Dr Joe Croft, head of environmental and sustainability at fit out specialist Overbury, discusses how a new higher education assessment scheme will drive environmental innovation, greater professionalism and improved environmental standards.

RICS 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 like lecture theatres, research laboratories or teaching spaces. Added to this, the demand from students for sustainable environments that have minimal environmental impact is huge. 

From our initial research, we’ve 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 at an invaluable advantage over their competitors.  It also drives improvements in the lifecycle of their spaces.

While there has been a significant take up of SKA for offices in the higher education sector from universities including University College London (UCL), City University, University of Liverpool and London School of Economics, the most common feedback was that the existing SKA schemes didn’t always reflect 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 refurbed buildings. 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 interior fit outs and refurbishments, in order to meet clear 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 BREAAM 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, Overbury engaged with a number of top higher education institutions through regular meetings, reviews, workshops and a final consultation period. Each area of the higher education 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 key 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. So, 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. 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.

New benchmarks

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. Positively impacting the local areas where we work holds huge sustainable 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 that each project manager has the relevant training and knowledge of the tool, especially as the GPMs will be different to 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.  

Taking on a new set of challenges

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 reused 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 in order to avoid confusion further down the supply chain. The future of best practice 

The new 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, I’m confident this group will adjust quickly and successfully. 

Collaboration and knowledge sharing are key parts of SKA for higher education’s positive progress. As well as the training we’re providing 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. 

Visit the RICS website for more information.