The current NSW government’s commitment to rebuilding and refurbishing schools across the state presents an extraordinary opportunity to improve how and where our children learn. While the $6 billion investment is great news for New South Wales, who is paying attention to the impact of this massive infrastructure rollout on our environment?

In 2018, the Government Architect NSW published the Environmental Design in Schools manual emphasising the critical importance of good environmental design. This design
manual aims to ‘provide school principals and school communities with a holistic understanding of environmental design. It presents strategies for passive design as opportunities for making positive, sustainable change in the building or running of a school.’ While this initiative is successful in shining a spotlight on sustainability in schools, it focuses primarily on the universal principles of environmental design and gives
pointers for reducing direct emissions from buildings once built.

It’s easy to convince ourselves that we’re doing a good job when sustainable design principles and practices are visible in our new and existing school buildings. We can see and measure the impact of solar panels, thermal efficiency and rainwater tanks. But are these more obvious solutions fooling us into thinking we’re really making a difference, and is it blinding us to the real issues and the real impact of infrastructure
roll out?

It is an underestimated fact that the highest percentage of emissions is created in the construction of buildings, not in running them. The built environment in Australia accounts for 25% of our country’s CO2 emissions; emissions during construction are responsible for anywhere between 10% and 97% of the whole of building lifecycle.

The benefits of refocusing our attention on reducing embodied emissions when building and refurbishing schools are twofold. Firstly, tackling embodied emissions is not dependent on ongoing building user behaviour; in schools it is dependent on the overloaded teaching and leadership team.
Secondly, savings made during the design and construction stage are delivered today, and so this is more impactful. Data shows that a kilogram of CO2 saved over the next five years has a far greater environmental value that a kilogram saved in 10 or more years’ time.

How often do we hear that building sustainably is expensive? Or worse, that sustainable design measures included in a project are the first to be abandoned under the guise of ‘value engineering’. In the UK, the government and construction industry have joined forces with the aim to not only halve emissions in the built environment over the next eight years, but also to reduce the cost of construction by one third by 2025. This flagship deal will see the government invest £170m (A$324m) over three years, with £250m (A$476m) coming from industry, to commercialise technologies capable of building energy-efficient, cost-effective public buildings and infrastructure. This forward-thinking approach and real commitment to industry-wide creativity has led to real gains in the reduction of emissions and also to new business opportunities
for further reducing impact and cost, and for creating differentiation.

A school building is arguably the largest and most visible physical artifact of school sustainability, and as such serves as a measure of our commitment to protecting the environment for our children. It is for all of us – whether we’re architects, policy makers, project or delivery managers – to pay more than just lip service in creating sustainable school environments for our children. Systems and professionals need to start promoting, actioning and delivering sustainable design in a way that those paying for school building projects understand its value.

As a profession architects must be frontrunners in driving change. Good cost effective and environmentally sound design can be the catalyst that inspires change. We need to demonstrate the business case for reducing embodied carbon and the cost advantage, as well as the benefit, to the environment. Architects, the Institute, publications and architecture schools should all promote exemplar projects that quash the
perception that considering embodied carbon adds cost and complexity to a project.

Finally, we need to promote better education and knowledge sharing, and engage with government and industry to action ideas that drive innovative outcomes for protecting the environment we seek to leave for our children. Winston Churchill once said, ‘We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us’. But he also said, ‘It is no use saying, “We are doing our best”. You have to succeed in doing what is necessary.’

The protection of the environment – with the importance of school buildings leading the way – is all our responsibility.