Heatwave: Keeping cool is a concern for the future too

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There is little schools can do to mitigate extreme weather without investment to make the estate more resilient, efficient and sustainable. Steven Reynolds, Partner shared his views with Schools Week.

With many schools ending the summer term and dealing with the impact of the country’s first extreme heat weather warning, it has been a challenging end to a full-on academic year. For those managing schools’ buildings and facilities, extreme heat layers are yet another pressure onto an already creaking system.  

As there are no current upper temperature limits to schools operating and senior leadership teams, quite rightly they are wanting to keep students in school if at all possible post-pandemic. Keeping buildings safe, cool and ventilated can be a real issue and with the forecast that our summers will get warmer due to climate change, dealing with these challenges may increasingly become the norm rather than isolated incidents.  

So, what can those managing school estates do to help beat the heat?   

Simple but important 

Some simple maintenance checks can help. A number of schools – particularly secondary – do have comfort cooling systems installed. Often though, these are not working properly and can be ineffective. Part of the problem is the fact that once the kit is installed, schools can be left without any manual or handover on how to maintain it. Learning how to maintain the equipment and crucially how to keep it balanced can make a real difference, and it’s a quick and easy win. Not only will it help keep the building and school community cool, but it will also help with energy efficiency and curb rising energy bills. 

Secondly, extreme heat can really impact building structures such as flat rooves. After extreme temperatures, it is worth checking for subsequent damage such as blistering or cracks that could be made worse in winter and cause a bigger, more expensive problem. Identifying such problems early will not only save money and prevent disruption, but it can also provide valuable evidence as part of any bids for building improvement funds. 

Longer-term planning 

The government has committed £1.8 billion in the 2022-23 financial year for maintaining and improving the school estate. With the advent of the first extreme heat weather warning, it will be interesting to see if keeping buildings cool and ventilated rises up the agenda as a priority for any of the upcoming funding streams. With the Department for Education’s focus on creating ‘a green, sustainable education estate that is resilient to the impacts of climate change’, it would make perfect sense.   

Often the improvement schemes schools are undertaking to make buildings ‘safe, warm and dry’ and this will conversely keep buildings cool in summer. For example, in new-build and extension designs, the use of carbon-friendly U-Value fabrics increases the energy efficiency and reduces heat gain. These fabrics are primarily used to insulate buildings to keep heat in, but the thermal properties also help keep heat out and therefore buildings cool. 

Adopting innovation comes at a cost 

At heart, we need to start thinking about decarbonisation and about improving the state of the facilities for students and staff as one and the same agenda, and making use of technological innovations that deliver both. With increasing summer temperatures, the use of solar panels may well become more of a realistic and sustainable option to energy provision. Other options include innovative green technologies like ground heat pumps which take the heat or the cold from the ground to maintain the consistent temperature of a building.  

These are clearly longer-term objectives that need planning and financing from already squeezed budgets, but they are absolutely the type of projects that should fit the criteria of the government’s decarbonisation schemes.   

And here, of course, is the rub. There are some things schools and trusts can do, but ultimately central government must make more funding available through streams such as the Condition Improvement Fund, decarbonisation schemes like SCA and Salix PSDS, and the much-promised levelling up agenda. 

That’s what will really make the difference for the school estate and keep our students and their teachers “safe, dry, warm”… and cool too.