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Stand up for sustainability in school design

Burntwood School by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris
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Helen Taylor, practice director at Scott Brownrigg, says architects must not compromise on efforts towards zero carbon even as budgets tighten

Helen Taylor of Scott Brownrigg

Helen Taylor of Scott Brownrigg

Laurent Fabius, president of the COP 21 UN Climate change conference and French foreign minister, made a statement that I, and I would hope most architects, would agree with: ‘Our collective effort is worth more than the sum of our individual effort. Our responsibility to history is immense.’

Ok, I’ve taken this out of context but why is it that we could all sign up to this yet somehow we’re not living up to it? John Gummer’s recent warning to Government that starter homes are cutting corners regarding sustainability, and will end up having to be retrofit in future to make them energy efficient, echoes a similar concern in the schools sector.

It’s not that the requirements of the Priority Schools Building Programme (PSBP) do not focus on reducing energy use, it’s that the number of restrictions – in budget, programme, and specification have often resulted in over complicated environmental design solutions within a building we know will have minimal resources for operation and maintenance. Alongside a brief to meet only the basic immediate educational requirements means a fear that it may become quickly outdated and be a very short term solution. Future proofing scores no marks in the competitive design process so quickly becomes a very hard sell. Reducing cost, not adding value, is the mantra.

Architects need to focus on where we can have the most influence and impact

So how can the industry lead to ensure that schools are designed sustainably for the future when the funding has no such criteria? And what in particular should architects do? Are we storing up problems for the future with schools, or for the profession, if we don’t address it? If we want the government to take our views seriously and give us more ownership or control of the design and procurement process we need to show that we are able to proactively address the issues and deliver results for them.

Architects need to focus on where we can have the most influence and impact - on the things that we can control. For both brand new and refurbishment projects we can be looking for every opportunity to reduce energy use in construction and operation. The separation of capital and operational budgets, in a whole host of sectors, is a serious challenge to this approach but, if budgets are really tight, then we need to keep pushing for innovation and flexibility. The “tick box” approach of programmes such as PSBP seriously constrains this potential. We must share what works so that successful new approaches can be evidenced and rolled out more broadly so that this hurdle can be overcome. There is an even greater need for us to share knowledge, but discovering what actually makes a difference seems to be the hardest information to find. Many of the industry standard environmental assessment methods are over complex or over prescriptive. BREEAM, for example, is falling out of favour and is not mandatory on public funded school projects any more. And, in any case, is its criteria the things that actually make the most difference to the long term environmental, economic, and social success of a project? Who is checking?

Maybe we need a more relevant cost/time/quality triangle for every project - the maintenance/ innovation/energy triangle?

Buildings in use, whether brand new or existing, are where the impact can be greatest and there are some easy wins in helping building occupiers better understand and control their environments and their energy use. Maybe every building industry professional should volunteer to support a local public building? Developing a long term relationship with our clients, and understanding their business and operational costs, is the best way for us to identify the opportunities to save their energy costs and reduce their carbon footprint. We want them to be able to benchmark their performance as well but the basic gathering of energy data in a useable format can be the biggest hurdle of all. Trialing new data capture systems that aid this are imperative. For example, EnergyDeck, a new web platform that captures and benchmarks the entire range of energy, resource and environmental data relating to the built environment will, we hope, provide us with an incredibly valuable tool to inform occupiers, clients and the wider industry.

Ultimately we need to demonstrate a new mindset. Maybe we need a more relevant cost/time/quality triangle for every project - the maintenance/ innovation/energy triangle?

We are now living climate change and need to start seriously addressing adaptation as well as mitigation. A two degree increase limit seems an odd target when the daffodils are already out in December and York is under water.

Helen Taylor is practice director at Scott Brownrigg

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Good thinking from Helen Taylor.

    And some architects are already doing what Helen is advocating.

    Carbon buzz is a useful resource: http://www.carbonbuzz.org/

    And, for instance, Passivhaus Schools deliver radically reduced "energy use in construction and operation" and help "building occupiers better understand and control their environments and their energy use". Passivhaus schools are simpler in design (it's more about design than about technology fixes or bolt-ons) and simpler in operation. Perhaps most importantly, they deliver the predicted results with little or no performance gap.

    Gathering "energy data in a useable format" doesn't have to be that hard, but perhaps the seduction of new technology gets in the way sometimes!

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