Creating Sustainable Educational Estates; the time to act is now. How ready are you?
How ready are you? That was the question on the table at this education-focused discussion to follow the launch of ISG’s Sustainable Buildings Monitor, with Jane O’Leary, our strategic advisor for education, chairing the debate.
The virtual event, hosted in partnership with Education Estates® Online, took place on 26 May with a panel featuring Peter Kelly of ISG, Prof John French, Fellow of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), Tim Davies of Waterman Building Services, and Phil Kelly of Ramboll.
The race to net zero carbon is in just under 10,500 days and we need to start thinking and acting to tighter deadlines. Our Sustainable Buildings Monitor has found the UK’s built environment needs to reduce its energy consumption by approximately 80% if it is to meet its 2050 net zero carbon emissions commitment.
The findings also highlighted that education estates have some work to do in meeting these goals. So, are we on the right path?
Barriers that the education sector faces
Refurbishing existing infrastructure to become carbon neutral can appear challenging and costly compared to a new build. This stems from financial capital outlay per square metre and logistics: schools cannot be closed for a prolonged period of time unless they have temporary buildings in place. Strong relations between a local authority and academic institution may contribute to addressing these challenges.
Listed buildings are commonly focal points and key assets in academic contexts. Despite their beauty and history, this can be a challenge when it comes to carbon management. However, it is possible to transform these legacy buildings into carbon neutral establishments, but this cannot be achieved without sufficient investment.
A difficulty in regard to funding is that it is in short supply and is typically released all at once, with significant interest rates applying to the entire amount.
Clients, additionally, play a significant role in achieving net zero, through setting demanding energy performance targets. Enabling clients to be leaders along the way may help develop a strong team with a plethora of expertise.
This can assist in reaching the proposed targets at each stage in the development process. Readily sharing data is not common practice at present, but having easily accessible platforms which enable such communication and encourage collaboration would help. The faster data and case studies are published, the quicker new solutions can be devised, and continuous improvement applied to future projects.
Addressing the dilemma between new builds and refurbishments
Unfortunately, there are few case studies on deep retrofits or refurbishment projects; however, the Entopia Building, a retrofit of a 1930s Telephone Exchange at 1 Regent Street in Cambridge, is being transformed into an ultra-low carbon sustainability hub for CISL at present by employing passive house design and circular economy principles together.
This demonstrates it is feasible to achieve close to zero emissions in refurbishments now. The project is also addressing emissions from the refurbishment process through monitoring and reporting embodied carbon at all life cycle stages of the project, from cradle to cradle.
To determine whether to refurbish or build new, a whole life perspective should be considered. For instance, if a refurbishment would only add a decade onto its life span compared to a new build which could offer several decades, it would make sense to build new. However, the same applies vice versa as a refurbishment may be a more effective and adaptable option to a building’s users’ ever-changing needs.
An element to consider when refurbishing is to follow a holistic approach which incorporates circular economy principles. This is where aspects of the building are repurposed, refurbished and remanufactured within every stage of a project. By reusing what is already there can help to reduce emissions, and also avoid them altogether. This becomes particularly valuable when tackling listed buildings, with a circular economy providing a toolkit to combat challenges.
One difficulty which is apparent is that we are still applying old technologies to our buildings, which will likely lead to a need for additional reconstruction of spaces and the subsequent funding requirements to meet targets further down the line.
How the public and private sector can collaborate to achieve net zero
Academic establishments play a pivotal role in conducting research and illuminating potential solutions to help reach net zero. Old technologies to tackle new problems won’t be sufficient, instead more innovative and refined solutions are needed.
However, this is not possible without sufficient capital. Deploying public and private partnerships in venture capital investments could be influential in funding and supporting this process. As the education sphere aims to generate social value, both the private and public sector can cooperate to facilitate net zero carbon technological developments and solutions.
These should mutually take environmental and social aspects into consideration, as part of the growing ESG agenda which is of interest to funders.
It is important to acknowledge that achieving net zero isn’t just a goal for the next 29 years; advances in technology will significantly contribute to continually becoming more sustainable in the decades following 2050 too. Ultimately, a huge opportunity has opened up for the private sector, where collaboration between private and public sectors can lead to significant financial and energy saving gains for both.
How we can accelerate our progress towards net zero
Combining multiple concepts will assist in accelerating progression to net zero. Improving energy networks, such as upgrading from standard boiler systems to hydrogen fuel networks could be a critical adaptation. Although this still uses some electricity, it can achieve carbon savings rather than burning fossil based gas, however it is currently an expensive option.
At this time there is not enough legislation or incentives to make net zero a key priority. Devising incentives, such as increased taxation on energy, could be a key driver in influencing decision making in regards to sustainable energy and reduced carbon.
This should reflect the whole life cycle of a project, not just one phase. Further, new legislation would have to be performance, rather than compliance, based to provide a road map of steps to follow and to absorb learnings from what is achieved along the way.
Incorporating taxation as an incentive may mean increased funding is needed, with the government being the ideal, and likely expected, provider. At present, it is easier to choose the cheaper and ‘safer’ option, particularly when provided with a tight budget. For academic institutions, investing in sustainability may be deemed as risky, in that there is no guarantee or confidence of financial returns.
Investing elsewhere where more immediate benefits can be noticed may therefore be more appealing. Energy and cost savings to be delivered through enhancements should therefore be capitalised upfront.
The building itself will assist in reducing carbon through design and materials used, and following a holistic, whole life approach will enable the benefits of net zero carbon to be realised. However, it is also about how the building is used: we need to ensure there are clear practices in place to ensure compliance and successfully educate users on how to use, interact and learn in such buildings. Doing so will make the journey to net zero that much quicker.
If you missed the live event, the full webinar is available to watch below.