Method could create zero-carbon schools

Passive design helps schools cut costs and carbon


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By Alex Green, Programme Manager (Awards and Schools)

When it comes to tomorrow’s school buildings, the concept of
‘passive design’ could help lower bills and fight the climate crisis while
keeping staff and students happy and comfortable

Poor energy efficiency in school buildings does more than
frustrate staff and students – it can drive up bills by tens of thousands of
pounds. There are many quick and easy ways for schools to save energy – but if
their buildings are draughty, energy-hungry or poorly designed, cutting costs
will always be an uphill struggle. The need to lower energy use is also fuelled
by the growing climate emergency.

There are a host of tools and approaches to help schools
tackle energy use – from student energy clubs to smart software that pinpoints
key causes of energy waste. But when it comes to tomorrow’s school buildings,
the concept of ‘passive design’ could help lower bills and fight the climate
crisis while keeping staff and students happy and comfortable.

What is passive design?

Passive design maximises the use of natural sources of
heating, cooling and ventilation to create comfortable conditions inside
buildings. It harnesses environmental conditions such as solar radiation and
cool night air to control the indoor environment – cutting the need for gas and

Passive design is on the rise, driven by society’s growing
interest in sustainability. A passive design project in Norwich won the 2019
Stirling Prize, the UK’s most prestigious architecture award. The award-winning
project  is a social housing development
– proving that this approach isn’t just for high-end homes or offices. And the
concept has already had an impact at schools in the UK and beyond.

Award-winning projects

St Luke’s School has passive design at its heart. The
Wolverhampton primary won its designer, architecture firm Architype, an Ashden
Award for sustainable buildings. Passive measures used at St Luke’s and
elsewhere include efficient insulation and orienting the building so large
windows face south, allowing winter sunlight to penetrate the building and
bring extra heat. To tackle the problem of summer overheating, carefully
located north-facing windows allow extra light in without driving up
temperatures. The building fabric is air-tight to eliminate draughts, with
controlled ventilation through specially designed vents.

St Luke’s School, Wolverhampton

St Faith’s Prep School in Cambridge used a passive design
for a new building completed in just seven weeks. The building features a
timber frame with compressed newspaper for insulation, and a green roof with
plant growth to help insulate the building. The roof also collects rainwater to
top up a nearby pond. Energy use is even lower than the school predicted.

Passive design can be a greater or smaller feature of any
building project. Passivhaus, a globally-recognised passive design standard,
calls for thorough use of passive design throughout the building – and as a
result can deliver huge energy savings. But this standard can involve a larger
initial cost, and many passive ideas can easily be introduced into more
mainstream building designs.

One piece of the puzzle

Even though they generate savings, many passive design
features currently bring a slightly higher up-front financial cost than less
sustainable alternatives – although growth in passive design should bring
prices down.

The spread of this concept into schools will rely on
governments taking a more long-term approach to education funding (and showing
a genuine ambition to take on the climate crisis). But it could be one way the
UK meets its target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, while also inspiring
future generations with examples of sustainability in action.

Realistically, the UK Government will need a wide package of
measures to address the climate impact of school buildings – including
retrofitting older buildings, as well as higher standards for those yet to be
built. So passive design will only ever be one tool in our efforts to address a
complex challenge.

Experts in passive design are often used to boost
sustainability in other ways – for example by using locally sourced materials,
or lower-impact ones such as sustainable timber. These steps are crucial
because day-to-day energy use is just one part of a building’s carbon
footprint. In fact, the World Green Building Council has said that embodied
carbon – emissions purely related to construction, rather than building use –
makes up 11 per cent of the global emissions total.

Middle Barton School, Oxfordshire

Clean energy unites communities

Schools can also go green and save money by generating
electricity themselves. There are organisations across the country helping them
do this – Oxfordshire’s Low Carbon Hub has helped communities install solar
panels on 10 per cent of the county’s schools. Schemes it supports lower energy
bills by an average of 28 per cent. Repowering, another social enterprise,
helps disadvantaged communities in London harness the benefits of renewable
energy. As well as supporting schools, it has given young people training and
skills for the future – showing how investing in sustainability brings a huge
range of benefits.

Finally, cutting energy use is at the heart of Ashden’s LESSCO2 programme. This programme helps schools share advice and best practice, and
has already lowered bills in hundreds of schools across the UK. The programme
relies on harnessing the enthusiasm of staff and students, who are often keen
to see their school become more sustainable. So as well as protecting budgets,
greener school buildings can encourage the actions and attitude changes, both
at school and at home, that we need to create a brighter future.

This piece first appeared in Education Business

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