Dec 02, 2013

What does the future look like for education construction?

The challenges facing Britain’s further and higher education sectors are well documented. Universities and colleges are contending with decreasing numbers of students and shrinking budgets while they are forced to compete for an increasingly competitive and globalised student market.

The challenges facing Britain’s further and higher education sectors are well documented. Universities and colleges are contending with decreasing numbers of students and shrinking budgets while they are forced to compete for an increasingly competitive and globalised student market.

Impressing prospective scholars with academic excellence, as well as strong job prospects upon graduation, is undoubtedly a key part of attracting the best students to a university. Equally, it’s important to provide a learning environment, with accommodation to match, that impresses students and their parents alike.

Universities across the country have announced big investment in their campuses over the past few years, ranging from student accommodation projects to academic buildings. Spend on facilities consumes a significant slice of budgets, with some universities spending as much as £1,071 per student – the average is an estimated £407 per student – on their campus and related services.

In recent weeks the universities of Kent and Leeds have announced plans to build impressive new libraries, while Wolverhampton University intends to build a new block for its science faculty. In the further education sector, among the more prominent projects announced have been a £45m city campus for Cardiff and Vale College, and university technical colleges in Cambridge and at Salford’s MediaCityUK. 

This scale of investment in construction of any kind can have a significant impact on a sector’s carbon footprint. With building regulations and public sector sustainability targets becoming increasingly ambitious, the education sector has to realise these impressive projects within tighter emissions objectives. 

This begs the question: how do universities, colleges and even schools, meet the challenge of delivering sustainable campuses that will attract students from an increasingly competitive market, during a time of restricted budgets?    

A look at some of Stewart Milne Timber Systems’ recent education projects provides valuable insight into the core attributes of successful education developments. Key to their success has been a mixture of benefits afforded by the use of a sustainable building material such as timber, in combination with a ‘fabric first’ approach to construction.

Such an approach to building sees a structure’s sustainability achieved through its construction fabric. This eliminates the need for expensive and unsightly bolt-ons such as photo-voltaics and renewable energy generators to adhere to building regulations. To get the most out of this approach means using a high performance building fabric which maximises thermal performance and minimises air leakage from the outset, resulting in a reduced need for energy.

A fabric first approach also guarantees the building’s performance over its lifespan, without the need for additional maintenance. It decreases the need for occupants to use energy through fabric performance and design, rather than by relying on the end-user learning how to use complex devices and building controls. This makes for a simple, easy to use building with low upkeep.

When it’s centred on a timber build system such as Stewart Milne Timber Systems’ Sigma II Build System, fabric first can also bring about additional cost savings and increased speed of build. In addition, owing to the offsite manufacturing process and the fact that the entire system can be designed, manufactured, and then erected on site in a matter of weeks, costs can be greatly reduced on a number of fronts including site establishment and fuel consumption.

Timber is a naturally renewable build fabric which makes for excellent sustainability. It can also reduce the embodied carbon of a structure by up to six times when used instead of more energy intensive materials such as masonry. For every cubic metre of wood used instead of other building materials, an estimated 0.8 of a tonne of CO² is saved from the atmosphere.

There are a number of projects in the education sector where this approach has been employed successfully. Recently in the news for being sold at an increased value, The Green at the University of Bradford is a great example of fabric performance lying at the heart of achieving energy efficiency.

The £30.4 million development consists of 1,026-bedrooms across six blocks of four storey townhouses, one block of six storey flats and two blocks of seven storey flats. It was designed with the intention of linking the university with the local community, promoting seamless interaction with the town.

The project had to be ready for the start of the 2011-2012 academic year, with new and returning students alike eager to begin their studies. Thanks to the offsite construction afforded by timber frame systems, the entire project was completed in just 84 weeks, with minimal waste, to Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) ‘Outstanding’ level – one of only 15 buildings to achieve this worldwide.

The development’s BREEAM status was achieved thanks to the use of a fabric first approach, with the building’s energy efficiency credentials attained through its envelope. The well-insulated structure reduced the need for space heating, while passive technologies cut energy waste which otherwise would have been brought about by heating and cooling. Large windows were also incorporated to provide more natural light and solar gain for heating, which meant there was less need to switch on lights.

Another example is the £8.5m bespoke 232-bed medical student residential accommodation project at Plymouth University’s campus in Truro. The university has an award winning reputation for sustainability, and maintaining this hard won status was important to the success of the project.

With experience of delivering large developments to BREEAM Excellent rating, Stewart Milne Timber Systems delivered this using a fabric first approach to achieve the U-Values required. Employing the fabric first approach meant that the buildings’ air tightness and thermal resistance, which allowed for the structures’ excellent energy efficiency, were realised through the build fabric from the outset, and had no impact on Burwell Deakins’ design.

Like Bradford, the level of offsite construction that is afforded by timber systems helped reduce waste and ensured a speedy build ahead of the students returning for the year. The timber systems for all seven blocks were completed in just 16 weeks. 

Thirdly, Essex University is one of Stewart Milne Timber Systems’ most recently completed education projects. The site comprises of 228 bedrooms across 19 four-storey townhouses, while the university was keen to use innovative building materials and systems as it looked to facilitate a growing student base. 

To deliver the sustainability requirements designed to BREEAM Excellent status by Lewis Hickey Architects, Stewart Milne Timber Systems supplied and erected Sigma II pre-insulated closed panel build system which achieved a U-Value of just 0.23 W/m2K. The project also accomplished Y-Values between 0.05 and 0.06 as well as an air tightness of three.

What do these projects tell us are key ingredients to education project success? Firstly, one of the critical factors to education projects is speed of build. There can be serious implications for missed construction deadlines. Terms times and semesters are non-negotiable and the facilities must be ready for students returning from the summer recess.

Secondly, energy efficiency and sustainability are becoming increasingly important to the sector. As regulations require education construction to adhere to increased sustainability standards, the best way of ‘future-proofing’ projects is by building them to the highest efficiency standards possible now, through the build fabric.

Finally, which links to the previous point, cost is possibly the highest issue on the industry’s agenda. Delivering ambitious projects at a price the increasingly stretched education sector can afford is imperative to universities’, colleges’, and schools’ requirements.

With budgets under pressure, delivering a high quality, energy efficient structure on time and, perhaps most importantly, on budget, is going to be the challenge of the future. Employing a fabric first approach, particularly when using timber frame systems in construction as the examples of Plymouth, Essex, and Bradford universities demonstrate, is one the best ways of achieving this.

Homes For Scotland Home Builders Federation National House-Building Council Royal Institute of British Architects Structural Timber Association Timber Research and Development Association Constructionline British Board of Agrement Wood Campus Build Off Site Building Research Establishment WOOD FOR GOOD

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