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How the Big Data Institute Green Team are working to minimise their impact on the environment.

Image of the Big Data Institute building

As a state-of-the-art centre for data analysis, the Big Data Institute (BDI) generates immensely valuable public health insights. The Institute is housed in a modern building at the University of Oxford’s Old Road Campus, and is part of the Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery.

The building accommodates over 500 staff and students from the BDI and the Nuffield Department of Population Health (NDPH), many of whom require high-speed computational power to perform their work, and so it has considerable energy and resource needs. Nevertheless, it is one of the most efficiently-designed buildings in the UK, and its staff continue to explore ways to minimise their environmental footprints. In particular, the Facilities Team and the BDI Green Team have introduced a range of sustainability initiatives, covering everything from catering to lighting; transport to stationery. This article highlights the key ingredients behind this successful combination of sustainability-led design and staff action.

A winning design

Designed from the outset to be as energy-efficient as possible, the BDI/NDPH Building was the first University of Oxford building to achieve an ‘Outstanding’ rating by BREEAM (the leading sustainability certification for buildings). A key feature is a subterranean labyrinth which acts as a passive heating and cooling system - found only in a handful of UK buildings. This draws outside air into a maze of underground corridors, then up towards the roof where it is mixed with heat recovered from air leaving the building. This air is then circulated around the building, helping to maintain a steady temperature. Various sensors monitor the building’s temperature, and activate the water heating system of radiators when required. Other measures that save energy include rooftop PVC solar panels, low-energy usage LED and fluorescent lights throughout, and a system that recovers heat from the central data servers to use for heating the building.


Besides energy, the use of every resource within the building is optimised as much as possible. For instance, the taps in the kitchens and toilets have gauze covers to save water by reducing the flow rate, without affecting the ability to rinse out a cup or wash hands thoroughly. Printing is set to double-sided, black and white by default, and is only activated at the printing source (to prevent printing a job by accident). There are no office bins: instead, regular recycle points throughout the building ensure that as much material as possible is collected and appropriately sorted for recycling or disposal. Redundant office furniture is rehomed through the University’s WARPit (Waste Action Reuse Portal) account, and staff recycle used stationery through Terracycle’s Writing Instruments Recycling Programme.

Secure IT and WEEE recycling services provided by Computer Disposals Ltd. Credit: Computer Disposals LtdSecure IT and WEEE recycling services provided by Computer Disposals Ltd. Credit: Computer Disposals LtdWaste electronic equipment (such as computers and laptops) is collected by Computer Disposals , a specialist IT recycling company. ‘We take stringent measures to completely destroy all data remaining on electronic devices. Once fully sanitised, hardware can then be eligible for re-use’ said Malcolm Jones, Business Development Manager for Computer Disposals. Approximately 70% of the equipment they collect is fully processed and refurbished into second-hand machines, with the rest being used for spare parts or bulked and sent for recycling. ‘Besides reselling equipment, we also support various charitable schemes. For instance, during the COVID-19 lockdowns, we donated laptops to home-schooling children who needed them’ says Malcolm.

Catering for positive change

Research from NDPH staff has helped to highlight the impact our diets have on the planet, particularly from meat and dairy products. Fittingly, the café in the BDI/NDPH Building is operated by Compass, a company committed to responsible sourcing, reducing waste and championing plant-based meals. Approximately 60% of the café’s menu is vegetarian, with options such as tagines, curries, frittatas and vegetarian chilli. Local suppliers are used as much as possible, including Roots of Oxford, Aldens Butchers and Dangerfield’s Bakery. The café also offers a range of Fairtrade products, including hot drinks, chocolate bars and bananas.

Tempeh (left) and noodle salad (right): just two of the delicious plant-based meals on offer at the BDI Café. Credit: Compass GroupTempeh (left) and noodle salad (right): just two of the delicious plant-based meals on offer at the BDI Café. Credit: Compass Group

All sources of waste are kept to an absolute minimum. Twice a week, unsold but still edible non-hot food items (such as sandwiches and cakes) are collected by Olio, who redistribute surplus food on a mobile app. All other food waste is collected and sent for anaerobic digestion, to create energy and soil fertiliser. Following a suggestion from the Green Team, single-use plastic cutlery and non-recyclable takeaway containers were removed a few years ago. Now, diners-in enjoy proper metal cutlery and china plates, whilst takeout options are served in fully-recyclable containers with wooden cutlery. In 2019, the Green Team also convinced the management team to make the bold move of eradicating single-use coffee cups, and to issue all staff with their own BDI-branded reusable mug.

BDI staff were issued with their own reusable mug in 2019, to replace single-use coffee cups. Credit: BDIBDI staff were issued with their own reusable mug in 2019, to replace single-use coffee cups. Credit: BDI


Involving all staff

‘We are really keen to get all staff involved, because people are our greatest asset – they are a brilliant source of ideas’ said Graham Bagley, who leads the BDI Green Team. Staff are encouraged to adopt sustainable habits through ‘Green Tips’ in the staff newsletter, communications on the building’s display screens, and a sustainability area on the staff intranet, including a portal for staff to submit their own ideas. The Green Team also promote university-wide sustainability campaigns, such as Sustainable Photographer of the Year.

Many staff travel to work by bike and enthusiastically support the UK’s annual springtime Bike Week, which involves rewarding those who arrive by two wheels during the campaign with a free breakfast at the café. ‘I started cycling to work partly to save money but also as a way to get a bit of exercise before sitting at a desk all day long. I really enjoy the feeling of freedom cycling gives, especially at the end of the day. It also feels good to know I'm not contributing to the clogging up of Oxford's roads!’ said Sophia Wilkinson, a Communications and Public Engagement Officer based in the BDI/NDPH Building.

Hibernating during COVID-19

With the COVID-19 lockdowns forcing most staff to work from home, it didn’t make sense to keep running the building as though at full capacity, and activities such as cleaning and waste collection were reduced. Since the lighting system was already motion-activated, this automatically adjusted to the lower level of staff, turning off in areas where it wasn’t needed. ‘During the first lockdown, we took the opportunity to flush the heating system, to remove debris that had accumulated within the pipes and radiators’ said Andy Darley, Facilities Operations Manager. ‘The system is now working at peak efficiency, which meant we could turn down the boiler by approximately a third, considerably reducing its gas usage.’

Future plans

As staff start to return to the office, the Green Team hope this will kickstart a new wave of ideas, so that they can actively contribute to a ‘greener recovery’ from COVID-19. A key aim is to help increase biodiversity on the Old Road Campus. ‘Our members are particularly keen to have some beehives and a herb garden, where we can grow edible produce to either give away to staff or use in the building’s café’ says Graham. Other ideas include a regular ‘Green Social’: an open forum to host visiting speakers, discuss sustainability-related documentaries and learn about local community projects. The Facilities Team are also looking at ways to minimise waste even further, and will soon start recycling the filters from the kitchen combined hot/cold taps through WaterCare.

As Graham concludes: ‘Being environmentally friendly requires effort. Sometimes, it can result in decisions that mean some aspects of working and social life will change, often to something that is less convenient. We are lucky to have a group of people committed to our green initiatives, and who are positive about the changes we need to make. I am optimistic about returning to work in the coming months. There will always be changes we can make, but knowing that we have the support of our colleagues makes planning and innovating so much easier.’