Assessment tool takes on specialist university sector with the aim of redefining environmental standards for demanding clients and users, explains Joe Croft.
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has launched a new environmental assessment tool for the higher education sector to provide a benchmark for the interior fit-out and refurbishment of learning spaces in the UK.
Ska, the RICS environmental assessment tool, offers schemes for offices and retail environments, but until now it hasn’t been able to measure the specialist spaces of universities such as lecture theatres, research laboratories and teaching spaces.
Added to this, the demand from students for sustainable environments that have minimal environmental impact is huge.
Research has found that a majority of students or prospective students are interested in knowing the sustainable credentials of their universities. Equally, a large portion of this demographic either doesn’t know or doesn’t believe that their universities even supply these.
We can see that this growing interest from students is becoming vital to the cycle of fit-out in the higher education sector.
The launch of Ska for higher education brings not only a new set of benchmarks for contractors but also huge opportunities for universities, giving them the chance to gain an advantage over their competitors while driving improvements in the lifecycle of their spaces.
While there has been a significant take-up of Ska for offices among universities including University College London, City University, University of Liverpool and the London School of Economics, the most common feedback was that the existing Ska schemes didn’t always reflect the specific needs of educational facilities.
This is because a lot of the university buildings across the UK are structured around older buildings that were created when these establishments first started. There’s often a sense of tradition with higher education facilities and the same can’t be said for office spaces, where we see a lot more new build or entirely refurbished buildings.
“One particular element we expect to be difficult for contractors will be waste management, with a significant change in the reuse and diversion from landfill requirements”
The ability to fit out these historical spaces comes with a whole new set of challenges, especially when it comes to sustainable practice. Ska for higher education has been designed by the industry, for the industry, to better reflect the requirements of these types of fit-outs and refurbishments, in order to meet sustainable good practice.
The tool is made up of 131 good practice measures (GPMs) and only assesses against the criteria that relate to that particular project. In comparison to BREEAM, which assesses all credits regardless, the Ska tool is much more ‘scope-able’, making Ska for higher education good for projects of all types, sizes and complexities.
Ska for higher education also challenges good practice within the sector, rather than just trying to meet the current industry standards. It requires measures to have a minimum benchmark level of ‘good’ practice, yet still targets ‘best’ practice.
For some measures, ‘good’ can be a relatively easy performance level to define, whereas for others it’s much more difficult. This is certainly a challenge that will come up while we learn to adjust.
One particular element we expect to be difficult for contractors will be waste management, with a significant change in the reuse and diversion from landfill requirements.
More benefits for all
As part of the Ska for higher education development committee, we at Overbury engaged with a number of top higher education institutions through regular meetings, reviews, workshops and a final consultation period.
Each area of the sector has been considered while setting benchmarks for assessing what good looks like. This means that the scheme can be used for anything from design and construction to providing guidance on the actual processes or how to deal with any specific higher education issues.
Other benefits of the new scheme include training, which has become much easier for subcontractors.
With higher education facilities, there are generally a different set of specialist contractors and capabilities required. Accordingly, as each GPM focuses on one issue, the majority will fall onto only the most relevant party, streamlining the process and allocating specific ownership and individual responsibility.
“Positively impacting the local areas where we work holds huge sustainable value across a multitude of sectors, not just higher education”
This makes it easy to identify what part of the supply chain is accountable for what aspect of the project, rather than having a system with credits that require input from several different subcontractors at any one time.
Looking at the Social Value Act (2012), there’s now a GPM that requires projects to have specific proportionate social, economic and environmental plans with relevant actions. We see this as a great step forward for the industry and hope that this becomes commonplace in the private sector.
Having a positive impact on the local areas in which we work gives huge value across a multitude of sectors, not just higher education.
As with the previous Ska assessment tool, project managers will undergo a more challenging process, as they will be responsible for overseeing the total number of GPMs being used.
We need to ensure each project manager has the relevant training and knowledge of the tool, especially as the GPMs will be different from those on an office or retail site. If designing a laboratory, for example, it’s important to have a basic understanding of those requirements in order to manage standards.
New mindset for contractors
Projects targeting a Ska for higher education rating will find waste GPMs challenging, with stricter measures on what constitutes compliance.
There is a greater focus on resource efficiency and reuse – more so than the traditional approach, which considers the diversion from landfill rate. This will require a new mindset for many contractors and wider project teams.
However, a significant amount of today’s university buildings are out of date in terms of the materials used to build and furnish them. There’s a debate emerging around what to do with material that cannot actually be re-used or recycled, as well as how we define this clearly.
Requirements from manufacturers have also changed and this usually causes a delay until that particular group catches up. Manufacturers using statements such as ‘Ska compliant’ will require additional clarification as, while this may be true for the offices scheme, it may not be true for the higher education scheme. This is another detail that will require attention to avoid confusion further down the supply chain.
The future of best practice
The Ska for higher education scheme is raising the bar for this sector and, although we’re still adapting, the industry has already proven it can rise to these types of challenges.
Contractors are known to be good at meeting targets and, with clients being one of the key supporters of the scheme, they will adjust quickly and successfully.
Collaboration and knowledge sharing are crucial parts of Ska for higher education’s progress.
As well as the training we provide internally, Overbury’s environmental team, alongside the Ska for higher education development committee, is engaging with higher education clients to offer them the same introductory exercise.
We’re planning on hosting a number of Ska for higher education events across the UK that will help raise awareness and share the lessons we’ve learned already.
Joe Croft is head of environmental and sustainability at Overbury and Morgan Lovell