Being a Student Sustainability Architect

Rachel standing in the countryside smiling with pink jacket and hat

Student Sustainability Architect Rachel DeCordoba 

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Want to find out what it’s like to be a Sustainability Architect? Last years’ cohort share their thoughts and experiences with us as their year drew to a close.

Rachel DeCordoba – Conference and Curriculum

Wow, where did the year go? It’s hard to believe that my time as an Architect is already coming to a close, but it’s been a great experience, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity.

As a major highlight, the fourth annual Student Sustainability Research Conference proved to be a success. After helping to prepare for event, it was inspiring to see students present original research from so many different programmes and backgrounds, truly proving that sustainability is a multidisciplinary concept. Students worked to intentionally link their research with the UN Sustainable Development Goals as well, demonstrating how different research topics can be connected to larger common goals.  From viewing posters to attending presentations to experiencing interactive exhibits, I agree with conference attendees’ feedback that the day was both educational and enjoyable. I learned so much!

I also spent time this year working on how to integrate sustainability into the larger university curriculum and opportunities for research, including researching best practices from other universities around the world. Very quickly, it became apparent just how much of a leader the University of Leeds is in this field, from developing an auditing tool to link existing modules to Sustainable Development Goals, to compiling a comprehensive list of past dissertations relating to sustainability. Having such a large community at this university both amplifies opportunities for spreading the word about sustainability research and curriculum, but can also pose a challenging question for how best to reach students and staff. It’s my hope and prediction that with a combination of robust online resources and the further development of relationships between and within departments, students will gain a greater understanding of opportunities for sustainable research, and staff will utilise resources to implement sustainable aspects in their curricula. 

I’m so thankful to have been a part of this team, who has been so flexible with virtual and remote working during this pandemic (from different continents, no less!). While I’m sad that my one year at the university is nearly over, I look forward to watching future Architects and the Sustainability team continue with these exciting campaigns. This year’s experience has reinforced the idea that we need people from all disciplines to truly realise a sustainable world, and I look forward to seeing what comes next!

Person looking up into trees through binoculars
Student Sustainability Architect Fern Spencer

Fern Spencer – Food Carbon Footprinting

My year as a Sustainability Architect has really flown by. I’ve been working with catering services on campus to research and communicate the carbon footprint of food, which has been a great experience to end my degree on.  

Interestingly, not much has been done in catering venues globally to educate customers on the carbon footprint of the food they’re eating. This has come as a surprise to me, considering the amount of attention ‘low carbon’ diets have achieved in recent years. Information on the high carbon content of animal products, such as beef, has been pulsated throughout social media, the news and in international climate change agendas. As a result, there has been a massive surge in the demand for plant based food, as people alter their diets.  

As a Student Sustainability Architect, I’ve been given the freedom to explore this myself and determine how best to educate customers of the Refectory (students, staff and members of the public) about the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with their food choices. This has involved using the TUCO tool, a carbon accounting tool specially developed for large catering organisations, to calculate the carbon footprint of meals in the Refectory.  

The Refectory has been forward thinking in increasing the availability and range of their plant based food options, including the introduction of the vegan deli bar. This year, I have collaborated with marketing teams to develop a strategy to communicate this carbon footprint. It was important that the strategy used would be effective at informing customers which foods were comparatively better and worse for the environment. This would allow them to make an informed decision on their food choices and hopefully encourage the consumption of lower carbon foods. Given the unprecedented global covid-19 crisis we find ourselves in, adaptations are being made and this will likely be incorporated into the Refectory website for new students starting in September.  

During the year, I showcased my research at the annual University of Leeds Student Sustainability conference and networked with many talented individuals who are also pursuing interests in sustainability.  

I’m extremely grateful for the freedom and support given to me by the sustainability team, and my mentor Ian, whilst completing the project. This was the perfect opportunity to put my knowledge and skills into practice, learn from others and gain confidence in the sustainability sector. So thank you for the opportunity! I look forward to seeing what future architects implement.  

Negar Naghshinehpour Esfahani – Cleaning Services Student Architect 

The last few months have been a great learning experience for me working as a student architect with the cleaning services. Initially, it was a steep learning curve. I had to quickly and effectively understand the departments’ needs and challenges. From there, we decided that the reduction of bin liners was the main priority which directly supported the universities wider goal of achieving a plastic-free campus by 2023.  The months that followed were filled with trying to find alternative materials for bin liners and to understand their respective environmental benefits. With the effects of Covid-19, I was not able to take the next step and implement the trail bags nor do a full LCA (life cycle analysis) on them.  That said, the key takeaways from this experience will last with me for years to come and I’d like to share my top 3 with you. 

