Investing in the buildings of tomorrow

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Will the Government's massive construction programme turn out to be a missed eco-opportunity? Wendy Wallace investigates

As the Government embarks on the most ambitious programme of school renewal since the Victorians, the new schools should not only be eco-friendly, they should be living examples for the next generation, says Sunand Prasad, chair of policy and strategy at the Royal Institute of British Architects.

"We need the idea of stewardship of the environment to become a normal and enjoyable part of being a citizen. Given that we are going to be renewing or rebuilding every single school, this is a fantastic opportunity to make schools exemplary demonstrations of sustainable design."

The scale of the construction is not in doubt. The Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme should see every secondary in England rebuilt or refurbished over the next 15 years. Gordon Brown recently promised new money for primary school refurbishment, on top of which a total of 200 city academies are planned - all in new buildings. Tony Blair, in a speech on climate change, promised that the new schools will be "a living, learning place in which to explore what a sustainable lifestyle means". But does the reality match the rhetoric? Environmentalists, including Jonathon Porritt, adviser to the Prime Minister on sustainability, are already warning of missed opportunities for a greening of schools .

The Government has not ignored the environmental agenda. The Department for Education and Skills was one of the first to launch its sustainable development plan, in 2003, under Charles Clarke. In January this year Breeam (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) standards for schools were launched. Now, all new school buildings and refurbishments over a certain scale must achieve a "very good" rating.

But this "does not make them beacons of sustainability," says Dr Jake Reynolds, senior adviser for education at the Sustainable Development Commission. "It means that the basic steps will be taken into consideration." Dr Reynolds is working with the DfES to develop the sustainability agenda. With the BSF programme still in its infancy, there is everything to play for, he says. "If the standard is applied with passion, we'll see some excellent buildings. But sustainability is a mystery area for most builders, architects - and schools."

The sustainability brief is currently in the hands of new under-secretary Andrew Adonis. But with financial constraints and immediate political and social objectives uppermost, sustainability is not at the top of the DfES agenda.

While some new schools - the award-winning Hampden Gurney primary in Westminster, St Francis of Assisi academy in Liverpool and St Pancras in East Sussex (see opposite) - have focused on sustainability, many have not.

The track record so far with buildings funded by private finance initiatives has been poor, says Mr Prasad. He describes many early PFI buildings as "pretty terrible" in terms of sustainability, although they mostly are more environmentally friendly than the ones they replaced. "We live in a 'first cost' culture," he says. "We don't have good methods of working out costs in the longer run."

While sustainable buildings save energy costs in the long term, some aspects of sustainability - investing in the technology to generate your own electricity, for instance, or to use ground water to cool buildings - cost more in the short term and are unlikely to become widespread without legislation. Other features - making buildings highly insulated, building in natural ventilation, using recycled aggregates or cement replacements - can be "cost neutral", and, says Mr Prasad, are more likely to be implemented voluntarily. "The question is, are we only talking about payback? Or are we talking about survival? Nobody disagrees with the idea of sustainability but the Government is not giving enough of a lead."

One issue is the awareness of head teachers - who have considerable influence in setting the parameters for any BSF project, despite the set of exemplar designs from the DfES intended to be used as starting points.

"Most heads know very little about sustainability; it is not within their purview," says Stan Terry, environmental development consultant with Heads, Teachers and Industry, an educational charity. "They don't know enough to ask the questions. And they don't talk the same language as architects and planners. They need to be made aware."

Sustainability, as defined by the commission, means more than having lights and taps that automatically switch off - useful though these measures are.

Sustainability is now applied to every aspect of how a school operates.

Will its situation cause traffic congestion, or can children walk or cycle to school? What is the quality of the school food - and how far does it travel? How much consultation went on with the community regarding what they wanted from a new school? Does the way the school works contribute to human wellbeing?

CABE - the government-appointed champions of design excellence - are assisting local education authorities already involved with BSF to make decisions on a range of design quality indicators, including sustainability. Deputy chief executive Joanna Averley suggests people in education seize the initiative. "It is for the LEAs to set their stall out and say 'we want to achieve this level of sustainability'."

The time to do it is now. Sustainability must be built in at the time of planning and construction and is almost impossible to "retrofit".

For more information on developing sustainable schools,;;

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