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Sustainable schools - getting real about the zero-carbon agendaSeptember 2008

Government wants all new schools to be zero-carbon by 2016, which effectively means those on the drawing boards right now. So what do we do? To mark National Schools Environment Week, BSRIA and the British Council for School Environments hosted a debate to discuss the options.

First it was energy efficiency, then it was sustainability. Now the catchphrase striking fear into clients and design teams is zero carbon.

Ty Goddard identified "frenzied policy making" at the heart of sustainability. It's all good stuff, he said, and there's a real and genuine attempt by politicians and civil servants to take the issue seriously. "But there are also some huge declamations about schools having to be zero-carbon by a particular date, a sense that we can, perhaps by offsetting or by smoke and mirrors, make our schools carbon neutral," said Goddard.

One thing is clear; new schools will need to emit far less carbon dioxide. So how can we do it?
BSRIA's Roderic Bunn set the scene by demonstrating the fragility of some sustainable technologies in reducing a school's carbon dioxide emissions. Biomass boilers, he said, are seen as a design dream, but too often become a management nightmare.

"Do the people who make decisions on the systems that schools have to use do so on the basis of how they actually work?" - Shivali Mathur

"What's seen as fit-and forget-technology, with impeccable sustainability credentials, is fit-and-manage in practice, but many schools simply don't have the facilities management expertise to run the technology," he warned.

Mike Entwhisle from Buro Happold argued that the Private Finance Initiative can solve some of these problems.

"PFI offers the opportunity, if the facilities management is robust, for biomass to work.But what PFI isn't very good at is planning ahead: putting in a large biomass boiler in order to supply heat for a housing estate that will be built in three years time."

Andrew Brookes from Scott Wilson was concerned that funding seems to be predicated on renewables.

"We need to improve airtightness and insulation - the non-sexy stuff. But when you are submitting projects or going for funding, they want to see things that signify a green school. And you are being marked in your presentations on those things. We have to get the right messages across."
Adrian Leaman of Building Use Studies agreed: "Installing complex technology in relatively simple buildings such as schools is not very sensible, long term, from an environmental point of view.

"One of the things I'm trying to get the DCSF to adopt is a model client brief for a sustainable school. It will address the problems of clients (primarily headteachers) who do not know enough to cope with the huge demands placed on the design development process."
The true economics of sustainability was a major talking point. Ian Goodfellow of architect Penoyre and Prasad was worried that Partnerships for Schools and the Building Schools for the Future programme were not properly linking capital costs and running costs.

"Until that is joined together," he said, "I don't think we are going to see the efficiencies of school buildings improving."

Andrew Brookes agreed. "The PFI consortiums are really focussed on cost and benchmarking it. But local authorities working on traditional contracts are less concerned. Partnerships for Schools really needs to get cost information out so people can say what is a good [sustainable] school."
Do we need more post-occupancy evaluation, asked Ty Goddard, to get the real costs out into the public domain?

"With biofuels you have to look at availability and security of supply. But is it a good thing to use productive land to grow biofuel, when it would be far better to use it to grow food?" - Robert Pratt

Yes, said the delegates, Partnerships for Schools, or whoever is controlling the cost data, should provide the information.

Delegates were united in their concern that ICT (Information and Communications Technology) is causing problems in procurement and design. In procurement, ICT was being considered too late in the process.

The timing of ICT packages is really important, said N G Bailey's Mark Bowden. "We've found that ICT packages are being delayed until the schools have been designed. So we are designing for 150 W laptops, 30 to a classroom, while making these classrooms suitable for natural ventilation.
"That forces mechanical ventilation and cooling, but then they end up procuring thin client computers. So we need to be procuring the ICT at the same time as they are procuring the building."

This problem led to a big debate over the way that design guidance is being enforced. Sue Wolff of Foreman Roberts encapsulated the problem:

"We need to have acoustics, ventilation and daylight integrated particularly with the new levels of ICT. "For example, schools are being put on sites with a poor acoustic environment, but it is not one of the first design criteria. So schools are being designed to a formula and then placed next to a main road. And then you find yourself in an air conditioning situation because of the noise."

Adrian Leaman agreed: "At the moment we have too much guidance that forces the industry down certain routes, and you don't get rewarded by going back to first principles. Yet going to back to first principles is most likely to get us the levels of performance that we want."