The University of Northampton University of Northampton Biomass Energy Centre & District Heating Scheme Complete

The University of Northampton wanted to embed sustainability at the heart of their new £330m Waterside Campus and Vital Energi worked with them to deliver a biomass energy scheme which would deliver large carbon savings whilst reaching the highest architectural standards.

“We are delighted to have the opportunity to develop the University’s commitment to its sustainability agenda and environmental infrastructure has been a key factor in the planning and construction of the Waterside Campus. By working with Vital Energi we have a sustainable, future proof heating network which will service the campus well.”

Bob Griggs Project Director at the University of Northampton

Project Overview

The University of Northampton are developing the new £330m Waterside Campus, which will provide state-of-the-art academic facilities for 15,000 students, residential facilities for 1,000 students and sports facilities.

The project is located on a 58 acre, former brown field site, which previously housed a power station and cosmetic factory and the project is credited with bringing the derelict site back to life and kick-starting the Northampton Enterprise Zone.

As this is a brand new campus it provides the opportunity for Vital to work in partnership with the University and their architects to deliver a modern, comprehensive, energy infrastructure package which combines CHP, Biomass and traditional gas boilers.  This will deliver a resilient, efficient system which will generate massive carbon savings… a key driver for the University.

Due to the first cohort of students arriving in September 2018 it was imperative that all timescales were met.  This included a challenging 35 week programme for the installation of the district heating network.

The Solution

The University of Northampton’s commitment to quality through all stages of the procurement, design and construction process was evident from the very beginnings of the tendering process, which was scored on a 30% price and 70% quality weighting, ensuring high standards of value for money are embedded from the outset of the project.

The project timescales were determined by an innovative procurement strategy which involved an OJEU (Official Journal of the European Union) notice leading through Pre-Quaification to a 2-stage tender process.  This was comprised of a 12 week preconstruction services agreement before entering into a 12 month construction programme.  The innovative tender, design and construction approach led to a 30% reduction in the project timescales, and ensured savings in floor space.  Equipment specifications were complimented by future proofing the energy centre with space for a CHP and dry air cooler installation.  Collaboration throughout the tender process resulted in a fast track 2nd stage programme and the timely commencement of site construction activities in August 2016 in order to have heat available to the academic and residential buildings to commence commissioning in late 2017.

We secured two separate contracts on the Northampton University Development, with the first one being a £1.2 million, 35-week project to deliver the multi-utility network.  This was made up of a 1.6km, Logstor Twin Pipe district heating network which would distribute heat and hot water around the campus and also high voltage cabling, cold water and gas pipework.

Vital Energi designed the 1,600m district heating network in keeping with the University’s long-term energy strategy.  This saw the pipework sized so that it can meet the future needs of the campus and the layout was designed to facilitate the easy connection of future, planned buildings.  This “future proofing” approach  is something Vital Energi have done many times, collaborating with clients to ensure the energy solution can evolve alongside the development as it grows, providing optimum supply for each phase.

The timescale of the project proved to be challenging, but as we have one of the largest in-house district heating teams in the UK, we were able to allocate additional labour to the project to ensure we met the University’s heat and power on dates.

Evolving the Design

We then took over design responsibility from RIBA Stage 3, further developing the energy centre’s architectural, structural, acoustic, mechanical and electrical design.   Our solution reduced the floor plan by 20% and created an alternative, improved layout for the plant and equipment.   The biomass energy centre provides heating and hot water for the academic, residential, and sports buildings and the designers left space for an additional boiler and a Combined Heat & Power engine which will be installed when the increased demand warrants it.

In keeping with their philosophy of creating a campus where people could enjoy working, studying and visiting, the University were keen to make the energy centre an architectural feature of the campus. 

The layout of the new equipment over two levels has been designed to maximise efficient use of space and to ensure the ability to carry out maintenance in the safest, most efficient way.  A 1MW biomass boiler, three 4MW gas boilers, one 120m3 thermal storage vessel and associated plant equipment are located on the ground floor. All boiler stacks rise through a common 26m high tower with access provided via a series of cat ladders and platforms located every 3m intervals along its height.

Besnik Bijo, Senior Architect with MCW Architects explains, “While the building function is essentially utilitarian and technical, the external envelope has been developed to create a visually strong elevation to the campus, celebrating the University’s commitment to sustainability. A series of 8 full height metal clad ‘blades’ have created a saw-tooth profile along the north elevation allowing the incorporation of back-lit polycarbonate clad openings. During day-time this form provides a degree of modulation and interest to the façade while in the evening the back-lit panels add a dramatic feature to the campus. The ‘blade’ in the north-east corner has been developed to incorporate the 26m high flue into the overall building form ensuring it does not appear as an ‘add-on’. This final blade wraps around the corner onto the east elevation to acknowledge the importance of views from University Bridge, Senate Square and distant views from Midsummer Meadow and Bedford Road.”

Given the flue’s prominence, a 12m high LED screen and University signage has been incorporated into the cladding to create a landmark feature for the campus and the town.  This screen can communicate messages ranging from weather forecasts and local football scores to messages about University events and directions on open days.

The design development process involved extensive dialogue with the Northampton Borough Council Planning department. Technical design coordination was achieved through BIM Level 2 utilising Revit as the driving tool of the process. Highly complex clash detection of structure and MEP systems has been carried out throughout RIBA Workstage 3 and 4. This has enabled the design team to explore alternative design solutions directly in 3D and avoid potential pitfalls in later stages of detail design.

Creating Architectural Excellence

We worked very closely with the architects and structural engineers with regards to the flue tower as the tolerances were particularly tight and the architectural features, including the lighting and 27m2 LED screen made the project more complex than a traditional energy centre.  Employing the same architectural practice during the construction stage ensured a smooth transition and the original design translated smoothly into a real-life build.

The system utilises wood chip to fuel the biomass boiler and gas for the boilers.  This combination provides heating and hot water for all the buildings and student residencies on the site and saves over 1,000 tonnes of CO2 per year in the short term, rising to 2,200 tons a year following the introduction of a Combined Heat & Power Engine in phase 2.

One other, significant improvement saw our designers develop the biomass storage system, replacing the original two silo design with a single, shorter silo, providing a reduction in capital expenditure.  We then moved the biomass boiler trough’s position in the service yard which enabled fuel delivery vehicles to reverse inside the yard, rather than reversing down the long side road into the service yard.  This reduced potential health and safety issues in addition to speeding up the delivery process.

By collaborating closely with the main contractor, the Project Manager Mace and the architects, this partnership resulted in capital expenditure reductions, a reduced energy centre footprint and an energy solution which is capable of evolving and meeting the University’s needs for years to come.

The project will now deliver a saving of 1,000 tonnes of CO2 reduction per year, when compared with traditional energy systems and will contribute to a healthier, greener campus.


  • 1,000 tonnes of CO2 reduction per annum, raising to 2,200 per annum in phase 2
  • 20% reduced energy centre footprint
  • Improved biomass delivery system
  • Challenging deadlines met, keeping overall programme on schedule.
  • 30% reduction of installation timescale.