of reducing carbon emissions

Useful links:

Regent’s University London

Full Transcript 


[0:01] Will: Yes, perfect. So, Alan, thank you very much for coming on the Green Element Podcast. Well actually, we’d been working with each other for, let’s just try to work it out, 10 years? Must be coming up for the next round.

[0:17] Interviewer: And over that time period, we’ve seen so much change, at Regents. Can you tell us a bit about Regents? Because you’re actually a kind of, a business, aren’t you, and a university? So, you’re a private university, so you run differently to other universities, can tell us a bit about who you are and the university?

[0:36] Alan: Yes, Regents University of London, to give us a proper title, it’s been a place of landing on this site for about 100 years, maybe slightly more. But you’re right, we are a private university, one of only a small handful in the UK. Regents actually started, it’s a fantastic story, it started off as Bedford College. Bedford College was the first college in the UK or England certainly and to offer a degree level education to women, it started in the late 19th century by the sisters read and took its name from Bedford Square in London where the sisters were brought up and by a rich benefactor, they got some space here in Regent’s Park and develop Bedford College, you know, Regent University of London, as we know.

[1:35] Alan: We’ve got an international student base, we’ve got over 140 nationalities and again, is represented the university. So, we’re a very internationally focused business. Many of the courses, address international business needs. Many of our students are from families across the world who all manage and, run their own businesses. And the children, students of Regents, who probably in most cases, go on to develop and join those family businesses across the world. And actually, Regents is very much built on relationships, there’s a piece that says, “once you come along to Regents and study here, you’re, part of the Regents family” or forever, I suppose. And indeed now, a lot of our alumni still come back 20, 30, 40 years after they studied here. So, we’re very much a family-based University, if you like, we’re in Central London, Regent’s Park, we’ve got about 12 acres on the south side of the park. 

[02:49] Alan: But actually, when you’re here, you could be anywhere, it’s very, countrified, it’s very beautiful. It’s very peaceful, it’s very calm, altogether, it’s an absolutely fantastic site that you would never imagine you would. Less than a few hundred yards from the hustle and the bustle of the

[03:07] Will: But equally, that’s got its ramifications hasn’t it? Being in the park, you’ve got constraints on buildings and double, you know, triple glazing and stuff.

[3:19] Alan: Oh, we have, yes.

[03:21] Will: And that’s what I’d found really interesting and watching how you’ve tried to green up the university, with your hands almost tied behind your back, in some respects.

[3:31] Alan: That’s a fair comment. And I must say, is that the university itself has, we don’t own these buildings, unfortunately, the part of the Crown State, so we do have quite a long lease. And we’ve been here as I said before, for quite a long time, though, because we’re part of the Crown State and because we’re within a Royal Park, we probably have more challenges and constraints placed upon us than many other similar university sites around the UK, that has its challenges and there are serious problems. But on the other hand, that is actually a benefit, because it means that we are responsible for maintaining and developing the heritage, the culture, the quality, the beauty of the site. So, everything we do must have a very close eye on it, with regard to how we look after the site responsibilities that were craft on-side. 

[04:30] Alan: In practical terms, that means we can’t just go around replacing doors, replacing windows, adding systems, adding equipment, and so forth, and indeed changing any of the sorts, the gardens are owned too, they are controlled to an extent, by Royal Parks. So, we have to be very careful about everything we do. When I first came to Regents, six years ago, like everybody that comes to Regents, absolutely overwhelmed, by the-

[5:01] Will: It will be six years that we’ve been working together, it’s actually have since

[5:08] Alan: I just found out where you were before, and yeah. When I came to Regents, many years ago, I was overwhelmed by the quality, the beauty and the layout of the place, which is fantastic to find something like this in London. Once I’ve got my feet firmly under the table, it was very clear that we were doing some really good stuff and with some very satisfied students. And conference visitors, attending sessions of conferences through the summer, and weekend, etcetera, so that was good. But, nobody really knew what our impact was, an environmental impact, nobody really knew what we were using and how we were delivering and so forth. If there had been failures and any time before, there was always a tendency to switch things on, to be running 24/7.

