Five ways education estates can accelerate the transition to net zero

In this article, we look at how the education sector can deliver estate masterplans which meet net zero goals.

By Richard McWilliams, Sustainability Director and Gareth Morgan, Education Sector Lead

The Department for Education (DfE) has set a net zero carbon requirement for schools and meeting these targets will be key to securing their ongoing contribution to the UK’s net zero ambition. Additionally, universities and further education colleges also need to demonstrate they are making progress in the transition to net zero. This means that all education institutions are under increasing pressure to transform and refine internal and external learning environments into sustainable and adaptive spaces.

Estates teams in many education institutions have been a driving force behind carbon management strategies; they have been proactive in conceiving and delivering a new generation of sustainable and efficient new buildings.

The challenge now is to deliver estate masterplans which deliver and meet net-zero goals.

Teams need to take a step back and look at their programmes holistically as every estate brings unique opportunities and challenges, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ template to reaching net-zero targets. However, here are five key considerations for estate teams as they tread the path to net zero.

1. Embrace refurbishment and retrofit

80 percent of the buildings that will be around in 2050 have already been built, so efforts to reduce emissions must address existing stock. For example, listed buildings are commonly focal points and key assets in academic contexts, but despite their beauty and history, this can be a challenge when it comes to carbon management. However, it is possible to transform these legacy buildings into carbon neutral establishments, but this cannot be achieved without sufficient investment.

Transformation of existing assets to net zero requires a change in the way estates are managed and used, with programmes delivered at scale rather than adopting a piecemeal building to building approach.

A new heat pump or solar panels will not be sufficient to deliver net-zero targets. Combining multiple concepts will assist in accelerating progression to net zero. Improving energy networks, such as upgrading from standard boiler systems to hydrogen fuel networks could be a critical adaptation. Although this still uses some electricity, it can achieve carbon savings rather than burning fossil-based gas.

2. Adopt a digital and data-led approach

Using smart sensor technology that responds to changes throughout the day is key to delivering and operating smart buildings which can cut carbon. But investment in digital goes beyond individual intelligent buildings – it can deliver benefits and help inform net-zero masterplanning. There is a great opportunity to harness this technology and aggregate data to show how spaces are really being utilised to inform decision making, measure performance against benchmarks and establish best value asset solutions.

Longer-term, storing information and managing data will be the enabler of future transformation. Embedding a broad range of data into digital or BIM models, including materials specifications and energy performance data, will help provide future occupants with a way to breathe new life into our buildings in the future.

3. Delivering decarbonisation across the lifecycle

Every project and site are different, so achieving net-zero carbon requires a sequential approach to ensure that critical decisions are made at the appropriate point in the design, construction and procurement process. This requires clients to think long term and understand the types of uses that a building might accommodate in future.

The challenge is that the most energy efficient buildings can be difficult to reconfigure.

A university building built to Passivhaus standards will deliver excellent energy efficiency and thermal performance, but the structure is likely to be difficult to reconfigure without sacrificing its performance. This will require estate teams to have a long-term strategy for buildings that consider future uses and how they could be utilised differently over time.

4. Maximising offsite manufacture

Offsite fabrication with a modular approach to design and construction can bring advantages to support both end-of-life demolition and recycling of materials too.

The offsite standardisation of repeatable component-led design is key to cutting carbon and boosting productivity as it allows highly efficient processes to replace the onsite construction of individual building elements. And if prefabrication is carried out close to a development site further carbon reductions can be achieved thanks to lower transport emissions. So, with less waste, this is better for the environment and saves money on materials.

5. An intelligent approach to offsetting

Finally, after working to minimise a building’s whole life carbon emissions, clients need to offset what’s left. Although there is a place for education estates to consider offsetting in the short term, it does not offer a lasting solution.

Client teams should have a strategy to agree what levels are appropriate, what carbon reduction can be realistically delivered and have a clear roadmap to wean themselves off this in the medium to long term.

Whether local or global, carbon offsetting has the potential to make a positive difference, funding projects that would otherwise not go ahead. Clients choosing to offset need to select independently accredited offsetting schemes which provide transparent reporting on projects – this level of clarity will be increasingly expected by key stakeholders.

But to be truly ‘net zero’ clients in the education sector need to drive their emissions as low as possible by making operational changes, before offsetting the remainder.

For further information contact:

Richard McWilliams
Director, Sustainability

t: +44 (0) 7900 365065
e: