In a poll result almost as unsurprising as a North Korean election, 70% of respondents told a recent UK opinion survey that they believe good school design helps children learn. Over half also think hospital patients will recover faster in better-designed buildings. Yet these ‘no-brainers’ are seldom acted upon. Sustainable design in the built environment has tended to focus more on tackling energy inefficiency and emissions. Social considerations such as cutting crime may also motivate clients, but ‘softer’ wellbeing objectives like empowerment, sense of security and community are notoriously hard to capture in cost-benefit calculations. Now, a ‘sustainable schools’ project in Bristol is providing both evidence of success.
“Staggering success”, in fact – says Jennifer Clark, Director of Environment at Skanska UK, the company that won the construction contract for the Bristol project. Involved in a similar venture for schools in Essex too, Skanska is developing crucial expertise in how social impact is experienced, as well as how it can be monitored and measured. Clark calls this “valuing our values”, an essential element for the company in promoting sustainable construction. “While some sustainability features [like energy saving] can clearly be cost effective”, she says, “in other cases there will be costs, and it matters that these are agreed to be worthwhile. Too often the costs of doing nothing – the social impact of pupils failing in schools, for instance – just go in the ‘too difficult’ box.”
For Martin Hunt, an expert on sustainability in the built environment at Forum for the Future, “The holy grail of business cases is to demonstrate the impact that sustainable design, construction and use of buildings can have upon the core purpose and function of that asset – be that healthcare, education, your home or office. Saving carbon emissions or water efficiency just doesn’t cut it on its own.”
As a headline indicator, schools in the UK can hardly avoid the importance of exam results. Pupilfriendly design and a strong emphasis on engagement can pay off handsomely in this respect. It may sound trivial, but when pupils help choose the colour of paint, or the names for each floor, it builds the sense that the school is ‘theirs’. In well-designed environments, truancy drops, discipline problems diminish, morale improves, and teaching and learning benefit.
In the Bristol schools in the Skanska project, a quarter of pupils were getting five A*-to-C passes at GCSE five years ago; now those rates are between 69% and 94%. There, toilet blocks with no outside doors have helped tackle the fear of out-of-sight bullying, and other abuses too. Visual displays and environmental champions among the pupils encourage engagement with cutting energy, water, carbon and waste. Clark, though, is just as keen on the positive anecdotal evidence from pupils. “If it’s difficult to measure, we’re on the right track”, she says.
In a similar vein, Skanska ‘designed in’ the engagement of parents and children at a hospital for terminally ill children in Orlando, Florida. Simple considerations, such as letting the children control the colour of lighting, or even raising and lowering the blinds, helped make it a ‘friendlier’ place. Teachers and managers, health workers and administrators, are recognised as key stakeholders for sustainable design. Both recruitment and staff retention get a boost as a result of improvements. Continuing the UK Green Building Council’s work on the business case for green buildings, Skanska is involved in developing a metric relating sustainable office design to productivity.
Cost may still come highest in the hierarchy of factors for winning construction contracts, but Clark is keen to stress longer-term thinking, with an understanding of how the use of a building may change over time. Learning spaces, for instance, cannot stay stuck in the old rigid mould where rows of desks face the teacher and blackboard. There’s no greater enemy of sustainability than obsolescence.
“We don’t do enough future-proofing”, says Clark, “if we can’t see who is going to pay. It’s a question of coming up with the financial solutions.” Valuing social impact can’t stay in that dreaded ‘too difficult’ box.
Skanska is a Forum for the Future Partner.
Photo credit: Bristol Brunel Academy