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News - September/October 2018

ANALYSIS: Wales leads the way with quality and sustainability

The Welsh Government’s 21st Century Schools is a long-term strategic investment in schools, with the first band of funding totalling £1.4 bn. Jessica Taylor of the architect. Architype analyses the thinking behind the move and highlights one of the programme’s first fruits.

In every walk of life, it stands to reason that you get what you pay for. Quality comes at a price and it’s hard to think of a single example where you pay less and get more.

When it comes to construction, this rule prevails; perhaps to an even greater extent, with industry suppliers grappling at the unpatrolled loopholes of construction stages to claw back profits from tender prices cut to the bone to win contracts.

You don’t have to look far to see the results of the shortfall in quality. It’s in repeat offenders like your empty community centre that was never fit for purpose; it’s your local school that was only built ten years ago but needs refurbishing; and most tragically may have been a driver in the material swops at Grenfell Tower.

There have been rumbles in the industry for a long time about the need for change, for a different culture, for integrity and for making better decisions that are for the good of the project, not just for the bottom line.

Denial of this has seen some hard hits and some big losses in the last year; and with the downward trajectory of skilled workforce in the UK, the picture isn’t going to get any rosier unless the industry begins to re-evaluate delivery options.

The sad reality of all of this is that the real losers are the end user, the occupier, the pupils, the tax payer.

One group of professionals are looking to take a step forward in changing this.

The inspiration came from a call to action by Welsh Government for the private sector to streamline and standardise school delivery, maximising investment under the 21st Century schools funding programme. To explain in brief, 21st Century Schools is a long-term strategic investment in Welsh educational estates, the largest of its kind since the 1960’s, with the first band of funding totalling £1.4 bn. The sum is significant, and the programme put a spotlight on Wales, with major players from all over the UK peering over the border at neighbouring opportunities.

In line with maximising investment, a requirement to promote sustainability, reduce running costs, energy consumption and carbon emissions featured highly. The brief from Welsh Government was simple and made sense, but there was a hump in the road. They wanted quality, they wanted sustainability, but not for a premium - they wanted it for less.

Welsh construction company Dawnus were immersed in delivering schools under the programme when the call for a new approach came. They knew that to stand apart in this competitive market would require more than just a tick box exercise. It required new thinking and an evidence-based approach to win the trust of local authority clients, who had grown numb to the parade of false promise.

Dawnus observed that quality and sustainability were essentially one and the same if fully embraced. They knew that they needed a team that could uphold that vision, which is where conversations with architectural practice, Architype began.

Architype are well known as UK leaders in sustainable architecture, and in particular their promotion of Passivhaus, the world’s highest performing environmental standard . Through discussions with Architype, a model for Passivhaus standard delivery began to take shape. As experienced practitioners, they knew that the standard held the key to delivering the quality and sustainable credentials that 21st Century Schools demanded, and that with the right team this could be realised within a standard school budget.

As Associate Director at Architype, Lee Fordham, explained; ‘The thing that makes Passivhaus affordable is that unlike other environmental standards, it doesn’t require additional components, like solar panels for example, that cost money to install and maintain. It simplifies the building form and fabric to make it efficient, becoming less complex and reducing delivery costs. The building is robust and the buildings perform exactly as designed.”

Convinced by the Passivhaus approach, Architype and Dawnus recruited international engineers WSP, whose Cardiff office embraced development of a sustainable model. All three companies had extensive experience of delivering quality and innovation in the education sector. This partnership of like-minded, forward-thinking, industry professionals resulted in the development of Patrwm 21, a standardised approach to delivering high quality Passivhaus schools in Wales. “Patrwm” is Welsh Language for “pattern”; “21” is of course a reference to the 21st Century schools funding programme.

The concept, like all good ones, was simple in its offering; quality assurance at competitive cost. The Passivhaus element was a big tick for sustainability, but the Patrwm 21 team realised that to convince others of their vision, the model needed not just to be about metrics, but about people. The inspiration for a people-focus came from the Welsh Government’s Well-being of Future Generations Act 2015. The act requires public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with people, communities and each other, and to make a long-lasting, positive change to current and future generations.

