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Model building project - Kingsmead Primary SchoolJuly 2006

Kingsmead Primary School in Cheshire set out to be an exemplar of sustainable design. It certainly has the renewable energy icons, but does the school teach the right things? Roderic Bunn investigates.

This is not a tale of biomass boilers. Yes, Kingsmead has some of the icons of low energy that environmental engineers and architects have come to associate with what is called sustainable design, but that's not the whole picture. The story here is of a school that's proved a huge success for the local authority, the teachers and the schoolchildren, as well as being a lesson in sustainable education, sustainable communities and sustainable relationships.

The post-occupancy analysis of Kingsmead proves the point: it has the best occupant satisfaction scores on the Building Use Studies' database of schools around the world, and exemplary relationships between the architect White Design Associates, main contractor Willmott Dixon, environmental engineers Arup and Mitie, and the client Cheshire County Council. The only problem area is the school's energy consumption - around three times the best practice target.

That I'll cover later. More important is the process by which Kingsmead School was procured and built. This was just as interesting as its rainwater recovery system.

A paragon of partnering
Kingsmead Primary School was completed in 2004 and open to pupils that September. Ray Baker of Cheshire County Council wanted the school to be an inspiration for school design, starting with the form of appointment and contract. Baker appointed a consortium to build the school, with Cheshire's long-term partner Willmott Dixon as the main contractor. The partnering approach involved lengthy briefing sessions and workshops between client and design team, as well as the incoming headteacher, Catriona Stewart.

"The workshops maintained contact between the key people," said Willmott Dixon's head of Rethinking, George Martin. "So although some of the technical issues still need to be sorted out, the relationships remain exceptional. The way we are all working demonstrates that we have a commitment beyond the contract."

From the architect's perspective, a local authority client that practised partnering made the briefing process more informative. "It provided four client liaison people covering education, property and building management, and they didn't change throughout the project. That meant we had client, user, contractors and consultants all facing in the same direction."

Clearly, good relationships between client and build team has counted for a lot, but replicating this approach on other projects is fraught with difficulty, particularly when defining the so-called soft issues for an industry more versed in replicating technology.

"This is why I have a problem with the fit-and-forget approach to design," said George Martin. "It's people that make things happen." Craig White was even more categorical: "If the DfES was a company that had to deliver schools" he said, "they would be looking for the best system and say to clients and design teams: 'that is the system you will use from now on'."

Rethinking green design
There is a pedantry in architecture, says Craig White, that green design is about designing new buildings to face south. "As soon as you point a classroom south, you instantly get glare problems, solar gain problems and lux levels ranging from dull to blindingly light," he says. "Pointing Kingsmead School north gave us instant cost savings because we didn't need to monkey about with brise soleil or solar management. Instead we get south light from Velux windows. So I would say, if you can avoid it, don't face your schools south."

Cost savings on solar management enabled the architect to provide a winter garden for each classroom. These effectively act as (unheated) airlocks or thermal buffers between the classrooms and the playground. They also provide useful additional space for storing dirty shoes or to grow plants.

White Design also designed the school in section at the same time as it laid out the plan. Notably this aided the design of the circulation space. "Circulation isn't the bit that just connects up the rooms," said Craig White. "As far as DfES guidance is concerned, circulation is just a 20 percent figure, but we wanted to make the space usable, so all of the group rooms are in the corridor circulation space. As a result, Kingsmead is within a spitting distance of the DfES spreadsheets on areas."

Occupancy survey results
White and Martin's belief that a high quality building will derive from an open and full briefing process has been borne out by the results of an occupant satisfaction survey.

The survey was carried out in March 2006, a year after occupation, by Adrian Leaman of Building Use Studies (BUS). Questionnaires were used to poll the teaching and administration staff for their views on thermal comfort, control over conditions, storage and space, noise, and perceived productivity. The survey itself was funded by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) for a forthcoming book on sustainable school design.

The results were startling. Kingsmead Primary School falls in the top 10 percent of buildings in the current BUS dataset, making it one of the best school buildings BUS has surveyed.

The approach to lighting at Kingsmead seems refutes the conventional wisdom that classrooms should face south. The controllable top-lights in the deepest part of the classroom spaces seem to work well. The quality of daylighting is good enough to encourage users to keep the lights off and blinds up.

Kingsmead also has one of the best ratings for perceived productivity. Staff say that the conditions in the building significantly contribute to their perceived productivity at work. This is no surprise given the extremely good thermal comfort scores, attention to detail in the design, and high level of awareness that users have of how the building is supposed to work and be used. The design intent has also been clearly communicated to occupants.

All in all, the survey reveals Kingsmead School to be a rare case of a building that performs well on most of the assessment criteria, but also has extra qualities which emerge from the combination of design, management and user activities.

Sustainability and the schoolchildren
So, if the primary school has proved to work well for the client and the teachers, what about the pupils?

