Building a ‘fossil-free’ school

Written by: Matthew Shotton | Published:
Fossil-free: Glebe Farm School in Milton Keynes (image: supplied)

A new school build? Powered only by clean, community-led renewable energy? Matthew Shotton describes an ambitious project to build a fossil-free all-through school

At the start of this school year Glebe Farm School opened its doors to 250 children, a number that will eventually rise to more than 1,530. As an all-through school, children can enter at Reception and stay all the way through to year 11.

Our school is Milton Keynes’ first fossil-free new-build school and was funded by Milton Keynes City Council. This article outlines what we set out to achieve, how we went about it, changes made on the way, and our “lessons learned” for other schools.

The plan

Our vision for the children and young people we teach, their parents and carers, and the wider communities we support, is to deliver an exceptional 21st century, comprehensive and universal all-through learning experience.

The build was designed to be inspirational and a key part of the strategies of both the Inspiring Futures through Learning multi-academy trust and Milton Keynes City Council, which is working towards school estates that practically demonstrate environmental sustainability.

Since 2015 the council has opened six new schools and expanded 22 others. It is on track, as part of its MK Futures 2050 strategy, to be carbon neutral by 2030 and carbon negative by 2050, and in each case planners, architects and builders have aimed to have a positive impact on the environment by using good designs and greener technologies.

The whole site was designed to have a minimal impact on the environment. Glebe Farm School is gas free, with air source heat pumps (ASHPs) used instead. The ASHP system is set up to provide continued heating and hot water if any of the units fail – we have five systems in total – and there is no back-up access to fossil fuels. All lighting comes from efficient LEDs while hundreds of solar panels generate power.

We began in February 2020 with a target of being “in” for the start of the 2022/23 school year.

How we did it

From day one of the project, there was close collaboration between Milton Keynes City Council as the commissioners of the school, IFtL as the appointed MAT to run the school, and the developers at Morgan Sindall Construction.

Together we created a vision for a fully integrated all-through school (under one roof) while considering how the sustainable credentials would be maximised during the build and during operation.

Many of the recommended green building processes were immediately underway during construction. This included using alternative and renewable power sources for the equipment and temporary set-up. This was accomplished by using a solar powered generator, powered through 32 photovoltaic (PV) panels, to provide clean, off-grid energy for the site’s cabins, canteen, toilets and CCTV.

For those less sunny days, the generator used bio-fuel Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO) instead of diesel, emitting 90% less. HVO only creates 0.195kg of CO2 instead of the 2.68kg created when burning red diesel. A solar-powered PV boot wash and electric charging car parking spaces were also installed.

The most significant eco-friendly move was the decision to remove the school from the gas grid, with all the heating provided instead by renewable energy via roof mounted ASHPs. The Committee on Climate Change has stated that carbon emissions can be up to 90% lower for a house and 80% lower for a naturally ventilated office when using ASHPs instead of gas.

However, this did present an unusual conundrum as typically every science lab will require gas-powered Bunsen burners. To solve this issue, the council installed electric Bunsen burners!

Integrating underfloor heating (UFH) into the school’s ground floor slab provided an energy efficient heating method while saving time when compared to using a sand and cement screed. The way UFH heats an entire space from the ground up means that heat is used more efficiently compared to traditional methods such as radiators.

In operation, renewable power became an ever more prominent part of the project, with the number of solar panels increasing and with six electric charging points added to the car park. When it came to the components used to construct the school, the Green Guide for building materials was consulted to inform sustainable specification choices, which included choosing PVC-free hoarding over traditional hoarding – 360 metres of carbon neutral hoarding was installed around the site, saving 12 tons of carbon.

Morgan Sindall worked closely with us to ensure the school’s design would continue to effectively minimise emissions during day-to-day use. A key way this has been achieved is by designing a building envelope with very low air permeability to retain heat and reduce the energy required to warm the classrooms.

While regulations state that schools should meet an air leakage rate of 5m3/hm2 – our school benefits from a rate of only 3m3/hm2..

Externally, the school’s grounds were made to be green in more ways than one. Not only will 840 saplings donated by the Woodland Trust be planted, but all the mulch and topsoil will be reused instead of being moved, preventing any transport emissions. The levels of the school’s ground were carefully redesigned and raised to accommodate this additional material. In operation, this now saves 40 tons of CO2 each year.

Five top tips

Have clarity on vision and purpose: Be clear on what you are trying to achieve. With such a project there is always the danger you bite off more than you can chew. Be focused. When developing the school we ensured that the plans were shaped with sustainability in mind. Now that we are in we feel that our current efforts around reducing food waste, and through our allotments having a “seed to plate” ethos, is enough to focus on initially. Anything more becomes unmanageable. We are, however, also involved in the Let’s Go Zero campaign which unites schools working to become carbon neutral by 2023.

Live your ethos through purchasing: Considering the environmental credentials of suppliers and contractors and their willingness to work with us in our values has been paramount. For example, when procuring furniture we would speak to people who had a shared vision on sustainability, and in buying every child an iPad from year 2 upwards we are moving towards being a paperless school. That was not possible to put in place immediately, but where we can, we will make those changes over time. This practice will continue and so far there have been no barriers to procurement where potential suppliers are responding in full to this part of our scope.

Sustainability in the curriculum: We are a sustainable school. That was part of our interview process with staff, as we have a duty of care to educate children on the impact we are having on the world. As school leaders and teachers, we are all busy and understand the pressures in terms of the curriculum timetable, but we need to teach children to be good citizens. Sustainability as a whole feature runs through our curriculum – we talk about it a lot; it is central of everything. Personally, I do not get it right every day (nobody does), but I want to be a role model and champion.

Small steps also make a difference: Not everyone is able to build a new fossil-free school. But it is possible for older schools, with older buildings, to work towards sustainability if there is a cultural drive. One example may be transferring lights to LEDs, or ensuring lights are turned off when a room is not in use. Children are often the best advocates, but you need staff to work together and take the lead, initially on the small changes they want to make. Even for us it is small steps. For example, we have worked out that the best time to charge iPads is noon, giving us the chance to utilise the power in our solar panels.

Have a back-up plan: We designed into the project plan a back-up, denoting areas of the school we needed as priority to be able to open even if others would not be quite complete. However, the vast majority of the works were finished for opening day. We worked with Morgan Sindall to ensure early access was available in key areas to allow set up for the children arriving, while a small portion of the school continued with some end-of-project snagging works. This was still a bit tighter than planned but the openness of the teams and the common spirit to ensure we were all working for the same aims and recognising each other’s needs was the secret to success.

  • Matthew Shotton is headteacher of Glebe Farm School, part of the Inspiring Futures through Learning (IFtL) multi-academy trust.

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