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How do we reach the governments targets for Net Zero Carbon in Operation in Schools

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

In 2021 the UK Government launched yet another school building programme, one that aims to construct more than 500 new schools and refurbish existing ones, with a focus on sustainable construction practices and achieving Net Zero Carbon in Operation (NZCiO). The School Rebuilding Programme (SRP) is a response to the growing demand for more schools as the population increases, a need to repair/replace existing school buildings and the need to address the climate crisis by reducing carbon emissions in the built environment.


To find out more about how the Department of Education (DfE) are tackling NZCiO we recently attended the Education Estates Net Zero Conference at The London School of Economics. Key take aways from the conference included:

  • The immediate need to focus on energy reduction to address rising energy costs while progressing towards net zero carbon emissions

  • Developing a clear plan to understand where an organisation stands from an energy and carbon perspective and to move forward with initiatives that save money and reduce carbon

  • The challenge of achieving net zero carbon emissions holistically, including embodied carbon during construction, operation, and decommissioning will become increasingly a priority for the department, contractors and schools.

  • Understanding the scale of the challenge by assessing where the embodied carbon is in a typical school and evolving school construction to reduce its overall carbon footprint is still in its infancy but our industry needs to get to grips with it sooner, rather than later.

  • How to balance short term requirements (i.e costs) with a longer-term net zero strategy

  • We need to develop and deliver strategies and approaches for achieving net zero with existing estates and designing/delivering net zero new builds



In our role as Technical Design Advisors (TDA) to the Department of Education (DfE) we are witnessing first hand how this challenge is being managed by the department and the main contractor cohort that have the responsibility to deliver the new schools to the challenging output specification.


Net Zero Carbon in operation is an important component of the school building programme because buildings are responsible for a significant proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions. In the UK, buildings account for around 40% of total carbon emissions, with schools contributing to this figure. Achieving Net Zero Carbon in operation means that a building's energy use is balanced with the amount of renewable energy generated on-site or purchased from off-site sources (hopefully not the latter). This is achieved through a combination of energy-efficient design, renewable energy generation, and energy storage.


school feasibility study, NZCiO, Net Zero School, DfE, Department for Education
WR-AP Feasibility masterplan for The King Edmund Secondary School - 2025

The UK government's school building programme in 2023 includes several measures to achieve Net Zero Carbon in operation. One of these measures is the implementation of energy-efficient design principles. This involves using high-performance building materials and technologies, such as increased u-values/insulation, double and sometimes triple glazing, and efficient mechanical ventilation systems, to reduce energy consumption. The programme also includes the installation of renewable energy generation systems, such as solar panels and PV’s, on-site or off-site, to offset the remaining energy use. Finally, energy storage systems, such as on site batteries are also being investigated, alongside packaged plant solutions.


Contractors on the UK government's School buildings: construction framework 2021 play a crucial role in achieving the targets for Net Zero Carbon in operation. The framework requires contractors to meet specific sustainability criteria, such as having a detailed sustainability plan and using sustainable materials and technologies in their construction projects. Contractors must also demonstrate their commitment to reducing carbon emissions through their use of energy-efficient practices and renewable energy sources.


To achieve the targets for Net Zero Carbon in operation, contractors must adopt a holistic approach to sustainability in their construction projects. This means considering the entire lifecycle of the building, from design and construction to operation and maintenance. It also means engaging with stakeholders, such as building occupants, to ensure that the building meets their needs and is sustainable in the long term. In our experience this consultation process is critical to ensuring that contractors leave behind systems that are easy to manage and maintain for school building managers once construction is complete.

One way that contractors are being able to achieve the targets for Net Zero Carbon in operation is by using a Building Information Modelling (BIM) approach – something that is a key requirement from the DfE.

MMC school layout, School feasibility plan
WR-AP - The King Edmund School Feasibility Plan laid out to meet MMC requirements

Another way that contractors can achieve the targets for Net Zero Carbon is by using off-site construction methods, better known as Modern Methods of Construction (MMC). Off-site construction involves building components of the school in a factory before transporting them to the construction site for assembly. This approach reduces waste, improves quality control, and reduces the amount of energy consumed during construction. Off-site construction can also reduce the time and cost of construction, making it an attractive option for contractors. All of the DfE schools that we undertake feasibility studies on are designed from the first principal that they will be constructed using MMC. This method ensure that the new schools are designed with an efficient grid in mind, so that modules and walls are aligned to maximize the efficiency of any MMC system.


Here are some technical design options that can be considered to achieve the UK government's plans to meet NZCiO targets in UK schools:



The specific measures adopted will depend on factors such as the size and location of the school, the available budget, and the local energy and transportation infrastructure. Its also worth considering the long term masterplan of a schools estate to establish what buildings might need to be replaced in the years leading up to 2050. This masterplan approach is something that we have investigated on the King Edmund School, where we have identified which buildings need to be replaced in the coming years whilst at the same time realigning the school layout so that a new collegiate masterplan can be provided.

net zero carbon, school feasibility, NZCiO
WR-AP Feasibility masterplan for The King Edmund Secondary School - 2050

In conclusion, the UK government's school building programme in 2023 is an important step towards achieving Net Zero Carbon in operation in the built environment. The programme includes several measures to reduce carbon emissions and increase sustainability in school buildings. Contractors on the UK government's School buildings: construction framework 2021 play a crucial role in achieving the targets for Net Zero Carbon in operation by adopting a holistic approach to sustainability in their construction projects. By using energy-efficient design principles, renewable energy generation, energy storage systems, BIM, and off-site construction methods, contractors can help to create sustainable, energy-efficient schools that benefit both the environment and future generations. The next challenge for the sector is understanding and reducing the embodied carbon within the schools estate.


If you’d like to find out more about WR-AP’s knowledge and experience in delivering truly sustainable education projects please get in touch with our director Sean Weston . sean.weston@wr-ap.com


This blog post has been written by Sean, one of the directors here at WR-AP . Sean's desire to work in an industry that could help people and society in a small way led him to pursue a career in architecture. You can read more about Sean here.



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