[06:00] Alan: So, we’re just going to 06:02 [inaudible] and the trade and the kit would run, just constantly and nobody really, I wouldn’t say nobody cared, because I think that’s wrong. But I don’t think anybody actually appreciated the impact of running a site, quite like that. So, one of the first things that that I knew we had to do was to try and get a grip on where we were, try and form a baseline of actually what we were producing in terms of, energy use, carbon emissions, and of course, money because it costs money to run all these things. And it does come back down to money usually at the end of the day when you’re speaking to finance directors and the like.

[6:45] Alan: So, the first thing we wanted to do is implement a building management system or a building environmental management system. And this was a huge task, an absolutely enormous task, because we got some bits, that, to be fair, that never really worked. We really couldn’t use them, or more access information or indeed run anything. And so there was a case then, that I went to spoke to some colleagues working at other universities and said, “what’s the best way to approach this?” And I was given some great advice and included in the advice, was a couple of organizations who are installing BMS systems, and one in particular, carbon numbers/ecosystems. They have done some really good work with Essex University, and a couple of, in London, universities, as well as some very high-end financial businesses. 

[07:49] Alan: So, I contacted them, had a conversation, and they could see the opportunity for them as a business. But equally, they could see an opportunity for them to help Regents develop and grow and implement some really good systems and processes to measure what it was we were actually doing. And, by the result of doing that, we actually started to identify, once we put the BMS system in, because we were trying to run things smart, and joined up, we actually started, and this was a bit of a surprise, we actually started to highlight where things weren’t working. Where there was, failure and nobody had even noticed it or maybe somebody had noticed it, but nothing had been done about it. 

[08:42] Alan: So, actually, it was really useful, from that point of view. We also identified a number of items, which may be considered, I suppose, as backlog maintenance. Not that backlog maintenance, it just hadn’t been done but backlog maintenance, that people have all, very too difficult, don’t want to go there, don’t have the time, money, which thankfully, at Regents, not a significant issue, because in the university’s very committed and investing in the future of the university. So, we were able to tie a couple of things and things like LED, controlled lighting, something that we didn’t have before. But we’ve only for the last, actually, in fact, just this minute, changed, out some lighting we fitted nearly six years ago because it was coming to the end of its life, its life cycle. So, we’ve taken these lights out that we fitted in six years ago, put some new ones and really lifted the area. But the benefit is we’ve taken the old lights out and fitted these lights into areas that are used less frequently. So, the LED lighting is perfectly suitable for windows, cupboards, storage areas. Some areas where we have a library, that are fairly low use, by one or two students, and the lights are perfectly acceptable. 

[10:10] Alan: So, by actually replacing that cycle of replacement, but considering all the time, well, let’s not throw these LED lights away, because they’re not completely used. And let’s, you know, make use of those. So, that’s what took quite well. We’re also running the heater, under controlled conditions, you know, saying, let’s take a temperature sensor, let’s find out what’s happening, hold on, there’s, 2 to 300 students in that area, we don’t really much heating, because there’s enough heat in there already. So, it’s enough for, let’s look at, say temperature, how is it doing today? Do we need to bring the heat on earlier or often and things like that? 
[10:50] Alan: The one area we had a real issue with was residential accommodation. Well, about unusual here at Regents because, we have about 230 beds, with probably around 150 rooms. So, from that, you work that we actually have a number of rooms where we have a dormitory style accommodation. What was happening there, was that was many international students coming from very much warmer climates, they were really struggling when they came over here because the buildings were cold. And we were forced virtually to have our heating on 24/7, no, we don’t have that level of sophistication to maintain, the adequate temperature of 21, 22 degrees C. We just have to put it on and let the students become really hot and cool down by opening windows, even in the middle of winter, which was really frustrating. 

[11:50] Alan: However, last year what we did, we cleaned the whole system down and cleaned it through and every radiator had a new thermostatic control valve. And we put some new valve controls, zonal controls into the building. So, we’re now able to allow students to, if they are to want and we are actually able to control in a detailed fashion of when we want the heating on or when we want it off. We do that with, also temperature, what’s the occupancy in the space and we also try to shut the heating off for at least three or four hours per 24 hours. So, the night when they should all be tucked on safely bed, not always the case, but we do try that at least.

