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Energy efficiency must be prioritised to tackle rising costs for schools

Schools are not insulated from the spike in energy prices, with many facing increasing cost pressures. Luckily, bills can be reduced by making smart retrofit decisions.

In our penultimate feature covering school maintenance and design Stewart Little, CEO of IRT Surveys, explains the why and how of data-driven retrofits for schools.
Following the 50% increase in energy prices in April, school budgets, like those of households and businesses across the UK, are stretched. Add another potential 50% energy price increase in October, and schools face crippling expenses.

In fact, despite assurances from the Department of Education that soaring energy bills would have a “relatively small impact” on schools, schools across the country are reporting that they’ve had to make cuts elsewhere.

According to a survey by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), schools are planning to foot rising energy bills by reducing investment in school equipment, reducing maintenance, reducing the number of teachers and teaching assistants, and reducing non-educational support and services for children.

Considering this, and with energy being the second-largest budget item for schools after staffing, investing in energy-saving solutions is becoming necessary. Add the fact that 60% of school buildings in the UK were built before the mid-seventies, with an estimated 72% of these expected to still be in use by 2050, and improving
energy efficiency in existing school buildings in an effort to reduce carbon emissions and ultimately fuel bills, is vital.

Retrofits have long been recognised as a solution to improving schools’ energy efficiency and reducing their carbon emissions, but the costs involved in such projects have often been prohibitive. Thankfully, by standardising the route
between building engineering and finance, schools can now create projects that pay for themselves.

Data-driven decision-making

To facilitate smart retrofit decision-making, school governors, heads and other school stakeholders need to gather data to help identify the energy efficiency and emissions issues present in the existing school buildings.

Using Building Information Modelling (BIM) for building envelope thermal performance analysis and energy efficiency evaluation allows them to identify buildings’ emissions and energy efficiency issues, predict the costs of addressing these issues, and calculate their return on investment.

When combined with thermal imaging, sensor data and other associated data, BIM can have an even greater impact as the resulting data offers far more useful and accurate visual insights into the condition of school buildings.

Thermal imaging is most commonly used to assess buildings and make informed decisions about potential retrofitting by quantifying the images and detecting energy deficiencies. By producing accurate data, it can help school stakeholders make smart decisions based on facts, not assumptions.

This is because an infrared thermal imaging survey offers an accurate insight into the condition of the building fabric, providing a detailed understanding into a wide range of energy efficiency issues, including empty or half-filled wall cavities, defective insulation, draughts, porous brickwork, rendering and waterproofing issues and more, many of which could go undetected using other forms of survey.

When coupled with advanced energy-saving calculators and funding databases, it can help schools achieve CO2 reductions, realise financial savings, and improve conditions for pupils and staff by enabling them to take a more strategic approach to their retrofit pathway.

Benefits of thermal imaging

Thermal imaging works by measuring areas of energy loss in a building and removes the bias of human surveys. The collected data can then be analysed using artificial intelligence (AI) and combined with open, archetypal building information to give an accurate insight into a building’s energy usage and energy waste.

Once this information is gathered and presented, school stakeholders will have an objective view on what’s needed to plan projects. This is vital as it allows retrofit measures to be chosen which optimise energy consumption reduction and bill savings.

Compared to traditional surveying methods, thermal imaging offers a host of benefits.
• It is quick – problems can rapidly be identified, and remedial action discussed.
• It is reliable – thermal images cannot lie.
• It is accurate – by pinpointing where the problem is, only targeted repairs and maintenance are required.
• It is non-invasive and non-destructive – there is no drilling or hammering and no damage is done to the building’s fabric.
• It is safe – there is no need for scaffolding or climbing.
• It is cost-effective and convenient – it allows a comprehensive survey process to be carried out in a single visit, reducing cost, time, and inconvenience.

Making use of modern technology

Further benefits can be achieved by harnessing new technology, data and cloud-based applications. Modern platforms can merge, augment and analyse data to drive decisions based on which retrofit solutions are best suited to each building and to create a project roadmap.

By conducting thermal imaging, together with inclusive 10-archetype internal surveys – including EPCs, air tightness, gSkin U-value thermocouples and retrofit assessment and coordination – school buildings can be assessed against a range of criteria such as structural integrity, condition and orientation, whether they have external wall insulation, contain asbestos or if they can take PV structurally.

If required, this can also be aligned with investment criteria so that projects can fit in with investment programmes and enable suitable funding opportunities to be identified to minimise costs.

These modern platforms essentially enable school governors, heads and other school stakeholders to access all the data in one place, making it far easier to prioritise and plan retrofit projects.

A reliable, no regrets solution

Forecasting energy and carbon savings at the planning stage is an important part of the retrofit puzzle. But too often, expectations differ vastly from reality. This is where risk quantification comes in. Risk quantification provides confidence in outcomes and protects school stakeholders while guaranteeing savings.

Essentially, it turns projects from a potential liability into a financial asset. By understanding the likelihood and magnitude of project underperformance, stakeholders can be assured that the outcomes they anticipate will
happen. They can align the retrofit measures that affect the greatest positive impact with what will work in practice – offering a no regrets, clear
solution for successful execution.

Of course, with school budgets already under extreme pressure, a lack of funding is consistently cited as the biggest hurdle facing project execution. Thankfully, the data-driven insights described go a long way to solving this challenge.

By combining thermal imaging data, advanced data modelling, and risk quantification in an ecosystem approach, project outcomes can be guaranteed through insurance policies. This backstops underperformance and provides confidence to funders. Since insurance enables risk transfer, off-balance sheet treatment is possible. Such a methodology allows schools’ existing budgets to be leveraged several times over – maximising the size of projects.

Considering the magnitude of overhauling the energy efficiency of schools, coupled with the fact that it is an extremely complex and highly expensive undertaking, school stakeholders should use all the tools at their disposal to make smart retrofit decisions. By using quantified thermal imaging coupled with advanced energy-saving calculators during decision-making, they will be able to achieve reductions in carbon emissions, make financial savings and improve conditions for pupils and staff.

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