More than bricks & mortar: The true benefits of sustainable learning spaces

SOURCE: Provided
Mark Sidding, director of Leeds-based architectural design firm, Watson Batty

By Clara Chooi 

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Mark Sidding was just 15 when he decided he wanted to become an architect. As homework for a graphic design class, he was told to measure and draw up his home, then design a house with what he’d learnt.

It was an enlightening experience for the young Mark who realised then what every element meant, and why they mattered.

From the light streaming in through windows to every nook of privacy and expanse of empty space, each one had its place and reason; micro-narratives that made up the big picture. On their own the fragments meant nothing but their harmonious amalgamation was what turned the house into a home.

That experience would set Mark’s life trajectory towards architecture. Driven by more than a desire to make the world more beautiful, he wanted to change it. And he believed, somewhat idealistically, that through architecture, he could.

“In some ways, beautiful architecture is a side effect of what we do. It’s more about creating betterment in lives, families and communities,” he says on the website of Watson Batty, the Leeds-based architectural design firm where he is currently a director, in charge of the firm’s education projects.


As Mark would discover later in his career, his work does, and has, changed lives. And it’s for this very reason that he’s chosen to work in education.

In a recent interview with U2B, he talks about his journey in architecture over the past 20 years, his passion for designing learning spaces and why sustainability standards should be about the rewards they bring, not the awards they win. 

In his words*:

On designing learning environments…

There’s just something about it… I mean, you design a supermarket and people go shopping, you design an office, and people go to work… but when you’re designing an educational building or a learning environment, there’s something extra, something different, something special about it.

You’re adding something back into society. Whether it’s a school or a university, you’re creating a place where generations of students will come through. 

So that’s why it’s really important for me that we actually get the right mix of function and design correct.

The bit I enjoy the most is going back in after it’s all finished, and talking to the students, talking to the people about what they think about their new learning environments.

[I enjoy] just seeing their inspiration elevate, and how turning what was a very poor, rundown learning environment into a nice and shiny new one, changes their lives. And [I enjoy] speaking to the teachers and lecturers about how it’s improved their ability to deliver lessons.

On occupant mental health & wellbeing in building design…

These factors need to be [considered]. There’s always this grey area in architectural design–on the one hand, you’ve got high-end architects who would only consider the aesthetic of the building, what it looks like, how it impacts the skyline and materiality.

And none of this is wrong, in essence.

But the way I look at it is: yes, that’s an important aspect but actually, the function, the usability is where the main focus should be. And creating appropriate and supportive environments within the higher education sector is vital.

Architectural design can affect the mental health & wellbeing of a building’s occupants. Source: Watson Batty

Sometimes we take our eye off the fact that there are lecturers and staff that work in quite a high-pressured environment. What are we doing for those guys? Yes, whilst the student experience is key and should be the driver for universities, what about the staff?

So for me, you need to start by first looking at the big picture: how is this building going to fill the site and its environment? And then you need to get down to: how are we affecting those individuals within that building?

As designers and architects, we need to ensure that we are not driving through our design agendas to sacrifice the well-being and the standards that are expected within these buildings.

On Watson Batty’s approach to sustainable architecture…

First we have to understand – what, how do you define sustainability? Are we talking about environmental sustainability, or economic sustainability, or social sustainability?

Then break it down and ask, what is the impact that we have on the built environment in terms of ensuring that future generations are not impacted by:

  • The decisions that we make now
  • The work that we do
  • How we function and operate as a practice
  • Our internal policies and procedures.

And then how do we, as architects, ensure that this meshes together with the way our clients view sustainability? And that’s not just within higher education, that’s across every sector we work in.


As a practice, we made a commitment 10 years ago to not only be committed to sustainable design but to also be committed to sustainability in our own office buildings. We put into practice some groundbreaking technologies that were theoretical at the time… ground source heat pumps, rainwater harvesting… we didn’t necessarily have to do that.

As a private practice, a private company, it wasn’t having any impact on anything else other than making a statement around sustainability.

But what that statement says is that we’re not just committed to design, we’re committed to the practice of and working within sustainable design.

By setting our own footprint, we demonstrate to our clients how we can achieve that and how we can then work with them to improve their culture around sustainability.

On sustainability in university campuses…

Sustainability has always been part of the conversation.

But it’s become even more relevant today because the UK has now committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. And that’s not just a good idea – it’s going to be law. That’s the commitment from our government. 

Theresa May
Earlier this month, outgoing UK Prime Minister Theresa May set a net-zero emissions target for the country. Source: Ben Stansall/AFP

We also have building regulations. When we design a building, we have to achieve specific UK national standards; for example, the standards on insulation levels within buildings have increased over the years to improve the efficiency of the building. So we’re already driven by legislation and that’s absolutely how it should be.

And then from standards, the conversation also shifts to issues like funding. In the higher education sector, certain funding streams or grants for certain facilities attract a certain [sustainability] requirement. 

For instance,  some of the European funding for research grants stipulate that they (the universities) have to achieve a certain BREAAM standard. This is basically a sustainability checklist that will impact things such as design and location. It’s quite an onerous process but some universities go down that particular route because they want the funding and they want the grants to go with that particular building.