[12:40] Alan: One of the biggest challenges we do have though is, been agreed to a listed building, the windows have been repaired and painted, 12:56 [inaudible] the life of the last number of years. And they really are in poor condition, they’re not in good condition, single blades, timber, badly fitting drafts, these are the things we have to deal with. I actually started my life as a joiner, so I’ve actually made windows or painted windows or no, we build windows. And the last thing I’d ever want to do, is to repair a window and put an awful booking, plastic, metal, plastic, cover replacement, I think it’s just wrong. Notwithstanding the fact that it’s a listed building, we have to conform with what’s in the City Council, planning, regulations, historical buildings, etc. And that’s given us a bit of a challenge because with really all windows, it is very difficult to make them good, it’s easy to change them and put some draft proofing and everybody stands by and says, oh marvelous, what great job we’ve done. 

[13:58] Alan: Personally, I think it’s money not well spent, I think you really need to have to tackle these things properly. So, at the moment, we’re working with some architects and my preference is to change the windows with new timber windows, exactly the same, no difference in the configuration of the setup of the window. I think that’s a responsibility that we have to take on board, with double glazed sealed units and using quality sustainable timber, using the highest quality paints, preparation techniques, preservation techniques, and so on. So, that we actually can stand back and say, well, they’re not the same windows that were there, but actually, they’re better, but they’re still timber, they still look exactly the same. But actually, the draft proofing and application of draft proofing, these are the very highest standard undertaken, watched on, you can’t get any better. 

[15:05] Alan: And hopefully, once our architects have addressed over, the T’s and dotted all the I’s, then we should be able to go back to the Council and see how we do. Running on from that, we have other buildings which are not listed but they are old, although most of them at one time, I suppose it was damaged by bomb damage during the Second World War. They are the traditional critical type windows with single release there and again, they are in poor condition. And most of the windows have twisted a little bit, what catches broken, hinges broken, difficult and challenging to repair because it’s not, obviously it’s not carpenter, but you need very specialist skills, particularly if you expect to come on the site and actually do the repair on site. 

[16:01] Alan: So, at the moment, we’re looking at that and we’re saying, well maybe the right thing might be to do is to replace them, using a typical critical design. Very much in the same configurations, we’ve got, putting double sealed panels in there, new handles, new hinges, etcetera. We will actually improve the value of the home building on board, significantly, without you, know, would just be incredible the difference that, that would make. And we have worked with Westminster Council and I have to say, they’ve been very positive towards our ideas, with our pre-application process, and have been very supportive. And they’ve even helped us to consider some further technologies, renewable technologies. They haven’t said, well, let’s do it and you can do it, there’s no problem. But in our application process, they’ve suggested, well why don’t you block out some ideas for inclusion of newer technologies. So. we’ve done that; it is probably a couple of years away, but we have done that. 

[17:06] Alan: The other thing we’ve done to try and appease or satisfy the authorities, we have a slightly newer building completed in the 50s, the J building, really had, really old– So, not really old, but certainly critical windows, which were in poor condition, we’ve replaced them with steel windows with PVC covering, finish. And we did that to demonstrate that we could have windows made to match the precise configuration of the old windows, to try and demonstrate to the Council that Regents are not here to change and mess up with the historical, their heritage, that the loop of what Regents is. And to be fair, I think the Council recognizes that now because we have spent slightly more than maybe you would have had to spend if you’d just replace the windows. 

[17:59] Alan: So, I hope they recognize that Regents is quite keen to do the right thing. One of the things that we’ve found with that and it’s a really good learning point, we have actually created conditions within our J building, which means even in the height of the winter, we can shut the heating off, because the windows are so effective that, providing to get that little bit of morning sun, you know, because the sum’s quite low, but it just takes a chill of the space. And sometimes the heating will come on to do that for an hour or two, maybe from about six o’clock. But we find we can actually shut the heating off, for much of the day. And as the day goes on, students, staff will actually open windows, because it’s getting slightly warmer in the space. So, that’s providing some much-needed ventilation. Because ventilation is an issue. 

[18:56] Alan: On the rolled-up building, which I mentioned with the with other critical windows, the danger is, if we put double sealed units everywhere, around to probably, I think there’s the best part of 400 windows, we will create something really uncomfortable conditions within the envelope of the building. We may well, be able to turn the heating and off, who knows? But ventilation is key, we would actually stop the ventilation that we have now because windows fit so badly. And that would have an impact on teaching. That would have an impact on the student experience and visitors experience to Regents. 

