If sustainability is on the National Curriculum, isn't it about time it became a central tenet of the government's schoolbuilding programmes?

There is no shortage of agreement on the need to tackle the causes and effects of climate change. Government and business appear to vie for the honour of being the most successful at talking up their image. So far the rhetoric has been outstanding, but real action has been isolated to a few notable individuals and organisations.

What is needed is a large-scale demonstration project, one that extends across the country and has an impact on, and can be visited and well understood by, communities and individuals everywhere. The project needs a client committed to the long-term interest of the country and the environment, and one that is prepared to show leadership and foresight. It is at moments such as this that one's thoughts turn, as if propelled by some unseen source, to the government's ambitious schools programme.

The combined Building Schools for the Future and city academies programmes, and the incipient primary school programmes for rebuilding and renovating the whole of the schools estate are a remarkable thing. They are also an opportunity to achieve a number of essential objectives:

  • To develop robust and low-cost ways of designing and building low or zero-carbon buildings at a volume that can achieve the necessary economies of scale to be affordable.
  • To demonstrate to the widest possible community of people that the government is serious, is prepared to lead by example and that it really is possible to build well, build sustainably and respond effectively to climate change.
  • To reach schoolchildren and show them how a building responds to energy needs and changing climate conditions while staying comfortable, functioning well, and without costing the earth.
All this is well enough understood. In the Department for Education and Skills' Building Bulletin 95, Schools for the Future - Designs for Learning Communities, published in 2002, it states: "As buildings last a long time, it is important that they be of a sustainable design. Sustainability is both an environmental and social aim, and should be considered throughout the building process.

"The complete building can be a lesson in sustainability for the building's users - sustainability is now part of the National Curriculum - and the public."

The schools programme is the major opportunity for a government, which has been talking the talk, to take the lead and help everyone to come to terms with the true implications of building sustainably. But at present all schools projects are only required to achieve a "very good" rating under the BREEAM schools specific methodology, which combines data on management, health and well being, energy, transport, water, materials, land use, ecology, and pollution. This requires a minimum score of 55 out of a possible 100. It wouldn't be unreasonable to expect at least the "excellent" score (more than 70 out of a 100) on schemes with such flagship potential.

But perhaps we shouldn't be too worried about achieving the highest reaches of BREEAM and instead go for a much simpler target such as reducing energy consumption and carbon dioxide output. The greater question is: "What would it take to make our new school buildings carbon neutral?"

At present all schools projects are only required to achieve a ‘very good’ rating under the BREEAM schools specific methodology

Admittedly very few carbon-neutral schemes have been achieved so far and most have only got there as a result of extraordinary perseverance and determination on the part of their progenitors and users. But if major businesses are busily announcing that they are henceforth to be carbon neutral, as they are - albeit initially only by carbon offsetting - then surely it must be a worthwhile target for our schools estate.

Part of the solution will be energy-efficient buildings with simple and robust building management systems, good user management and extensive monitoring of the results. The construction industry knows how to do this, even if some of the outcomes have been less successful than promised, and serious commitment is still needed from all parties if it is to be achieved.

But as we do more, the better we can get at it; developing new and rediscovering old techniques to keep buildings comfortable.

The other side of the solution is the potential for generating on-site energy, something that school buildings and sites are fairly well appointed for. At the very least, the capacity for future energy generation should be included.

The challenge of designing schools premises that achieve all of this, as well as some inspiring spaces for learning, could even lead to some worthwhile architecture.

A future article will attempt to address in greater detail what it will take to make this happen. In the meantime all of us are in need of a little education. We need to find out what it would take to build mainstream buildings that are as near to zero-carbon as dammit. We need to go back to school.