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What if… schools paved the way to Net Zero?

Discover how evolution in the design and build of schools will help to enrich future generations and protect the planet.



In order to meet rising demand for school places nationwide, the Department for Education (DfE) aims to build up to 200 new schools in the UK each year.

Given that schools are where we spend our most formative years, learning not only what lies within our textbooks, but about who we are, how we see the world and what we want our future to be, it would be ideal if our schools were designed to aid our overall growth.

Construction Innovation Hub (the Hub) has been working alongside the DfE to research and develop ways in which the design and construction of schools can evolve so they meet the needs of a zero carbon future, are more adaptable and agile spaces, are more cost-effective to maintain and positively impact upon the pupils and staff who inhabit them. If schools adapt to ‘GenZero’, they can pave the way for an entirely net zero social infrastructure.

The need

The DfE aims to build up to 200 new schools in the UK each year through new builds and repurposing existing buildings. With the climate crisis growing ever more urgent, it’s imperative that construction keeps sustainability front of mind if we’re to have any chance of slowing the impact.

In 2020 Government launched the landmark Construction Playbook, in which it commits to using its considerable buying power to help steer construction on a greener, more sustainable path. As a result of this evolution, the Department for Education has an ambitious target of sustainability for the next generation of school builds in the UK.

For current and future generations who will likely have to make significant lifestyle adaptations in order to live with the ongoing effects of climate change, designing and building learning environments that are sustainable and carbon net positive will help support them with any adaptations needed, without compromising on the standard of education and pastoral care they receive.



UK-wide with initial focus on two developments

The solution

The Hub is collaborating with the DfE to explore how a platform approach to the design of manufacture and assembly for school buildings can help to reimagine the next generation of secondary schools in England, enabling them to achieve the ‘GenZero’ ambition of zero carbon schools. Schools that are both better for the environment and for learning.

Funded by the UK Government, this project brings together a unique blend of expertise from across the industry, including Lyall Bill & Young Architects, Mott McDonald, Cundall, Smith & Wallwork, and Ares LA, who all share a common aspiration for sustainable progress in construction.

Research strongly suggests that by standardising the design, materials and assembly of schools the DfE will be able to build sustainably at scale, ensuring that they meet their target for new builds whilst maintaining a high level of quality, overall efficiency rating and a reduction in ongoing maintenance costs. The platform approach helps to design out common failures and inefficiencies meaning that schools, as vital resources to the social infrastructure can achieve greater consistency of outcomes and will avoid the likes of emergency closures during term times due to urgent maintenance needs. Schools need to be resilient and with the ongoing influences from climate change, they need to be highly adaptable.

The Hub is also using this opportunity to explore how this approach could be successfully applied to other social infrastructure environments, including the likes of Ministry of Defence buildings, healthcare centres and prisons. The use of high quality, sustainable, low carbon, standardised elements will benefit the future construction and usage of a wide variety of public buildings with a wide variety of usage. The more the public sector can lead by example with sustainable and mindful design and construction, the more the private and commercial sectors will follow.

Not only will GenZero schools use natural and sustainable materials to improve their impact on the environment, the introduction of carbon sinks into the design (e.g. timber structural elements, planting trees on site, green common spaces etc) will also aid the learning process and improve the mental/emotional health of pupils and staff. GenZero focuses on the user experience of the building as much as its construction. Elements of biophilic design principles – drawing nature into the built space and creating greater opportunities to interact with it through the varying senses – helps to lower stress and anxiety, improve the mood and overall health and wellbeing of the building’s inhabitants.

The DfE has identified two sites for proof of concept school builds. One in a densely populated urban environment (city of Birmingham), the other in a more suburban area with acres of green space surrounding (Crawley, West Sussex). The collective ambition of the Hub and DfE, along with other partners, is to construct two schools, based on identical briefs in terms of pupil numbers and facilities needed, and demonstrate how adaptable, cost effective and easy to maintain a school built using a platform approach to the design for manufacture and assembly can be.



  • Cost savings of public fund;
  • Creating a carbon net-positive building model;
  • Setting the benchmark for public sector buildings;
  • More resilient and adaptable buildings that are fit for purpose;
  • Improved efficiencies and lifecycles of built assets;
  • Reduced waste and time spent on projects;
  • Improved operational performance of buildings through alignment with user needs;
  • Using biophilic design elements to improve end user health and wellbeing as well as having a positive impact on the environment; and
  • Knowledge sharing and promotion of collaborative problem-solving.

What's next?

Still in the research phase, the Hub is helping to build the case for GenZero and the use of a platform approach to design for manufacture and assembly with the DfE so that the proof of concept schools are realised. The next step will be to ensure that the standard of the schools is such that they are deemed a success and used as a benchmark for further school builds and other public sector buildings.

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