Portrait of Sir Tim Hitchens standing with Professor Louise Richardson


The graduate college by the Cherwell is forging ahead with a remarkable plan to achieve net zero by 2024

Published: 16 November 2022

Author: Richard Lofthouse


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For its remarkably far reaching and comprehensive decarbonisation plans, Wolfson College has won a Green Award in the Oxford Preservation Trust (OPT) Awards 2022.

One of the trickiest climate action questions is what to do about leaky old buildings that may also have heritage status or be Grade I or II listed.

Alumni who remember visiting or studying at graduate college Wolfson, on its divine plot of land immediately by the Cherwell River just north of Lady Margaret Hall and the University Parks, may have already leapt to the conclusion that having been founded in 1966 by the great intellectual historian Sir Isaiah Berlin, such restrictions do not apply and therefore it is a comparatively easy college to improve for energy efficiency.

But they would be at least partly wrong.

The college was designed by Powell and Moya, one of Britain’s most significant post-war architectural practices. Work started in 1968 and was completed in 1974, the same year Powell and Moya’s practice won the Royal Medal for Architecture.

It is an important example of the architecture of its period, the term ‘Brutalist’ no longer being pejorative, once you have put on a clean pair of modernist spectacles and exchange yesterday’s futurism for today’s past.

The buildings are carefully detailed and are referred to by the 20th Century Society as: ‘a classic piece of low-key modern architecture of high quality and particular elegance’.

The college was listed Grade II in 2011.

The decision by the college to hurtle towards net zero carbon by – wait for it – 2024, was made during the early reaches of the pandemic in 2020.

Max Fordham Partnership, Building Services Engineers, were engaged by the college that year to work with the Bursar, Richard Morin and the President, Sir Tim Hitchens, to produce a Heat Decarbonisation Report for the College estate, which mapped out a plan to cut carbon emissions from all buildings and energy by up to 80%. Meanwhile, the ever active, student led Green Team were working on exciting initiatives to reduce Scope 3 emissions – including electric charging points, recycling, and biodiversity enhancements.    

New Boilers at Wolfson College, Summer 2022

This resulted in a list of proposals that have already been transformational, the college switching off all gas boilers on the whole of its main estate in July this year (some of the replacement equipment shown, left).

The proposals were two-pronged: replace its original, inefficient 50-year old gas boilers with modern electric heat pumps, and to carry out a massive programme of insulation to minimise heat loss. 

Ultra-thin triple glazing has been installed on over 1,000 windows. This major upgrade is calculated to reduce the college’s carbon emissions by up to 80% - a reminder perhaps that when the college was first designed, the first oil price shock of the early 1970s had not taken place, never mind the current one in 2022.

The college plans further initiatives when funding becomes available, such as extending its array of solar panels on its flat roofs, which will eventually provide up to 10% of its energy needs, and installing a 1 MWh battery, which will allow it to draw and store electricity at the greenest times. 

This ambitious decarbonisation plan became a reality due to two successful government grant applications of £5 million and £1.2 million, while the college has funded a further £3 million from its own reserves.

Wolfson Honorary Fellow and environmental activist and writer George Monbiot has described the scheme as ‘visionary and exemplary.’

All of the works are undertaken within a sensitive historical environment and are being carried out in a fully operational college environment.

The college is already fully divested from integrated oil, coal and gas companies, and companies which derive revenue from the exploitation, ownership or extraction of fossil fuels.

Wolfson sustains an Earth Emergency Cluster to set an intellectual framework for its entire approach to environmental concerns, broadly encouraging the whole community to get stuck into the debate.

The 2022 Award from prominent Oxford Preservation Trust, which was presented at a ceremony held at St John’s College, has already become a talking point among other college bursars, many of whom are engaged within their own strategies for decarbonising their estates, each one subject to unique demands.

This process began earlier in the year when the college won an 'Environmental Sustainability Project Award' by the Vice-Chancellor Professor Dame Louise Richardson, in the Vice-Chancellor’s Environmental Sustainability Awards.

Wolfson College (www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk) was founded by Isaiah Berlin in 1966 following donations from the Wolfson Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

Oxford Preservation Trust (www.oxfordpreservation.org.uk) is also responsible for Oxford Open Doors, when members of the public are invited to explore aspects of the collegiate University they would not normally have access to. Oxford Open Doors will next be held on 9-10 September 2023.