Some FE colleges are demonstrating why environmental sustainability must become a driving force. Martin Whittaker reports
Plymouth college is believed to be the first seat of further education to fit wind turbines to its roof. The two 12-metre-high turbines will generate enough electricity for lighting and equipment, and will save about pound;1,700 a year on bills.
But its conversion to wind power has another purpose. The turbines stand on the roof of its pound;3.2 million "innovation centre", which was designed to inspire others to include environmental design in their buildings.
The centre features a range of environmentally-friendly measures, including low-energy light fittings, solar water heating and a passive ventilation system that cools the building overnight, reducing the need for air conditioning. There is a also a waste separation scheme in which paper and cardboard are divided and sent for recycling.
The rooftop turbines, unveiled in November, were made possible by pound;15,000 in grants from the Government and the European Union.
Gilbert Snook, the college's head of estates, said: "These turbines are an exciting addition to the college's desire to become increasingly environmentally responsible."
Despite growing concern about climate change and global warming, such examples of green design in buildings are still unusual in FE. With soaring energy prices, many colleges would like more sustainability in building design and renovation but are held back by cost, said Martin Pritchett, estates network manager at the Association of Colleges.
"There's a lot of talk about it, and a lot of people are keen to get on and get cracking," he said. "But at the end of the day, you are constrained by the money you have available to you. There's a lot of building, and there's talk about building design that encourages low energy use.
"I'm not aware of that many (colleges) that have proved successful at keeping down energy costs."
The Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges was formed nearly a decade ago to spread good practice on environmental management in further and higher education.
It says FE colleges lag behind universities in green building design.
"There are too many barriers and structures in the funding system," said Iain Patton, the EAUC's executive director. "You get the odd dynamic estates manager who says we have got to get on and do this, and with support of governor and principal they do. But it has to come from the very top of the institution."
One of the forerunners is Somerset college of arts and technology. In February, it will open its new pound;2.5m Genesis centre, a showcase for sustainable construction, built from environmentally-friendly materials including straw, timber, earth and clay.
The new centre will aim to improve skills and promote cutting-edge thinking on sustainability in the building industry by demonstrating various techniques and materials. It will be open to the public and will work on sustainability projects with local schools.
The project began four years ago as a project for HNC students. They were challenged to design a sustainable resource centre at the Taunton campus.
The college was among the first wave of centres of vocational excellence.
The Genesis centre will be the first of its kind in the UK to offer a foundation degree in sustainable construction. It will help to train the 41,000 skilled craftsmen that it is estimated the South-west will need over the next five years. Some funding has come from the Learning and Skills Council and the college's own coffers, but most has come from the South West Regional Development Agency.
Ian Moore, the operations director of the Genesis project, said: "It's bold and it's unique. But it's something that's so important because it fits into so many areas of education and training and sustainable communities.
It's giving people the opportunity to see where other similar establishments can go."
The Learning and Skills Council recently published its own strategy for sustainable development. During consultation in the sector, some respondents said the LSC should lead by example and adopt sound sustainability policies in all its premises. Others said that the body was giving out mixed messages, encouraging sustainability yet demanding as much teaching space per square metre as possible.
One of its strategy aims is already underway. It is now surveying providers on sustainable development. For example, it is looking at whether colleges audit their own consumption and management of energy, water and waste, and whether their buildings are environmentally friendly.
The new strategy says that over the next five years the LSC and providers will have achieved a range of targets to promote sustainable development in buildings, the curriculum and in engaging with communities.
But is there any more money? A spokesman said the LSC has commissioned a report to look at cost, quality and design issues in new college buildings, including a section on sustainability.
"The LSC's capital cost allowances for new college buildings will also be reconsidered to take into account any possible increased costs as a result of implementing sustainability design guidelines," the spokesman said.
"At present, consideration of environmental issues is a factor in approving applications for new college buildings."