It was the architect's intention to make the school's sustainability features fit into the curriculum. As Craig White says: "If I can get 11-year olds coming out of school understanding about kilowatt hours, or how many raindrops it takes to flush a toilet, I could achieve more than by employing the best environmental consultants."

The design team has linked the school's environmental features into the curriculum. The rainwater recovery system, for example, features a perspex drainpipe through the center of the school so that children can see the system in action. With the building structure made out of glulam, the children can also be taught that the building grew on trees.

Less successful is the electronic panel that displays how much rainwater is being collected. This provides entertainment for pupils when it is raining hard, and education material for maths and geography lessons. Unfortunately the system trips out when the power goes off and/or when the school suffers a storm.

White Design's approach to sustainability at Kingsmead raises an interesting question about the tendency for cost consultants to rule out systems such as rainwater recovery on M&E cost grounds, when the value of those systems is largely educational. "Rainwater recovery should not be regarded as a piece of M&E kit" agrees Craig White. "Value-engineering out the rainwater harvesting system should be similar to value-engineering out the text books."

Sustainable low energy?
It appears, then, that Kingsmead School is an exemplar of sustainable procurement. The design team has successfully linked the curriculum to the building's green features, and the occupants think the building is wonderful. What, then, about the school's energy consumption?

This is where Kingsmead is found wanting. Despite the design team's best efforts, at 72 kWh/m2/y the school's electricity consumption is over three times the best practice benchmarks in Energy Consumption Guide 73 (Econ 73), published as long ago as 1998. Gas consumption is better at 99 kWh/m2/y, but overall the CO2 emissions from electricity and gas are currently running at 48 kgCO2/m2/y, compared to the ECON 73 benchmark of 33 kgCO2/m2/y.

So what's gone wrong? As with any energy analysis, it is important to separate the base building from the users loads, such as electronic whiteboards, projectors and kitchen equipment. The designers clearly made every attempt to ensure that the heat raising plant and electricity generation was as sustainable as possible. A 60 kW wood-chip boiler was installed to sit alongside a back-up 100 kW condensing boiler, and a small photovoltaic array and two solar panels generate around 4 kWh/m2/y to top up the school's domestic hot water system and offset the demand on mains electricity.

The Talbot biomass boiler has proved problematic. A variety of fuels were intended to be used, but the initial use of wood pellets caused it to overheat. A switch to wood chips failed to solve the problem, and so far the boiler has hardly been used.

This has been very frustrating for Arup and Willmott Dixon, but the exceptional relationships generated through the predesign, design and construction process means that the team are working to resolve the problems without falling out with the local authority or the teaching staff.

Electricity consumption is higher for three main reasons. First, the kitchen equipment - extract fans, freezers and refrigerators - have all been left running during holiday periods. Second, the opening hours are much longer than anticipated during design, as the school is being used by the community in the evenings. Third, the school has a high amount of information and communication technology - much of which is left on.

"I visited Kingsmead School and found that every classroom had at least one and sometimes two extension leads with a four gang socket," reported George Martin. "And in most classrooms, the roof-suspended overhead projectors and printers seemed to be on. But the most gobsmacking thing was a trolley in the locked IT cupboard, which had laptops on it with chargers all switched on. And I asked the caretaker whether the laptops would stay on until the trolley is wheeled out, and he said 'Yes, why not? '."

Interactive whiteboards may be enthusing the teaching profession, but their proliferation in schools is doing efforts at energy efficiency no favours. Kingsmead Primary School is no different. whiteboards are also challenging daylight design. "If ever the daylight factor movement has been wrecked by one piece of technology, then it's interactive, electronic whiteboards," says BUS's Adrian Leaman. "they've changed the rules entirely for daylighting and glare control."

Lessons learned
Rather than demonstrating why systems based on renewable sources of energy should not be specified for schools, Kingsmead highlights the fact that existing energy efficiency benchmarks are woefully out of date with current practice.

The DfES is working to deliver a set of more relevant benchmarks. The updated energy benchmarks will be available on line, and also be used in a new guide to sustainable schools, Design of Sustainable Schools - Case Studies due to be published in the summer of 2006.

Overall, Kingsmead Primary School demonstrates the importance of routine monitoring and fine-tuning in the year after occupancy if new buildings - even the very best ones - are to achieve their design potential.

Project who's who?

George Martin Head of Rethinking Construction at Willmott Dixon, offers this advice: "One area where rethinking construction for schools can go a lot further is for designers to ask communities and users about their key issues, and for the design team to help the teachers and governors come to terms with those issues".

Craig White Principal of White Design Associates believes the procurement process for schools needs to be improved. "The basic stuff is still being done wrong - for example, architects being asked to design a building three months before other professions are asked to look at it. I think that the DfES should not fund a school until the design team has been fully appointed."


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