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Benjamin Cooke, lecturer for the RMIT Environmental Management Systems course aims to give students an overview of what it is to assess environmental impact in a development proposal context.

The second semester of the course challenges students to put their knowledge to practice by auditing a selected organisation. This requires them to look towards developing environmental management systems that organisations could establish to ultimately increase sustainability in various ways.

Resident Fatema Samina Yasmin, a student of this course, selected Graduate House to conduct her audit.

One of the biggest challenges with retrofitting old buildings explained Benjamin, is what the payoff of implementing certain things versus the actual energy and materials that go into it, would be.

“In actually doing the task, I was conscious of communicating to students that some big scale recommendations that you might be thinking about are medium to long-term objectives,” said Ben.

“I wanted them in particular to be really attentive to the smaller things that they noticed as part of their everyday lives or experiences at their place.”

Yasmin determined five aspects to look into, including electricity, water, food sourcing and disposal, indoor air quality, and waste management. She then engaged with the Graduate House community by talking with management to ascertain the purpose of certain usage, and forming a questionnaire to send to Residents to get a better understanding of their expectations of sustainable environmental practices.

Her initial findings demonstrated that Graduate House has already adopted quite a number of environmentally friendly measures. LED lightbulbs are used in Resident rooms and public areas, and most of the facility is fitted with motion sensors. This ensures that lights automatically are switched off if no one is around.

Another extremely cost effective venture has been the implementation of power sockets operated by keys. This allows a room’s air conditioner to operate only when the room key is inserted into the power socket.

A similar system operates in the Stella Langford Wing, where an apartment’s energy connection is reliant on the insertion of a key card. Once the card is removed from the slot, all electrical equipment is switched off within five minutes.

Many other timer automation systems exist for heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

Regarding indoor air quality Yasmin found that each residential room has an air conditioner and operable windows which of course lets fresh air in. Smoking is prohibited anywhere on the facility, and the carpets are regularly cleaned to ensure elimination of any dust and mites.

The use of low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint, compared to oil or acrylic ensures the air is somewhat cleaner. But indoor air quality in resident rooms could also be improved by introducing bins with lids. The odours that can be emitted from discarded foods and certain packaging is unsanitary when in a small enclosed space.

Graduate House could implement a few more sustainable waste management systems in addition to the general recycling system at the college.

When residents leave, the report found that they also leave behind a range of items including clothes and electrical items. Dr Bennett who was interviewed by Yasmin suggested that she is thinking of upcycling the old clothing and introducing bins exclusively for the disposal of electrical equipment, such as old printers and phones.

Solar panels on the roof of the Stella Langford Wing

Solar panels on the roof of the Stella Langford Wing

One recommendation from Yasmin’s report was to also trial solar powered hot water in the William Berry Wing where there are fewer bathrooms, and then also in the Main Wing. This could give a good indication as to whether it would be feasible (environmentally as well as financially) for permanent implementation.

Sourcing organic food was another recommendation. As organic food is costly, noted Yasmin, focusing on providing organic food on a day like Earth Day, could be a suitable compromise. The kitchen and the bar could provide organic items and food from local and regional farmers who are using sustainable cultivation methods.

With the audit having now been presented to management, and processed through the Buildings and Facilities Committee, Graduate House is looking towards how it can be even more environmentally sustainable. Yasmin’s research is also now informing the future work that Masters students from The Department of Infrastructure and Engineering will be doing in conjunction with Graduate House.

“We are taking very seriously the results from Yasmin’s audit and they fit in well with our committment to address the 17 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals,” said Dr Bennett.

“It was excellent,” said Dr Cooke of Yasmin’s report. “What really stood out was a lot of detail and effort into understanding what the challenges were.”

While these are some of the issues that came out from the audit of Graduate House, what are some things that we can do at a community level and in our personal lives to address sustainability? Ben suggests that there is quite a bit that we can do – like monitoring water and energy usage is something that we can all learn to be conscious of, and implementing urban gardens.

“Another suggestion was urban agriculture and looking at how we can be able to supply growing cities with food that doesn’t come from too far away, so we can engage people with the practice of growing their own food,” said Ben.

He also suggested that our hot cities are only going to get warmer due to our reliance on air-conditioning and other such amenities. Creating a closer association between people, nature, and urban spaces, and determining how we can use green space more effectively and promote additional green spaces could contribute to a reduction of UHI (Urban Heat Island). Formal thanks have been extended to Yasmin and Dr Cooke from the Association.