Sustainable Schools: Stop Obsessing about Buildings – the Children are the Real Resource

Pascale Scheurer on ‘Sustainable Schools at a Time of Reduced Spending’
(interview with Katie Puckett ahead of my talk at Ecobuild 2011)

Being a sustainable school is not about the buildings. That may be small comfort to the many teachers, parents and pupils who have had their new school projects abruptly shelved, but it also means that we don’t have to abandon sustainability even when public funding is scarce. That’s what I’m going to be talking about at Ecobuild today, as part of the Beyond Construction seminar stream.

Sustainability is not just about ventilation and heating and building management systems. It’s about people being part of a community and doing amazing things. Too much of the thinking and rhetoric around sustainability casts people as the problem, as emitters of carbon who must be stopped. We have to think differently about ‘resources’. As the Japanese philosopher Daisaku Ikeda said:
“The greatest resource that humankind has is to be found within human life itself. This treasure can be endlessly mined and developed.”

People, and particularly children, are not the problem, they are the solution. Children are 20% of the UK population but 100% of the future. If you have met a baby or toddler recently, you have met someone with an odds-on chance of living to see the 22nd Century. Schools are in a special position, and they have a fantastic opportunity, not just in reducing their own carbon footprints but in educating children and local communities about sustainability. Schools are often the heart and soul of their community. A typical secondary school will see 10,000 children through its doors. Not many buildings have that many people coming through them and engaging with them on a daily basis for several years. You can reduce the carbon emissions of a building as much as possible, but ultimately far more benefit will come from the fact that the children have been involved and engaged in sustainability discussions and live projects. At many schools, teams of children act as ‘Power Rangers’ who turn off lights and computers at the end of the day. You don’t need to spend a fortune on clever kit: you have a wealth of enthusiastic, ingenious human resource at your disposal.

With schools, we use the ‘8 Doorways to Sustainability’ tool, developed by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which is available free online. It sits between the student-led, bottom-up ‘Ecoschools’ programme, and the very technical, top-down BREEAM which most architects rely upon. Building Schools for the Future only really got as far as BREEAM because the scheme was developed by construction professionals a decade ago and never caught up with new tools such as Ecoschools and 8 Doorways. BREEAM is mainly about improving building services design and kit, but people are more important than ducts and tubes. With 8 Doorways, ‘buildings and grounds’ is only one of eight factors. ‘Local participation’ and ‘global perspective’ are given equal weight, and are hugely important for schools. Reports have shown that the energy and water use of new school buildings can be 30% poorer than calculations predicted, because people don’t fully understand the building management system. On the other hand, you can get much better performance out of a building when people are fully engaged with the design process, and when the building and kit are designed around how the people are likely to use it.

There’s a lot that schools do that just hasn’t been labelled or quantified yet, and there are a lot of important things happening in schools that might be surprising to sustainability professionals. For example, at Surface to Air we’re working with a school in Camden that already had Eco-Schools Silver accreditation. Their Eco-Committee was set up by the children and is 140-strong, facilitated (but not led) by the Head of Geography. The sustainability brief was easy to write and they got the bidding contractors to commit to BREEAM Excellent not only for the new build parts but also the refurbishment areas, which is unheard of in BSF. Because they wanted to use BSF to build on what they were already doing, their three years of onsite construction will be a huge learning experience, not just a disruption. When the icelandic volvano erupted, the children put on an exhibition of ‘a world without planes’.

The school has been working with local charity Global Generation, with students of all ages creating and working on the ‘Urban Skip Garden’ on the King’s Cross Regeneration Site. Developer Argent are heavily involved, as are the Guardian, and the children sell produce to local restaurant Konstam who source all their produce within the M25. It’s an incredible learning experience for the children, based on Global Generation’s ‘I, We, The Planet’ model of contextualised action-learning, and gives them continuity over the summer break. Last September, we were invited by the Prince of Wales’ office to build an ecopavilion at Clarence House. Our pavilion was an extendable outdoor learning space complete with a mini Urban Skip Garden. It used 95% recycled building site materials, cost under £300 and was then demounted and moved to Kings Cross where the school still use it daily.

As a parent in Hackney, I’m involved in setting up one of Michael Gove’s new Free Schools. We are committed to making a sustainable school, and are using the 8 Doorways to develop our proposal, looking at the relationships between Campus, Curriculum and Community. The best thing is that we can start right now, we don’t have to wait for funding. We know from experience we can achieve an enormous amount without any money.

Architects are in a unique position to be a bridge between the engineers and the teachers and students, and to link the Education brief with the Building brief. All the M&E kit in the world won’t give you a sustainable school unless you educate people about sustainability – and even if it did, it would be a wasted opportunity if there was no learning.

Pascale Scheurer is Director and Head of Sustainability at Surface to Air Architects.

8 Doorways tool:
Global Generation:
Daisaku Ikeda:

Pascale Scheurer / Surface to Air Architects:

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One Response to Sustainable Schools: Stop Obsessing about Buildings – the Children are the Real Resource

  1. Awesome Okehampton:
    I was SO inspired by this talk!

    This is the Award Keith mentioned

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