A lesson to learn

Creating educational buildings with zero energy usage and carbon footprints is perfectly possible. So why aren’t we building more? Neil Smith of design firm UK Energy Partners shares his thoughts. There’s no doubt the way we design and construct buildings consumes huge amounts of the world’s energy and generates potentially catastrophic global greenhouse emissions. It seems only fair that we roll up our sleeves to sort it out – and new schools, colleges and universities, all those special places that teach and inspire millions of students every day, are a great place to start.

In fact, it’s relatively simple to design net-zero energy and net- zero carbon educational buildings, but only customers with deep pockets and a sense of environmental stewardship are happy to pay the price premium this involves. Likewise, only a fool wastes time designing and building products nobody wants to buy.

So the destructive cycle is perpetuated by design. The market won’t pay for net zero solutions so people continue to churn out buildings that promise a lifetime of carbon emissions, locked in from day one – by design.

The solution to the problem is to eradicate the price premium associated with net zero energy and net zero carbon school buildings. Once we reach that point, the market will queue up to buy them and the damage can slowly be reversed.

But the industry is not structured in a way that is conducive to achieving this outcome.

The traditional approach to construction with traditional materials assembled on site invites programme delays, cost uncertainty and waste. So it’s pretty clear the problem won’t be fixed by going down that road. The traditional approach to design necessarily involves collaboration between contractors, architects, M&E and structural engineers, but the collaboration is not as deep, integrated and aligned as it needs to be to deliver what is required.

The process is often inefficient and dysfunctional; a lot of time is wasted justifying design decisions and solving the problems they beget.

Moreover, there is plenty of opportunity for conflict especially when it comes to cost control. Fixed consultancy fees deliver inflexible solutions and time-based fees promote lengthy debate. There is usually a seat at the table for a carbon/energy consultant, but their input is relegated to the periphery rather than the heart of the project.

We’re not going to eradicate the price premium unless we change the way we design as well as the way we build.


The answer lies at the crossroads of off-site construction and in-house design.

Assembling an integrated team, with energy, carbon and value at its core sets the tone and direction of travel. Employing this team in full-time permanent posts ensures alignment and removes any potential for commercial and professional tension.

Committing to an off-site construction methodology informs design by narrowing the palette of construction materials down to those that can be moved in large format safely and economically.

Building off-site delivers meaningful cost savings when compared to other methods of construction. The savings can then be spent on the integration of renewable energy technology with sufficient capacity to ensure net zero energy and net zero carbon performance.

At UK Energy Partners, we have been employing this approach in designing energy efficiency upgrades since 2014. We have been continuously refining our designs and construction techniques and it’s exciting to be able to report that it is working.

By the end of 2016, we will have delivered 50 ‘Schoolhaus’ school projects all with an EPC rating of A+. These buildings cost no more than traditionally built alternatives but the difference is that they cost nothing to heat and light and emit no CO2.

We have the power to make big changes.

Neil Smith is chief operating officer of UK Energy Partners