Conditions to be imposed on PFI contracts as post-occupancy research shows schools failing on sustainability

The government is set to impose more stringent contractual conditions on its PFI schools contractors, with those that deliver schools that do not meet required environmental performance standards paid less, Building has learnt.

The move comes as an in-depth Department for Education-commissioned post-occupancy evaluation (POE) of schools built under the previous government, obtained by Building, revealed that all but one of the 25 schools evaluated failed to meet the required PFI benchmark in practice. This sets a standard at which contractors are paid, but is currently only measured at design stage.

Building understands the government is now planning to ensure that under its Priority Schools Building Programme (PSBP), expected to come to market in September after a six-month delay, the government will implement post-occupancy checks on energy use, with contractors paid for actual performance in use of the schools. Currently, no such checks are undertaken.

“If environmental performance of the new building doesn’t meet the required standard, they will be paid less,” an insider said.

Simon Lucas, EC Harris head of education, said the move was a “good step forward” but would need to be implemented “with care”. “There are many factors that contribute to poor energy performance in use and contractors must not be punished if the problem is that windows are being left open,” he said.

Schools failing on sustainability

Of the 25 schools evaluated in the POE report, obtained by Building, 36% were judged to be ‘unsatisfactory’ in terms of their sustainability, 40% rated as a ‘pass’ and 24% were rated ‘very good’, with an analysis of the schools energy consumption revealing that most were performing poorly against benchmarks, especially in terms of heating (for full details see file attached, right).

“Excluding one well performing school, none of the evaluated schools reached the equivalent of the PFI benchmark. Heating caused the biggest concern as the discrepancy between actual energy use and the benchmark was the greatest”.

It said heating was “by far the largest part of energy demand”, in comparison to electricity, which it said was “worrying”. “It is the reverse trend of what has been seen recently in schools with low energy consumption where the heating component plays a much smaller part of the total energy consumption due to better performance of the building fabric and seasonal control of the heating system,” it said.

The report said poor energy performance was particularly the case for secondary schools, where all but one was consuming between 200% and 400% more than the DfE’s energy benchmarks - with an average across the schools of 280% more.

It said the variation in energy cost between the school using the least energy and the school using the most energy was as high as £85,000 per year, the cost of a member of the senior teaching staff.

The report also found that, although all of the schools had Display Energy Certificates (DECs) - a way of showing the energy efficiency of a building - 37% of the DECs were not current, but were for the school prior to being rebuilt or refurbished.

It added that the majority of the schools had a D rating, against a PFI payment mechanism benchmark of B.

The report also found that, although the schools were registered for BREEAM certification for their design and construction, just three had completed their post-construction BREEAM certification, despite the majority of the schools being open for more than a year.

It said all of the schools evaluated were built to meet the minimum standards of the 2006 Part L requirements of the Building Regulations, but “it was questionable that the minimum standards were being achieved”.

The report said: “Buildings should perform better and much more sustainably than they do currently … [the] building performance is often poor compared to the original design intent.”

‘Not surprising, but disappointing’

The report said the high energy use was “often due to over-designed systems requiring precision management, a skill the schools did not have”.

It said: “The construction industry has often been guilty of designing school buildings that are too complex for their users, leaving a gap between the expectations of the designers and constructors and the ability of the users to run the buildings and their systems”.

“Energy consumption and environmental operation in school buildings are not at all well understood by many building managers and users, and many schools are neither aware of their level of energy and consumption, nor whether this is higher than might be expected”.

But it said a “little effort” expended on review of energy consumption in a school “can reveal how users and managers can be helped to reduce energy consumption and improve internal conditions”.

Architect Robin Nicholson, chairman of the previous government’s Zero Carbon Schools Task Force, said he was “not surprised” by the findings on the sustainability of the schools, but said it was “disappointing”.

“We need to learn why it was - the really shocking bit is that the heating is so high - heating should not really be an issue in a school today. It’s over heating that is the issue.”

Nicholson said the complexity of the building systems was a large part of the problem. “The building controls are designed by engineers for engineers but are used by people - or in other word they’re not used because nobody can understand what they are. So heating is left on when nobody is there. If you don’t get the controls working properly its money and carbon down the drain.”

He said simple and low cost measures, such as ensuring schools adhered to the DEC regulations and installing smart meters in schools could make a real difference.

But he said education secretary Michael Gove’s move to cancel the implementation of the recommendations of the Zero Carbon Taskforce, such as the installation of smart energy meters in 8,200 schools around the country - which the government cancelled after 3,000 had been installed - had “undermined the green mission”.

“It’s something that has a relatively minor cost but the impact is huge,” he said.

Nicholson added: “We know that they’ve been some really good schools built -and we know there’ve been some really excellent low energy schools built - but in order to benefit from those we need to study them and have the [POE] results published. And we need to study the ones that don’t work and understand why they don’t work.”

For more on the sustainability failings see Tom Lane’s blog here.

For an overview of the design review findings of the post-occupancy report see here.

Tomorrow Building will publish the full recommendations of the report - and the report itself.