How to renovate a green university

Van Hall Larenstein, University of Applied Sciences (VHL), prides itself on being as green as they come. And so, when its buildings were due for major renovation and refurbishment, it insisted that the work be done in as sustainable a way as possible. As Diane Keizer, member of the VHL Executive Board, puts it: “We were looking to use both raw materials and financial resources prudently.” ABN AMRO provided tailored funding for the project.

Offering courses such as Environmental Science, Land and Water Management, and Garden and Landscape Architecture, VHL – located in the Dutch towns of Leeuwarden and Velp – focuses on sustainability by training students to become professionals who contribute to a better, more sustainable world.

“Sustainability was a key prerequisite when we were looking at a major renovation,” Keizer recalls. Partly because of its spin-off from Wageningen University, VHL needed more workspaces for both students and staff. ABN AMRO agreed to finance the plan, as it aspires to accelerate the transition to sustainable property in the Netherlands, and particularly to make existing buildings such as VHL’s more sustainable.

VHL’s plan proved a great fit. Keizer says: “Both locations now boast solar panels on their roofs and we have LED lighting everywhere. And we’re using geothermal power to take care of our cooling and heating needs.” All measures that ensure lower energy consumption, where possible supported by recycling to save money and resources. “We actually used second-hand furniture in our new workspaces.”


The renovation resulted in over 10,000 square metres of extra workspace for both students and staff. “Our end-users were key: students and employees on our campus. And we got them closely involved in the process,” Keizer notes (see Box).

The response has been very encouraging – and particularly when the constant cold draught in one of the buildings was solved by an energy-saving revolving door. “It’s very important to keep everyone in the loop,” Keizer found out. “Much of the sustainable investment isn’t immediately visible: environmentally friendly paint and recycled carpeting don’t stand out as sustainability improvements – whereas massive photo collages of animals and landscapes on the walls do, of course. These ‘tapestries’ provide insulation and improve the buildings’ acoustics.”


Keizer is familiar with stories of education establishments whose renovations tripped them into financial deficit, or that took much longer than planned. “We wanted to stay within budget and within a very tight timescale – it all had to be done in the summer vacation so as not to interfere with our teaching.” The renovation helped to ensure that VHL no longer needed to rent separate facilities, freeing up money for the €12 million project. And ABN AMRO stepped in to finance the shortfall.

Keizer enjoyed working with the bank, and not just because of favourable terms and conditions – its experience in funding sustainability initiatives at other education institutions also came in handy: “ABN AMRO factored in VHL’s existing financial buffer, only a proportion of which was put towards the renovation, as it was clear that the university needed a buffer.” The bank suggested a dormant credit line, to be used in emergencies only. “Anything we don’t borrow, we won’t need to pay interest on either. Taking a prudent approach to available financial resources is another aspect of sustainability.”

Great places to work and study

Van Hall Larenstein’s renovation was meant to deliver more and better work spaces. “And it has,” says Nienke Flederus, Chemical Technology student and student council deputy chair.

As a student council member, you were very closely involved. So how did that go?

“We started off by conducting a survey and holding a meeting to hear what ideas the students might have, and what they wanted. As it turned out, they were particularly dissatisfied with climate control on the campus, plus the lack of quiet spaces for them to study and work together.”

What was the response?

“The renovation really engaged the interest of many of us at VHL, the survey and meeting found. Lots of people got in on it. Students wanted more plants to help improve air quality, while many asked for a healthier offering in the cafeteria – we even got a request for a wall of fresh herbs. We’ve managed to put virtually all of these ideas in place.”

What change is appreciated most?

“Climate control in the building is much better and having lots more places to work and study is a boon for our students. These are used a great deal. Previously, it was always hard to find a spot to study quietly, but students now spend a lot more of their time on campus. It’s created a much better study environment for our students.”

What could be improved?

“We’ve noticed that our students have taken a shine to the cushions in the work areas – these tend to disappear, and that’s something we’ll need to address. Lecturers being less accessible because they’re hot-desking is another issue – this culture change is in obvious need of some fine-tuning.”