The University of St Andrews University of St Andrews - Biomass Project (Design & Build) Complete

As part of their drive to become carbon neutral for energy The University of St Andrews wanted to create a £25m state-of-the-art biomass system and district heating network which would deliver 6,000 tonnes of carbon reduction per year.

“Vital Energi were very good from bid stage and throughout the scheme and the team were always looking to improve what we could provide to the client. The whole energy centre was fantastic with the raised walkways and reconfiguration of the windows in the welfare area, it transformed the energy centre. The team was always looking to improve and add value to the project, there was a very positive approach across the team, I have a lot of praise and admiration for all at Vital and as a result of their work we have a better scheme.”

Angus Kennedy Adams Consulting

Project Overview

As part of the University’s plan to become carbon neutral for energy, the University of St Andrews purchased the disused Curtis Fine Paper Mill, renamed Eden Campus, in Guardbridge in 2010.  The initial strategy was to turn it into a state of the art biomass energy centre capable of delivering heat and hot water through a 10km district heating network to its North Haugh campus where it connects to 47 buildings.

The project involved the creation of one of the largest biomass energy centres in the Higher Education sector and remains one of the most significant biomass district heating schemes in Scotland.

The Solution

Engaging & Educating Stakeholders to Minimise Disruption

Due to the size and scope of the project, it was important that the residents, businesses and commuters were fully informed about both the disruptions, which included closing the main road into St Andrews, and also the benefits it would deliver.  We were also keen to hear from residents about their concerns and potential issues so that we could work with them to address them.

We worked extensively with Fife Council, bus companies, highways and police to minimise disruption in a way which the client described as “working really well” and we also liaised extensively with local residents, university staff and businesses to develop a full understanding of the impacts of our work and mitigate as much of the disruption as possible.  This included working with the university to hold a range of drop in sessions where residents and stakeholders could come along and ask questions of the team and inform us about relevant issues.  Many of these sessions were held in the evenings and, understanding their importance, we made sure our senior team members attended every session.

Outcomes from the liaison and subsequent discussions saw us work to coordinate alternative buses, emergency taxi services, alternative rubbish collections and communicate through daily social media updates and the local press.  Additionally, our design team developed a 3D animation to help educate people about the project.

The approach to liaison has been so effective that the University has been approached subsequently by other large companies to seek advice on good community engagement practice.

Evolving the Design

The Energy Centre presented an early opportunity for our design team to create a 3D model which demonstrated how we had built on the original design during the bid process.  One of the factors behind us winning the contract was that we were able to further develop the original design and worked closely with the University’s professional team to implement these.

One of the changes we made involved the creation of a gantry system which aligned with the University’s wish to use the energy centre as an education facility.  The gantry delivers a safe, elevated route around the energy centre, providing the ideal view of the plant and equipment, with the added benefit that it could be used to anchor pipework, making it more stable.   The gantry system omitted the requirement for below ground service routes within the energy centre, which assisted with the environmental management of the site.

Additionally, as the University were keen to maximise the environmental benefits, we worked closely with them to create a business case for increasing the insulation on the pipework from series 2, to series 3.  This showed that while the improvement brought with it a nominal increase, it also delivered a reduction in heat losses of 15%, along with associated carbon reductions, proving that the savings and carbon benefits far outweighed the additional expenditure.

Working closely with the client and their team, it became clear that the University had plans to create further buildings on the Eden Campus site in the future, so we offered several acoustic enhancements to the design so that if additional buildings were constructed close to the energy centre they would not suffer from excessive noise from the plant.  By identifying future proofing opportunities at this early stage, they can be included into the original design, making them not only more affordable, but also efficiently integrated.

As part of the scheme, the University wanted to develop their own wood chipping facility, allowing them to maintain improved control of fuel handling, quality control and moisture content management.    The chipping yard is sited on the former tip for the site, using reclaimed land  and Vital were able to design and install a new bridge across the 70 metre Motray Water span.  This new bridge was carefully designed so that the angle gave vehicles the widest turning circle, retained the future development of the site whilst the original bridge was retained for pedestrian access.

The District Heating Network

Vital Energi created a dedicated district heating team and energy centre installation team who could work in harmony and ensure that the tight deadlines were met, despite several hurdles.

The District Heating Team installed a 10.6km below ground heat network which ran to the North Haugh Campus, and the project would prove to be one of the most technically demanding we had faced, presenting a variety of terrains, delayed access to areas, a high water-table line and weather which saw the team brave eight different storms which brought approximately 250% the normal seasonal amount of rainfall.

To overcome these challenges we implemented a range of solutions to ensure works could progress:

  • Waterproof tents which allowed our welders to continue work, even in adverse weather conditions.
  • Created multiple “live zones” which mean if work had to stop in one zone, it could progress in another.
  • Where necessary, we allocated additional welders and joint specialists from our in-house pool of labour.
  • Employing three separate excavation teams.
  • Implementing shifts which saw work continue 24 hours per day, 7 days per week where necessary.

These initiatives ensured that deadlines were not only met, but significantly exceeded.  One key achievement for the team was the opening of the A91 ten days early, allowing it to be open for the busy Easter weekend period.

Part of the pipeline route encountered a particularly high water table, which was influenced by the tides.  Vital Energi obtained timetable data for the tides and scheduled works for when the tidal effect was at its lowest.  Additionally we pre-welded and band muffed long stretches of pipework above ground, which were then lowered into the trenches.  This speeded up the process significantly and minimised the amount of time operatives had to spend in the trench.

On the District Heating project we worked closely with specialist local ecologists and archaeologists experts.   This saw us appoint specialists to evaluate the risks to the environment, develop, implement mitigation plans which including scheduling works so that they had a minimum of impact on the local ecology, such as performing noisy tasks outside of key breeding seasons or employing a ‘watching brief’. Additionally we stopped work to investigate multiple archaeological finds which included around 30 pieces of 4,000 year old pottery which were considered to be of “exceptional quality.”

One other concern the project brought was that of bio-contamination.  As the pipework would pass through many different fields, it was essential to avoid cross contamination.  An example of our approach to this can be seen in how we avoided cross contamination of club root.  This saw us log and monitor the movement of all vehicles, ensuring that they were thoroughly washed before entering other fields.

Of particular importance to the land owners were the improvements to drainage systems which were undertaken as part of the works.  The improvements included new header and feed below ground drainage to the field areas, improving the agricultural quality of land along the route.  The improvements were concluded by ensuring the high quality top soil removed initially, was stored and replaced correctly to maintain the composition of the material.


  • Improved district heating specification bringing lower heat loss and increased savings
  • Over 6,000 tonnes of CO2 reduction
  • Improved chipping yard layout to facilitate round wood deliveries.
  • Reduced impact on environment due to recycling of demolition material
  • Overcoming district heating challenges whilst achieving early milestone completions
  • Continuous communication with local community to minimise disruption
  • An infrastructure with expansion capacity to increase carbon reduction saving