The Patrwm 21 model aspires to contribute to each of the seven well-being goals set by the Future Generations Team. The Future Generations and Wellbeing Act posed the following challenges, which the Patrwm 21 team have interpreted in the following way;

  • A Prosperous Wales - The ultra-low running costs of a Passivhaus school saves tens of thousands of pounds every year, freeing-up school budgets for the things that really matter.
  • A Resilient Wales - Quality Passivhaus accredited design and build is quality that is locked into the building. It continues to perform to the same high standard and does not weaken over time.
  • A Healthier Wales - Optimised temperatures for learning and low CO2 concentrations guarantee comfortable classrooms in both summer and winter, helping pupils to perform.
  • A More Equal Wales - Believing that every child has the right to a high quality learning environment that supports them in their learning is why an affordable, standardised solution stacks-up.
  • A Wales of Cohesive Communities - Working with the future users to discover their aspiration for the new schools where they live and developing facilities for the whole community within the school plan.
  • A Wales of thriving Welsh Culture - to date 80% of Patrwm 21 Schools are Welsh medium schools, with an aim to inspire young people in learning their national language, surrounded by locally sourced Welsh materials.
  • A Globally Responsible Wales - Unlike other energy standards that aim to offset carbon, Passivhaus reduces energy usage in the first instance. The core strategy is supported by responsible construction methods.

“In terms of a pattern, or a standardised approach, there are only really two core things that remain the same” said Andrew Cross, co-founder of Patrwm 21 and Dawnus Design Manager. “It’s the team and it’s the Passivhaus design and construction methodology.”

“We could have gone further with that of course,” said Cross, “but by interrogating the model, we realised there was no need to do so.”

Cross explained that because the Passivhaus standard involves such a rigorous approach, that becomes the constant element - the “pattern” - and enables the rest of the design to be flexible, because every school is different, with different methods of teaching, different geographies, and different intake.

The consistency in the team is of equal importance. “Passivhaus isn’t difficult once you know what you are doing” remarked Cross, “but there is no doubt that it is requires a different mindset, and there is a steep learning curve. We knew that to bring the standard in on budget, we couldn’t afford to be losing money through an inefficient design and build process; that is why the team is an integral part of ‘The Pattern’.”

This Pattern approach allows efficient bespoke solution. This not only enables it to easily meet the individual needs of each school, but can be applied to other building types. The P21 team are planning to offer Patrwm21 to different sectors in the future, such as housing and other public use community buildings.

Since the launch of Patrwm 21 back in 2016, the model has gained kudos in the realisation of two new schools in Carmarthenshire, Ysgol Trimsaran, which has now completed its first academic year in occupation; and Ysgol Parc y Tywyn which has recently handed over.

The client, Carmarthenshire County Council, provided the ideal opportunity for the P21 team to put the model in to practice. The council has been at the forefront of sustainable design in South West Wales for some years, in particular developing knowledge and testing the water with Passivhaus developments. Following some early success with this, their conviction in the standard has led to a legacy of sustainable design, and paved the way for further development. Having an informed client was the final piece of the jigsaw for the Patrwm 21 team.

The new Welsh language schools support 210 and 315 primary school pupils respectively, as well as dedicated “Flying Start” nursery accommodation. They both replace aged buildings, no longer fit for purpose in terms of size, comfort or quality.

Sharon Owen, Headteacher at Ysgol Trimsaran, commented: “Our new school is spacious, light and airy and has improved pupil’s pride and self-esteem. The temperature is constant thus improving concentration levels.” She also remarked that attendance had significantly improved since occupying the new school, with some parents reporting that children had become less reliant or stopped using inhalers.

With Ysgol Trimsaran now being occupied for a full year, the team have evidence that the model is working as predicted. Energy bills are down 75% over the year, compared to standard new build BREEAM Excellent rated schools.

The first two schools were within budget, but produced a small uplift in capital costs of approximately £100 sqm compared to the Welsh national average for conventional school buildings. This was justifiable for the client, of course, with energy bills being reduced so dramatically.

However, with a further two schools in the pipeline, this time with clients Powys County Council, the team have applied lessons learnt from the first projects to hone the design and construction process. The next two schools, which have recently begun on site are on course to break even with that Welsh benchmark of £1,250 sqm.

Patrwm 21’s most recent project is Ysgol Bro Hyddgen, an all-through school providing nursery to sixth-form teaching in Machynlleth. Despite the added complexities of designing for such a wide-ranging user group, the Patrwm 21 team are confident that the fifth-generation Passivhaus school will be completed below the Welsh national benchmark, proving how efficient team working and genuine collaboration can be.

This pledge is momentous. It could prove to be a landmark for sustainable construction, for which the UK market is well behind it’s European counterparts.

Patrwm 21 really is a rare case of less for more

There is a common assumption that any sustainable pursuit comes with a premium price tag. This needn’t be the case. Making eco-products and providing eco services can involve working differently, and stripping out complexity to reduce cost. We need to be more inquiring and demanding, so that initiatives like Patrwm 21 become a viable alternative in construction.

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