Why is sustainable design important?

The built environment, its construction and operation account for a major part of global fossil fuel energy use and its associated CO2 emissions. These emissions are generally considered to have an impact on climate change. The built environment also accounts for a large proportion of material resource use, waste production, and associated emissions. Buildings and their supporting infrastructures are said to be responsible for emitting about 50% of all CO2 emissions, possibly rising to 70% if urban transportation is included. Global carbon reduction obligations cannot be met from renewable energy alone and therefore energy efficiency is crucial across all sectors of the built environment.

In 1990 schools’ greenhouse gas emissions for the UK stood at 6.5million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (mtCO2e). By 2006, emissions had risen to 7.3mtCO2e, an increase of 12%.

The extension of school hours has undoubtedly resulted in higher energy consumption through the increased demand for heating and lighting running late into the evenings and at weekends. However, up to a third of the additional energy consumption has been attributed to an increase in the provision and use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) equipment.  This increase in ICT can conflict with an energy reduction strategy in two ways; the equipment itself uses electricity and, dedicated ICT rooms often have to be mechanically cooled as a result of the incidental heat generated.

Emissions from school travel and transport has also increased by a massive 59% between 1990 and 2006, and the National Travel Survey suggests that journey distance to school has increased by 25% since 1990 (National Travel Survey, 2010).

These trends have to be reversed in line with government targets. The UK target for CO2 reductions is 34% below 1990 emissions by 2020 while the Welsh Assembly Government intend to achieve a 3% annual reduction from 2011 based on a baseline of the average emissions from 2006-2010 . In the longer term, aspirations of at least 80% reductions by 2050 have been set.

Sustainable design needs to be considered from the very start of a project and a consistent approach should be implemented through:

  • Planning;
  • Design;
  • Construction;
  • Operation;
  • Maintenance.

All stakeholders should be involved in identifying the sustainability aims and issues and kept up to date throughout the whole process. This will enable stakeholders to have responsibility and feel part of the decision making process. Behaviour is key throughout the whole process to ensure that the sustainability objectives are realised.

Funding to rebuild or retrofit schools is limited; therefore it is essential that projects undertaken produce sustainable schools that are appropriate. The School Building Survey of 1962 conservatively estimated that £1,368 million would be required at that time to bring all schools in the UK up to standard. This would be equivalent to approximately £2.2 billion in 2009.

The characteristics of the built environment within a school have changed significantly over time as the learning environment has become more complex, providing more facilities and opportunities for both pupils and the community as a whole. Sustainable design needs to allow for future changes to be incorporated into the built environment simply, with minimum expense and disruption. Simpler buildings generally provide more flexibility for change in the future and are generally easier to maintain.

As part of WAGs sustainability requirements and objectives ‘All new non-domestic buildings funded by the Welsh Assembly Government and Assembly Government Sponsored Bodies (AGSBs) must be built to the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) “Excellent” standard, or equivalent’. This includes newly built schools. 

However, there is a cost implication in achieving these stringent standards; for example’ research has found that to improve a school design from a BREEAM ‘very good’ rating to an ‘excellent’ rating can cost an additional £60 per m2.

WLGA - CLILC Llywodraeth Cynulliad Cymru / Welsh Assembly Government