Project background

In July 2022, we switched over from gas to electricity in the original Powell & Moya building on our main estate. With further work we hope to achieve a zero carbon estate by 2024, the 50th anniversary of the opening of the College buildings. 

Wolfson has, from its earliest days, prided itself on being progressive. The College was founded in 1966 to combine modern values with academic excellence, providing graduate students and Fellows with an egalitarian home by the River Cherwell. Its cherished Brutalist buildings by Powell and Moya were completed in 1974 and are grade two listed. But its design, from before the 1970s oil price shocks, does not reflect the College’s commitment to a minimum impact on the environment. The College currently has a twenty-year carbon footprint of 24,000 tonnes of CO2.  

In summer 2021, Wolfson was awarded a £5m government grant to decarbonise the College, which it is matching with £3m from its own reserves. Wolfson President Sir Tim Hitchens said, “Thanks to the support of the government grant, the College’s own input, and the expertise of architectural and engineering consultants, we can turn a 1960s building into a place fit for the 21st century, without disrupting the fluid composition and striking structure of the original design. This project shows that the tide can be turned on climate change. One of Oxford’s biggest emitters can become net zero, and inspire others across higher education and the public sector.”  

Quick-fire explanation of our decarbonisation project

The College is fully divested from integrated oil, coal and gas companies, and companies which derive revenue from the exploitation, ownership or extraction of fossil fuels, as set out in our Responsible Investment Framework. In its 2020 Estate Strategy, Wolfson made decarbonisation its top priority, and commissioned an energy audit and decarbonisation plan. Decarbonising Wolfson’s estate is a complex and costly challenge given its unique architecture, original 50-year old gas heating system and massive elevations of single glazing.   

Installing advanced triple-glazing and associated insulation in place of the current single-glazed windows will lead to an 80% reduction in the buildings’ annual space heating requirement. In addition, replacing the gas boilers that currently provide Wolfson’s heating and hot water with modern air source heat pumps running on clean electricity will reduce the main estate’s carbon footprint by at least 75%. 

Phase One 

The cost of this work, changing from gas to electric heat pumps and triple glazing, is expensive. Thanks to the £5m grant from government funds specifically allocated to help decarbonise the public sector, including higher education, matched with £3m from the College’s own resources work is now underway. By the end of March 2022, this £8m project saw the main site of the College changed from gas to electric heat pumps, and the replacement of most of the windows with ultra-thin, triple glazing and associated insulation. See construction updates for the latest progress. 

The game-changing grant has been provided by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Phase 2 Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme, which specifically aims to reduce heating system generated carbon. The grant process was overseen by the department’s delivery partner, Salix Finance.  

Photo credit: Anju Sharma

Photo credit: Anju Sharma


Phase Two 

Once we completed Phase One, further work and funds are still needed to achieve our goal of reaching a zero carbon estate by 2024, the 50th anniversary of the College buildings’ opening.  

Phase Two will involve replacing all the remaining windows that are not included in the current project. We’re also improving all of the original, flat-roofed main buildings with maximum insulation to further cut heat loss, reduce energy use and prepare the roofs for future PV installations. 

As funding becomes available, the College will also add photovoltaic panels on the new roofing to generate electricity, supplementing our existing arrays. These existing solar panels cover a roof area of 135m², and installing PVs on all suitable roofs (980m²) will allow us to generate about 10% of our total energy demands locally. The College will also move all of its lighting to LED, and install a new 1MWh electrical storage battery, enabling it to draw electricity at peak “green” times and store energy for use later when it might otherwise have to draw from non-green electrical supplies.   


While heat pump technology has been around for a few years, this will be one of the largest heat pump programmes ever undertaken in the UK and one of the largest to be retro-fitted to an estate of this complexity. The heat pump selected avoids the use of environmentally damaging refrigerants and instead uses CO2 (ironically, the greenest of refrigerants) in its sealed system. Wolfson will be at the vanguard of proving the efficacy of this technology on larger estates.  

The replacement of the windows, the majority of which are large, bespoke and form the external “wall” of most rooms, has been a key challenge for Original Field Architects Andrew Dawson and Marion Brereton. They have designed and sourced ultra-thin, triple glazed windows that achieve the lowest possible heat loss, with frames that replicate, as identically as possible, the original windows. The first windows were installed in August.    

The Government grant has been instrumental in enabling Wolfson to move ahead decisively and play its part in the global effort to reduce carbon emissions.  

The College encourages active discussion and action on these issues among the whole community. We have an Earth Emergency Cluster to set an intellectual framework for this work. And we are very proud of our Green Team for the work they do with the College, especially on food provision (in 2020 for the first time we served more vegan and vegetarian meals than all others), waste reduction, renewables, and electric vehicle provision.