So then they, and by extension, we, have to achieve that.

That aside, there has also been a shift over the years in that it’s almost become a moral, ethical requirement for universities to be sustainable. Wherever you stand on global warming, universities have to be seen as positively participating in creating sustainable campuses.

On what makes a green campus…

You see this in things like the consolidation of spaces on-campus, in the efficiency of spaces. If you’ve got a space that you only use 20 percent of the time, for example, how efficient is that space?

There was an approach that we took years ago, the fabric-first approach, which we applied for University of Bradford’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) building. It’s a well-recognised approach now, and it’s what we call the “lean, mean and green approach”.


In building design, “lean” means designing a building that reduces the need for materials, energy, water and other resources.

The “mean” element is employing methods whereby these materials, when used, are used efficiently.

“Green” is adding on green technologies that help minimise carbon emissions. For example, installing solar panels, ground source heat pumps, wind farms, and wood chip burners.

And then you have standards for it. Our Bradford project was given a BREAAM “outstanding” rating, and it was built to meet Passivhaus standards. To achieve both BREAAM and Passivhaus… it was, I think the first educational institution in the UK to achieve both standards.

Bradford STEM
Bradford University’s STEM building is said to be the first educational building to achieve both BREAAM ‘Outstanding’ & Passivhaus standards. Source: Watson Batty

On the cost and benefits of going green…

This is the balance between capital and revenue. Yes, going green does cost more. But in the longer-term, it’s also about efficiency and it’s about impact.

This is a challenge we often face. We have to get clients to look at the whole-life costings of the building, from inception right through to removal and demolition, because demolition is also about cost and sustainability – ie. the disposal, the separation of materials, recycled materials.

And the more technologies you put into the building to make it more sustainable, more efficient, means, first of all, there’s more that could go wrong. And secondly, you have the element of increased maintenance costs and of replacement costs.

Which is why a more passive approach to sustainability is a better starting point, ie. looking at fabric-first, where the ability to increase insulation and air-tightness is inherently built into the fabric of the building.

The overall cost increases because you have high-quality materials but then you’re also not putting in equipment that’s going to have to run or take power to run.

Next, it comes down to culture.

It’s great that you’ve got a BREAAM building that is sustainable but if the users or the maintenance regime of that building leaves the lights on, the heating on… then [it flies in the face of] what we’ve done as designers.

There needs to be a cultural shift even among users. Users of the building and maintenance staff must also participate in the sustainable aspect of the building.

On universities and their motives for going green…

The question is always – are universities going green because they need to be seen to be doing it? Are these decisions driven by students who say ‘I want to go to a green university’?

But I think the culture has changed quite significantly. 

Of course, there are green standards for universities, and they try really hard to ensure that they’re in the league charts. The competition among universities is just massive so they try to get an edge in a certain area, whether it is student experience, teaching quality, or what we call the ‘green bling’…  it’s an add-on to attract more students.

But I think it does go beyond that and they actually do have a sustainability conscience. Because they’re such a significant sector – the sector generates something like £100 billion pounds every year. They are significant developers, impacting the environment around them.

Do they all take going green as seriously as they need to? I suspect they do. Some, perhaps, to higher levels.


Some projects, for example, specifically look for contractors that can demonstrate they have worked on projects that have Passivhaus or BREAAM standards. So even in terms of recruiting a design team, they want one with the experience and qualifications of delivering highly sustainable designs – that’s something that’s moving to the top of the agenda for a lot of universities.

And this is important because it means they are setting a benchmark. 

Further to that, if the UK legislation about being carbon neutral by 2050 passes, then it will have a knock-on effect on how universities and other educational institutions reflect that in their procurement policies.

On what keeps him going…

Mark Sidding
Mark has been an architect for 20 years. Source: Provided

That we can actually make a difference in people’s lives by how we design buildings.

In 2002, there were some schools in Leeds that I was involved in [designing]. They were old Victorian buildings… the roofs leaked, they overheated in the summer, were too cold in the winter. 

So we put together some pretty standard, functional but boxy designs that were cost-effective and efficient. 

I was invited to one of the openings and when I turned up, there were over 2,000 people there. The entire community had turned up… and it was just this really basic building, just bricks and mortar – so I thought, what’s going on?

When I got inside, I was led around by three students. Their excitement and enthusiasm for the building were just so infectious. I went into one of the classrooms… the kids were there, all excited, getting shown where they’d be seated, looking at the new technology and all that. A teacher came across to me to ask some questions and when she discovered I was the architect of the building, she literally had tears running down her face.

“Thank you so much for what you’ve done,” she said to me. “I would have never thought in all of my career that I’d be able to teach children in such an environment.”

And that was it. That was the bit that changed my perspective about why we do what we do. 

It may sound a bit cheesy but actually… it’s not about the award for your building. It’s about the reward you give others through your design. If you do get an award out of it, fantastic, because it raises your profile.

But I’d much rather have 25,000 students tell me ‘thank you’ for improving my chances in life than to get an award, a plaque for the desk that says how great you are as an architect.

*Mark’s responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.