Sustainability in Schools - Old Vs New

Sustainability: a term that has rapidly evolved from being a mere buzzword to a pressing global necessity. As the world grapples with the urgent need to curb carbon emissions, the spotlight is increasingly turning towards the built environment.
Old Vs New

The Promise of Retrofitting Schools

Turning our schools into sustainable, energy-efficient buildings is no longer a choice; it's a necessity. The UK, for instance, boasts of 32,000 schools, most of which lack net-zero carbon credentials. Retrofitting these buildings could pave the way for significant energy savings, reduced carbon emissions, and the creation of a new energy network powered by solar panels.

The Dual Benefit

The beauty of retrofitting lies in its two-fold benefit. First, it significantly decarbonises the buildings, thereby contributing to the larger goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Second, it fosters a culture of sustainability among the younger generation, instilling in them the importance of embracing green practices.

The Economic Advantage

Retrofitting is not just about being environmentally responsible; it's also about being economically prudent. With energy bills for schools reportedly having risen by a whopping 93% in the last year, retrofitting can help schools make much-needed savings. Moreover, it saves the high costs associated with constructing new buildings, thus making it a financially viable solution.

The Greenfield Projects: A Closer Look

Greenfield projects — constructing new buildings from scratch — certainly have their advantages. They offer the benefit of starting afresh, with sustainability at the forefront of design and construction. A shining example of this is the Lippulaiva urban centre in Helsinki, Finland. This city centre, designed with an emphasis on energy optimisation, is set to double the amount of onsite renewable energy production and improve energy efficiency by over 25%.

The Challenge of Embodied Carbon

Despite the merits of greenfield projects, they pose a significant challenge — embodied carbon. This refers to the carbon emissions associated with the extraction of raw materials and the manufacturing of building materials, which account for nearly one-third of global building-related emissions. The key to tackling this lies in modelling and measuring embodied carbon emissions, which can inform design and construction decisions, thereby minimising the impact of new construction.

Retrofitting: A Sustainable Solution for Existing Constraints

Retrofitting existing buildings, on the other hand, is a less carbon-intensive process as it doesn't involve fabricating new carbon-intensive structural elements like steel and concrete. This approach focuses on minimising the 70% of global building emissions resulting from ongoing building operations.

The Retrofitting Process

Retrofitting can range from improving heating system controls and installing thermal efficient windows and doors, to providing EV charge points and installing smart building sensors. For instance, Schneider Electric's R&D office retrofit involved massive improvements, including the installation of geothermal heat pumps, renewable electric supply, and batteries that allow the building to produce and store its own electricity.

The Cost Consideration

While the operating expenditure of a deeply retrofitted building can yield significant cost savings, the initial capital expenditure can be high. However, these upfront costs can often be offset by rebates and incentives provided by local utilities or government entities.

The Role of Schools in the sustainable future

Schools, given their central role in communities and their reach to future generations, are uniquely positioned to drive the Novacene era. They can lead the way in demonstrating the practicality and benefits of sustainable practices, thereby influencing positive behaviours and strengthening support for the net-zero transition.

Schools as Energy Producers

A key aspect of this transition involves transforming schools into energy prosumers — entities that not only consume but also produce energy. This can be achieved by integrating energy generation, storage, and management into a microgrid, thereby offering holistic energy savings and reduced carbon emissions.

Schools as Hubs of Learning and Action

In addition to being energy producers, schools can serve as hubs for learning about and acting on sustainability. Equans, for instance, has developed a range of bespoke materials for teachers to support and grow their understanding of climate change and engage pupils and local communities in the agenda. This not only aligns with the UN Sustainable Development Goals but also helps pupils understand the role they can play in creating a cleaner, greener, more sustainable world.

Overcoming the Challenges of Retrofitting

While retrofitting presents a promising solution for achieving sustainability goals, it is not without its challenges. These include the need to balance trade-offs between upfront embodied carbon and ongoing operational carbon, the preservation of building features, and the impact on construction schedules due to building occupancy.

Dealing with Historic Buildings

Retrofitting historic buildings, such as many schools and universities in the UK, presents a unique challenge. These older buildings require a special approach as changes made to increase energy efficiency can affect their equilibrium and cause issues such as moisture accumulation or overheating. In such cases, a rebuild may be the better option.

Assessing Retrofit Viability

The viability of retrofitting should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, considering factors such as the need for future repairs, structural safety issues, and the building's suitability to meet the needs of the future student population. In some cases, new buildings may offer a more sustainable option by reducing the need for future repairs and offsetting the original embodied carbon emitted during the build process.

The Future of Retrofitting Schools

The journey towards retrofitting schools and transforming them into sustainable energy centres is just beginning. With the UK government's Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme providing over £1.5 billion of grant funding until 2026, public sector organisations are expected to embrace carbon savings and meet the upcoming Net Zero targets more actively.

Create a wide banner image, 300px height, of an old, traditional school building with a solar panel roof in a green, eco-friendly city. The school should exhibit classic architectural features and be surrounded by lush greenery, including trees and neighboring buildings with green roofs. The cityscape should blend traditional architecture with modern environmental practices, showcasing the school as a central feature in this sustainable urban environment.

Retrofitting: A Prudent Investment

While retrofitting involves significant initial investments, most commercial buildings return sustainable retrofit investments in 10 years or fewer. Thus, retrofitting can be seen as a prudent investment that promises long-term savings and sustainability outcomes.

The Role of Data

Regardless of the path building owners take, leveraging data to define an emissions baseline and measure performance against it is crucial. Without a baseline and tools to collect and analyse energy consumption data, owners will find it challenging to realise any substantial sustainability improvement.

The Key to Unlocking the Novacene Era

The future calls for transformative and solution-oriented approaches to sustainability. Retrofitting schools not only offers a tangible solution to reducing carbon emissions but also provides a way to sustain growth moving forward. By transforming schools into net-zero prosumers, we can unlock significant energy efficiency, reduced operating expenses, new revenue streams, and satisfied stakeholders. More importantly, we can inspire future generations to embrace and champion the cause of sustainability. After all, the greenest building is the one that already exists, and the key to unlocking the Novacene era might just lie within our schools.

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