The Department for Education (DfE) push for education design to meet
by Imran Kassim
The DfE’s push for education design to deliver a ‘Gen Zero’ product is laudable in its ambition. How will the construction industry meet this challenge?
The DfE output specification, first published in 2016 and updated regularly since provides guidance for designing and the construction of school buildings delivered through the DfE Construction Framework and the Offsite Schools Framework, covering key principles across a range of areas including compliance, buildings and grounds and the development of a functional site masterplan.
Within this suite of documents exists a set of detailed instructions that define the outputs required for internal and external space, external fabric, finishes, internal environment, services, building management systems and more recently it has defined the energy and sustainability standards required by the DfE to meet rapidly developing Net Zero targets.
The latest incarnation of this body of work, widely known as Spec 21 describes a model route to reach Net Zero and interestingly focuses on improving biodiversity across school sites. This body of work has acted as a launch pad for a still more ambitious set of targets labelled Gen Zero, designed to deliver a new ultra-low carbon building standard for schools.
This design concept says that nature should be placed at the heart of the educational environment; with schools designed to promote the wellbeing of children, young people and staff. The intention being that school environments should allow the user to interact with nature and seek the benefits of doing so in a way that’s proven to aid in health and wellbeing.
The key strategies include putting the preservation and expansion of the natural environment at the forefront of the design and utilising a kit of parts approach to create simple, standardised spaces that aren’t defined by furniture and fittings, allowing for different curriculum models with only minor alteration.
The current direction of travel set by the DfE appears to favour construction with timber to reduce the environmental impact from construction, which can then be put through a platform for manufacture within a factory setting. The idea being that schools can then be built at scale across the UK with minimal waste in the future.
The case for timber is a compelling one being natural, renewable and needing relatively low energy input to refine and process. However, it is clear a more diverse range of approaches including other methods of construction will be needed to ensure that supply meets the undoubted demand over the coming years.
AHR’s own research has brought together a blend of expertise from across the industry to create models for a ‘kit-of-parts’ prototype schools using timber, concrete and steel frame construction methods. Our prototypes have been designed from first principles, taking a fabric first approach, with a high degree of standardisation of all elements to support offsite construction, reduce wastage and help meet the UK’s ambitious 2050 net zero carbon targets.
Our design approach also demonstrates how buildings can be future proofed against predicted warmer variable climates and also demonstrate how highly insulated external envelopes combined with air or ground source heat pumps and heat exchange, reduces energy demand dramatically. Any residual energy requirements can be satiated with roof mounted photovoltaic panels to power the building throughout the seasons.
It also seeks to minimise the embodied and whole lifecycle carbon emissions produced by construction, whilst showing how the carbon impact of anticipated operational energy can be measured, reduced and offset.
Approaches such as this will be essential in meeting the climate challenge facing the construction industry and wider society. Another key learning is that the strategies developed will be entirely transferable to other building types such as hospitals, custodial and military buildings. Through careful briefing from commissioning bodies and common approaches from the industry, we have a real chance of delivering a virtuous circle across public sector capital projects, and if properly embedded, this will deliver positive returns for many decades to come.
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