[19:39] Alan: So, one of the things we’re looking at now, we’re working with a couple of engineers, just to try and identify a system that can work in tandem. So, a system that will provide heating, and ventilation and a bit of cooling, as well, for the summer. And we’re looking for that comprehensive package that, if we do decide to do the windows, then we have to do this job as well, because you can’t do one, without the other, you can do HPC but that might all be money badly spent, because all the good stuff you’d be creating, you’d be putting in new windows. So, we have to think about it and that, in a very logical, cohesive, strategic manner. So, we lighten things up and do things as they need to be addressed, so, it’s quite exciting for us.
[20:32] Alan: The other part as I mentioned before we own gardens, 12 acres we’ve got, we have four full-time gardeners and they do a marvelous job. We have some beautiful gardens here, new people, that walk into Regents that always, you know, overwhelmed by the–

[20:48] WillIt is peaceful.

[20:50] Alan: Yeah, the lawns and the plants and the trees and so on. And I’m particularly proud of the gardening team because they’re all committed to looking after our gardens in the most sustainable way possible. There are no pesticides used here, we don’t buy any pesticides, everything we do is, I’d like to say, organic, that’s the right word. We recycle everything we can, anything we can’t, then we dispose of in a compost, process. And we have real 21:37 [inaudible] from over here, the amount of compostable stuff we put in the waste piles, comes back onto the gardens because it’s spread around debris. It feels like it’s a bit, no, actually I’d be spreading and really goes back into the soil so that’s not really taken off-site.

[21:55] Alan: Even when we do some excavations for various bits and bobs, we never take the soil off-site. We keep it, and recently, we excavated quite a lot of clay from a project we did. And the gardeners took the clay and some topsoil and actually created mounds within our wild garden area and they’ve all been sewn with wildflowers. And in this early summer, they’re fantastic, what we have around the place. So, you know, we’re creating these mounds, we’ve created a bit of interest, a little bit, you know, you’re walking through the space, you see slightly different things around. Buck hotel, which this year has gone really well actually, bees, we had an impurity here for many years, but suddenly had fallen into disrepair. Although now, we’ve just agreed, terms with a London bee organization, I don’t quite remember the name at the minute, but they’ve been signed up. And they’re going to be reactivating, they may have started actually, five hives in grounds. So, we’re quite looking forward to that. And we’ll be producing honey, probably not the first year but certainly, hopefully, next summer, definitely the summer after, you’ll be able to buy Regents’ honey till no refectory, which is great. 

[23:32] Alan: And we will be actually looking at planting, to make sure that we plant more and more flowers and borders to attract bees, and all that and stuff with recognizing the value of the gift to us.

[23:51] Will: And with all the work that you’ve done, savings and the environmental impact that you’ve served, could you talk to us a bit about what has happened and where you’ve got to and what you’ve achieved? 

[24:11] Alan: I think that the impact we’ve had, has certainly impact of, being more aware, more focused, and managing an environmental impact has been huge. And people are very quick sometimes to come into organizations, including Regents and say, oh, you don’t do anything? And you know what, why do you have that idea that we don’t do anything? And sometimes people perception of what’s happening in the environment is not quite the same as what organizations are trying to do. People will see one thing, they will see some color border and not where you’ve been, or you know who see some plastic coffee cups, just that normally but no, you don’t recycle them and so forth and so on. Or there’s always lights left on or heating is on and its 22 degrees. And so, people have these, these comments regularly, to say, well, because of that, and that means this organization must be doing nothing. 

[25:18] Alan: What we’ve been able to do with our approach to environmental management has been able to be sending post to people and individuals to say, well, okay, we are doing things, here’s a list, if you’d like. And that list is through, ISO 50001, which you and your team know about and indeed, you’ve helped us significantly to develop that. Because I saw 50001. for me, is a very basic tool, there’s lots of technology around, there are lots of words connected, and they’re all there for you if you really want to sit and read them, I don’t, particularly find them that fascinated but they are there.  

[26:03] Alan: The key thing is; it makes you think about delivering the ISO 50001. It makes you think of it and say, okay, I’ve signed up for this, I’ve paid for it. Because it’s not cheap, it doesn’t come for free, you have to pay money to be able to do these things for you. And then you have to pay people to come in and make sure you’re doing it right. So, their only illusion, won’t come free, you have to work pretty hard, and you have to pay some money. But the key is, at the end of the piece, is to have your 50001, you need to have done these things. And it’s these things that I’m passionate about, these things produce financial savings. Now, as soon as you mentioned financial savings, you usually have the finance director, his team, probably most of that business on board, because that is their goal. Their goal is to save money, each line, if you tell them what we’ve recycled in two and a half tons of coffee cups, here that bucket that makes pilot non-delayed, but really, then, they’re not hugely interesting. If you say to them, I’ve saved 15,000 pounds a year and they’ll just City running costs, you know, that was good. Can we do anymore? And that is the point you have to grab onto, can we do anymore? Yes.

[27:23] Alan: Now you then start to save your co2, I think here at Regents, we’re well in the 34% of co2 savings. So, that’s 32. I think it’s 34%, I would like to check that one. 30% of, where we’ve said, let’s not let not that carbon either been reduced, so let’s start things off or where it has to be produced, let’s control it. And let’s try and stop that carbon waste going to the atmosphere, that is your challenge. In terms of the energy saved, I have got some figures in here, if you don’t mind setting a link if you set a little can put little. And we had a couple of challenging starts, so we actually had a baseline of 2016, we started off with a baseline of 2014, but then some buildings changed, and other systems and processes change. And we started to get slightly distorted, slightly skewed figures. So, we didn’t actually alter the baseline. 

[28:35] Alan: And at the moment, we are, you know, to date, we’ve saved over a million cubic kilowatt hours, a million-kilowatt hours of gas, and slightly more than half of the kilowatt hours in terms of electricity. We’ve seen that in the numbers, commercial buildings. And so that is a fight, we can demonstrate that we can prove that because we can see, here’s a bill from today, here’s a bill from two, three years ago, exactly the same space, we haven’t grown, we haven’t shrunk, but we can actually demonstrate that we have saved energy coming through. So, I think that’s very important.

[29:25] Alan: The downside of it and I have to take responsibility for this is that I don’t promote that as well, as perhaps we should. We do have a piece on internet retailer staff of students and visitors have access to the internet, what stuff we’re doing, though, I think we could do more. I’m not one of these people who like to show about what we’ve done, I prefer to sort of get my head down and get on and do it. And maybe we need to sort of stop, come back and be a little bit more, share a bit louder about some of the achievements that we have made. Going forward, reducing our carbon emissions is the number one priority for me on this agenda. There are many agendas of the university but when we talk about environmental management, environmental property, we’re talking about making it better, what else can we do? And no one in a position where new things don’t necessarily cost huge amounts of money. Because we have the infrastructure, we have the mechanics there to do these things, you know, for example, we’re replacing, we have some very fine roof links on one of our building, which the Northern Lights if anybody knows exactly what that is, the timber, they’re in very poor condition, they’re pass the best, looking dreadfully, we’re taking an opportunity to replace all these and replace all the roof coverings.

[31:04] Alan: Now, to put into context, that’s about a million pounds’ worth of work. So, that is a phenomenal piece of work. So, I’ll say, that there’s a lot of numbers of students that we need for a lot of years to pay for that. But that’s one of the things we didn’t know that the key benefit that we’ve picked up on it was just a couple of things. The first one is, the windows will have actuators, yes, open actuators, which will control with a temperature system within the building to say, it’s hot, it’s cold, it’s wet, and so forth. And that will automatically catch control of the windows via the BMS. Now, BMS makes it quite simple, isn’t it? No, it’s an opportunity. Because to do it from a standing start, which would be very difficult, given the windows we’ve got, would be very expensive. But to do equipment, replacing windows and thinking, let’s put our cable up here and a few actuators is actually not an unreasonable cost.

[32:06] Alan: But that will have a positive effect on people working in that space going forward. And the heating systems that are there, like I mentioned earlier about heating, ventilation and cooling systems. This is the same building. So, already we’re starting to look at it and say, well, can we create something to facilitate the new installation going forward? Now, what can we do it, no, can we do it today. And actually, we may not do the actual work for two, maybe three years. And yes, we can. And that’s exactly what we’re doing. So, in this space, and it’s probably somewhat around 20, probably 15 to 20,000 square feet of space. We’re looking at ways that we can start to adapt that space to get better quality classrooms, a couple of offices because we still need them, some open plan spaces, some better breakout facilities and so forth, which is part of our general blueprint for improving things that originate. But actually, within that, we would identify new spaces that we could use for services, whereas, before they never existed, which is not their core services, it was 2.88 in.


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