Helping the education sector on journey to net zero

Our Refit_2050 guru, Steve Dam poses the question: How can the education sector plan for net zero in the long term whilst meeting current basic need and compliance requirements?

Phase 3 of the Government’s Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme (PSDS) opened in autumn 2023, with applications encouraged from the education sector to remove fossil fuels and ageing boilers and replace with cleaner electrified plant as well as wider improvements to building fabric and insulation.

With public funding available to make energy improvements, many in the education sector will be preparing funding applications focused on these works, but with potential aging backlog repair bills as well as other critical and urgent compliance issues, e.g. RAAC concrete/fire, is it possible to sustainably meet our long term needs whilst also dealing with the here and now?

Securing available funding is obviously an attractive (and in most cases essential) option, but having witnessed some of the Phase 2 funded projects fail in recent months at post-funding stage, it’s evident that securing funding is only one part of the solution. Here we explore some of the reasons these projects can fail and how to maximise the potential for success when planning longer term net zero plans alongside day-to-day building operations.

1. Hierarchy of needs

With over £11bn of backlog maintenance already in existence in school and academies alone, it’s important to recognise that no long-term net zero plan can be confidently drawn up without an understanding of what an existing building/estate condition looks like.

We have seen how the availability of funding draws clients towards new and electrified heating systems, for example, without consideration for building safety, fire compliance or condition. In simple terms, we would probably never consider putting a new kitchen under a leaking roof in our own homes, but we have witnessed publicly funded solutions for high value electrification systems proposed in buildings that leak and have high fire risk. These projects are likely to fail at delivery stage if building regulations advice is sought too late, making projects become unaffordable.

A holistic approach from the initial feasibility stage is essential and ensures that the correct bases are covered across design and funding applications. This approach should consider basic need and repair requirements as well as energy and carbon reduction options.

2. Carbon Reduction Plan

On the face of it a carbon reduction plan does what it says on the tin. It plots a roadmap for a given building or portfolio to transition from a current CO2 baseline down to a targeted reduction in CO2 emissions and towards net zero.

The information in these plans can range from over-simplified (appearing to tick all boxes without due regard for cost/feasibility) to over-complex (weighing the owner down with too much data and variables). A good Carbon Reduction Plan will consider the unique challenges of the building as well as the client organisation, and it will take into account real-world feasibility challenges as opposed to high level ‘return on investment’ figures, which are designed to look good on a proposal but don’t stand the test of time.

A good Carbon Reduction Plan should be clear, but also raise new questions. It should also highlight the benefits, risks and impacts of all available interventions, which should then be considered back into the overall building strategy and hierarchy of needs and estates plan.

3. Feasibility

Like all successful building interventions, net zero and compliance interventions need to be thoroughly and robustly planned for feasibility. This includes reviewing cost, programme, logistics and quality standards prior to signing off a solution.

In our experience, a failure to engage the right team at an early enough stage can severely hamper the feasibility of a project. Construction and delivery costs can be volatile and failure to consider wider impacts on project stakeholders can add significant time and costs post-funding, which in turn can lead to project failure, often when funding has already been committed which can make losing funding an even more bitter pill to swallow. Decisions made at feasibility stage tend to be magnified and become difficult to unpick later in the process.

4. Trade-offs and long-term view

Ultimately the education sector must make key decisions and trade-offs between ongoing maintenance & compliance interventions and longer-term net zero interventions.

The key to successful intervention planning may be to ensure that available funding and short-term interventions all add to the overall picture and don’t require abortive or rework in the medium term. A robust hierarchy of needs and Carbon Reduction Plan can help to plan works that achieve best value for money and impact, though it’s still likely that funding gaps will exist and that a building may not achieve a perfect net zero rating.

With a comprehensive understanding of baseline data, interventions required and possible carbon reduction works all on the table, it should be possible to make the best decision available at any given time. This can ensure that decisions are taken strategically when funding becomes available and valuable resources are used to maximum effect.

Refit_2050 draws together the holistic estates experience of the Sewell Group as well as market leading building and behavioural science experts to provide holistic solutions for the public sector on their pathway to net zero. We can help:

  • Plan carbon reduction pathways alongside basic need and adaptation needs
  • Develop a retrofit scope and feasibility based on real-world cost and feasibility
  • Deliver project manage retrofit solutions in live and occupied buildings

Get in touch to find out how we can help you achieve your net zero aims.