Building the net-zero generation

Imran Kassim from AHR Architects says that in creating a new generation of net-zero carbon schools, designers would benefit from a Passivhaus-style rule book

Delivering effective solutions to address climate change has always proved to be one of the pre-eminent challenges for the entire construction industry. Commissioning bodies, quite rightly, view it as a key measure of success for any project, and now there is a recognition that ambitious carbon reduction measures are required to make a meaningful contribution to the global effort to reduce greenhouse gases.

The sector has specific challenges when it comes to delivering clean economic growth; including low profitability, slow rates of innovation and a heavy reliance on fossil fuels. The drive for higher standards of sustainability comes at a time when the demand for new developments continues strongly – from the ongoing housing shortfall to new hospitals.

In education, a report by The Guardian in December 2019 found that 3,731 schools need immediate building work. This figure rises to 9,872 when factoring in schools that are expected to require work within the next two years. The scale of the challenge is bigger still, as these numbers exclude the work being led by the Department for Education to extend existing buildings and build new schools to cope with predicted demographic growth.

If the UK’s emissions are to be cut, many of these projects will need to be delivered to a net-zero carbon standard, posing a significant challenge to an industry that has traditionally been slow to innovate.

The challenge of delivering net-zero carbon
Progress towards achieving carbon reductions for new school building projects has, in effect, been designed to incrementally improve their energy efficiency. For instance, via improved insulation that reduces U-values; and some good gains have been made here.

However, in order to achieve net-zero, a paradigm shift is required.

Commissioning bodies and the wider industry cannot simply continue to develop and design in the traditional way and expect dramatically different results. The way forward needs to challenge everything – from the way schools are conceived, built, specified and how they are ultimately used by teachers and pupils.

We need an equivalent to the Passivhaus standard for the education sector.

Of course, school buildings are a vastly different building type to family homes. They have challenges with ventilation and cooling – a situation for which Passivhaus provides no scalable cure. So, while we can’t simply translate the fundamentals of the now-lauded residential standard, it is not to say we can’t develop a new rulebook specifically for education.

And this rulebook will need to go further than just looking superficially at the use of buildings themselves. In schools, energy consumption based on heating, cooling and lighting the building is only the tip of the iceberg. Everything else – the ‘unregulated usage’ – from the use of computers, kitchen equipment and even fans in classrooms on hot days, represents a far larger proportion of the energy consumed.

Delivery at pace
It might also be said that a net-zero rulebook for education would be incomplete without also considering modern methods of construction. The Department for Education has become a testbed for MMC in public sector procurement, and it currently presumes an offsite approach across an increasing number of school building frameworks.

The use of modern methods of construction brings with it a number of opportunities to speed up the delivery of schools nationally, and can also play a role in reducing carbon emissions. However, in and of itself it is not a silver bullet for improving sustainability. In fact, it presents new challenges for the sector.

In addition to devising any proposed net-zero carbon solution, architects will need to play an ongoing role in encouraging collaboration where offsite is part of the solution. This will be crucial in ensuring that the industry continues to modernise, creates a more skilled workforce, and becomes aligned with the strategic design principles brought in to reduce energy consumption, without losing the programme and risk reduction benefits that MMC so readily addresses.

Championing reuse
A further key role for the architecture industry will be demonstrating the value of refurbishment of existing spaces.

Far more carbon is emitted in demolition and new build than for the refurbishment of a building. It’s therefore imperative that construction projects in the education sector explore the opportunities for refurbishment – looking at the carbon impact of any project alongside cost and programme to assess the investment value.

While the costs of demolition versus refurbishment can vary significantly, refurbishment projects can create buildings that are as high quality as new-build schemes. As lead consultants, architects have a role in educating clients to ensure they understand that refurbished buildings can be of architectural merit and use design in a way that extends building lifespans and adapts the built environment to modern uses, all while minimising carbon emissions.

The future of schools
While the work already done in the sector to reduce emissions should be celebrated, meeting a much greater challenge of making schools net-zero will require sustained focus and effort.

To make net-zero carbon the rule rather than the exception, all parties involved in commissioning and designing education estates should come together to develop a series of key recommendations for the future of school buildings. In doing so the industry can ensure that it really starts to play its part in addressing one of the biggest questions facing the current generation, and create a positive lasting legacy in our education built environment.

Imran Kassim is regional director at AHR Architects