1 – Be open to change and communicate well – understanding that as a researcher or consultant the need to check in with your clients’ needs should be number one on the agenda. Be willing to communicate over the course of the project as well as open to changing your ideas to fulfil the needs. You don’t want to end up with a great idea that’s not solving your defined problem. 

2 – Sustainability is not an easy choice – for many of us in this field, we’ve come to understand the various tradeoffs sustainability brings. In order to make the best decision, in this scenario, a full life cycle analysis should also be taken. This will then lead to a clearer understanding of what the impacts are from switching to an alternative material besides plastic. Although initially, it may sound like an alternative bin liner is the best decision, the specific details regarding its composition, weight, performance, end of life also play a critical role. 

3 – Learn from the wider community – I found it most effective when I shared my research and findings with the wider sustainable architect team as well as the wider University during the sustainability conference. It was during these times, I received valuable feedback and criticism to then take back to the drawing board. By sharing your research, other opportunities may arise and lead to collaborative working opportunities. 

Camila Limberg Dias

My name is Camila, I am an Msc. Sustainability and Consultancy student. I finish my work as a Sustainability Architect with an award “in hands” and with the feeling of mission accomplished. The mission to reduce single-use plastics in laboratories is already challenging, and together with the difficulties caused by COVID-19 and the lockdown, deeply affected much of the work. But the progress made during the last months brought me, and the other colleagues involved, many learnings and a great foundation to keep fighting plastics in labs.  

I was able to first work with the Protein Production Facility, mapping the consumption of plastics and the willingness to change behaviour from its users. This process showed us the challenges go beyond the lab facilities and its users, but involve the processes, the suppliers, the materials available, health and safety and other aspects. A coordinated action, bringing together researchers, lab technicians, purchasing team, health and safety team and cleaning staff will definitely escalate the various changes that can be done to reduce the use of single-use plastics, reuse them when possible and recycle more. 

The more detailed understanding of this challenge is the first step and the baton I pass for the next sustainability architect to spread such measures to other labs and generate a bigger impact for the University to comply with the pledge. 

I would like to specially thank Laura Hewitt (Lab technician at the Protein Production Facility) for the great ongoing work as a sustainability architect from staff and great supoort. Also, I would like to thank to the whole sustainability team for the opportunity of experiencing this and leave a legacy to the university. 

Thank you Leeds Sustainability Team! 

Person holding a bug
Student Sustainability Architect Karolina Zarzyczny

Karolina Zarzyczny Biodiversity Action Planning

As a Student Sustainability Architect, I have spent most of this year working with the Residential Services to develop site-specific, Biodiversity Action Plan Recommendations. Biodiversity provides the foundation for ecosystem services required for human wellbeing. As the UK’s biodiversity is under threat, it is crucial to enhance biodiversity and maximise wildlife opportunities; especially in urban environments.  

Over the course of this academic year (2019-2020) I conducted habitat surveys across six off-campus residences; North Hill Road Residences, North Hill Court, Montague Burton, St Mark’s Residence, Sentinel Towers and Central Village. It was a fantastic opportunity for me to apply my fieldwork skills gained during my Zoology degree to the “real world”. Using ArcGIS and QGIS,  I then was able to create site-specific habitat maps which allow us to easily visualise the current habitats present. Moreover, the maps can be used to estimate the biodiversity value of each site by scoring it based on the quality and area size of the habitats present. This is important when trying to maximise wildlife opportunities across the residences. I was then able to use the maps and notes from the surveys to develop site-specific recommendations aiming to either enhance the biodiversity value of the site or to enhance the opportunities available for the residents, staff and visitors to engage with local wildlife and nature. My work has been shared with senior and site managers and hopefully when the time is right, the recommendations will be gradually implemented!  

I was hoping to spend the spring months conducting wildlife surveys and workshops with the residents, but due to the unfortunate COVID-19 pandemic, this wasn’t possible. Hopefully, the next student architect will be able to bring some of those ideas to life!  

Despite the challenges faced by everyone in the second semester, working as a Student Sustainability Architect has been a fantastic experience. I was not only able to apply a lot of the skills and knowledge gained during my degree, to the real world, but I also learnt a lot. I have gained a lot of knowledge into selecting wildlife friendly plants for various environmental conditions, and I also had the opportunity to attend skills-based workshops such as a Marketing and Communications training session. So, thank you for this opportunity and if you are a university student looking for a part-time role in sustainability, I cannot recommend this position enough!