Onward march

  • 11th October 2023

Richard Fitz-Hugh provides a road map to reducing your operational carbon footprint

The planning of maintenance regimes and their associated costs have always been important for independent schools. However, rather than simply maintaining the condition of the estate, schools should now be looking to incorporate planned maintenance works alongside opportunities to improve the energy performance of their buildings too. This will help them reach their ambition of being environmentally sustainable enterprises.

To help maintain school buildings in good condition, planned preventative maintenance programmes should be used to help forecast key moments of expenditure in a manageable way. This sets out which building fabric, mechanical and electrical items requirereplacement and remedial works over the next five to ten years and helps to identify periods of greater expenditure required to maintain the functionality of the buildings.

Independent schools are also now trying to improve the operational efficiency of their buildings to become more sustainable and with a lower carbon footprint.

Ongoing maintenance requirements and the aspiration to improve the operational efficiency of an estate do not exist in isolation and should be considered together as a single exercise when forecasting budgets for capital expenditure.

Planning for cyclical maintenance should be considered as part of a wider strategy that reviews opportunities for either upgrading or installing new building fabric elements and mechanical systems. Most importantly, this will help target expenditure where it will make the most difference and prevent expenditure on items that may be superseded with later refurbishment or upgrade works.

There are a number of ways to reduce operational carbon and improve the efficiency of school buildings. Often, the choice of the primary energy source of the building has a significant impact on this.

The use of gas or oil-fired boilers in buildings is a carbon intensive energy source. Switching to modern electric heating options, such as electric boilers or variable refrigerant flow systems, can reduce the carbon footprint of a building. The CO2 emissions associated with grid supplied electricity have significantly reduced in recent years due to greater renewable technologies being incorporated onto the grid system, which has also moved away from reliance on fossil fuel-based power such as coal.

While there are other mechanical and electrical installations that can be used to improve performance, such as the installation of photovoltaics and LED lighting, there are also options to make improvements to building fabric elements.

These building fabric options include reviewing the levels of insulation within ceiling voids and cavity walls and the glazing to windows. Upgrades to existing insulation to comply with the U-values for roofs and cavity walls as set out in the updated Approved Document Part L published last year could see a reduction in heating requirements. Additionally, installing new double or triple glazed windows could reduce heating requirements by increasing the air tightness of a building, but should not reduce useful ventilation of the building as discussed in Approved Document Part F.

The benefit of each potential improvement option should be considered as part of a modelling exercise. This exercise is usually undertaken in producing an Energy Performance Certificate, which despite only being a legal requirement in certain circumstances, may be useful in understanding the most effective options for reducing the operational carbon footprint of a building.

Understanding and capturing the operational efficiency of a building is essential to mapping out any potential improvement works. A way to do this is through the use of Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) and Display Energy Certificates (DECs).

EPCs provide a rating for the modelled energy performance of a building based on its construction and specification. The Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards currently require a minimum E-rated EPC to be produced for the construction, sale and letting of non-domestic private rented properties.

While EPCs can be considered an imperfect tool, in the absence of anything else they can still provide a useful benchmark rating (from A to G) indicating the modelled energy efficiency of a building.

Alternatively, DECs measure the actual energy performance of a building by taking into consideration how a building is used over a 12-month period. DECs are required to be displayed in buildings over 250 square metres that are occupied by public authorities and frequently visited by the public. While independent schools might not fall into thiscategory, DECs are nonetheless another useful benchmark to demonstrate the operational efficiency of a building.

Despite the upfront capital expenditure associated with undertaking upgrading works, there is the potential to achieve a reduction in primary energy use in the long term, that is, the primary loads such as lighting, heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

Modelling exercises carried out to consider the effects of various installations on an EPC rating can also indicate the corresponding effect on primary energy use for the building for each installation or combination of installations, that is, electric boiler, photovoltaic panels etc. While this is a simulated scenario with certain assumptions on daily usage, occupancy rates etc, it helps identify the potential reduction in running costs of a building with those particular installations.

An understanding on potential long-term reduction in running costs may help inform decision-making on short and medium term capital expenditure.

Understanding the condition of existing building fabric and mechanical and electrical systems, their maintenance requirements, their effect on the operational efficiency of a building and the scope for altering and improving those elements requires careful consideration.

Undertaking refurbishment works to buildings is often not a straightforward task. For example, removing a gas-fired heating system and replacing it with a new VRF system may require a feasibility study that considers the physical space required for pipework routes and external plant, the timing of works around school term dates, and any statutory requirements for planning permission. It may also be that an upgrade to the building’s existing electrical power supply is needed – and the ability to do this may depend on wider electricity supply network capacity.

Additionally, many independent schools comprise listed buildings that can be more challenging to adapt and alter. Technical challenges arise in installing the new installations while ensuring minimal impact to the original features of the building. In most cases, a listed building consent application will need to be submitted to the local authority.

Considering these challenges and the ways to improve the operational efficiency of a building should be done alongside a traditional planned preventative maintenance programme. Reducing carbon emissions of a property portfolio is becoming an increasingly important task and should be considered alongside basic maintenance requirements to ensure a joined up approach to estimating capital expenditure requirements.

Richard Fitz-Hugh is a senior surveyor for real estate advisory business Gerald Eve.

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