Carbon-smart schools mitigate climate change and improve learning

Recent studies confirm the extent to which improvements in classroom condition can positively impact children’s ability to learn. With so many classrooms needed, there is an opportunity to both improve the design of schools and instigate a change in attitude towards carbon-smart construction.

November 09, 2022 by Catriona Forbes
7 minutes read
Classroom in Horton Street Primary School, Freetown, Sierra Leone. Credit: Catriona Forbes
Classroom in Horton Street Primary School, Freetown, Sierra Leone – Carbon smart school building designed and constructed by parents, builders from the local community and Catriona Forbes.
Credit: Catriona Forbes

To achieve universal education by 2030 (part of SDG 4), over 20 million additional teachers are required (UIS). Overcrowded classrooms are commonplace in low-income countries, indicating that millions more learning spaces are required in the next decade.

With so many classrooms needed, there is an opportunity to both improve the design of schools and instigate a change in attitude towards carbon-smart construction.

At scale, a carbon-smart approach to school design and construction has the potential to rapidly deliver cost-effective and sustainable learning environments that enhance the quality of the education being delivered.

Recent studies confirm the extent to which improvements on in the environmental conditions of classrooms impact positively on children’s ability to learn.

Design goes beyond shelter

The role of designers is to create educational spaces that enable children to learn to the best of their abilities. At its most basic, this means providing shelter from the elements while maintaining a comfortable internal level of ventilation, natural light and temperature. In carbon-smart buildings, comfort is achieved through passive environmental control - utilizing the thermal properties of materials and surfaces.

Buildings that rely on passive systems aren’t expensive to construct or operate as they don’t require specialist components or technologies. As such, a school building used only during daylight hours shouldn’t require any electricity to provide a comfortable learning environment.

Examples of successful passive systems can be found in vernacular architecture, which evolved over generations of practice. Locally available tools and renewable materials have been used to create internal spaces that are more comfortable than external conditions, without mechanical systems.

Kuntoloh Community Computer Classrooms, Freetown, Sierra Leone. Credit: Catriona Forbes
Kuntoloh Community Computer Classrooms, Freetown, Sierra Leone – Carbon Smart computer classroom block designed and constructed by builders from Kuntoloh and Catriona Forbes.
Catriona Forbes

Understanding how these forms and materials work provides a wealth of design knowledge to inform today’s carbon-smart learning spaces.

Vernacular designs were a response to the environments of the time. However, as a result of climate change, we now need to design not only to current conditions but also to the climatic and physical environment that is anticipated.

A useful approach is to learn from design solutions found in similar climates to those predicted, for example, when designing in a region experiencing desertification, looking at how people have learned to live in deserts, or when designing in an area prone to flooding, how communities have built on flood plains for centuries (see how Sierra Leone is doing it ).

For the built environment to be truly sustainable, it needs to be designed holistically. This is critical with school design as, alongside religious buildings, the school is often the center of a community.

Its buildings are public assets in which everybody has a stake; future community members are shaped within its walls. A school cannot be designed without considering the wider urban plan; its identity, where teachers will be accommodated, how children will get to and from school safely, waste disposal, services and so on.

Kuntoloh Community Computer Classrooms, Freetown, Sierra Leone – use of renewable materials.
Kuntoloh Community Computer Classrooms, Freetown, Sierra Leone – use of renewable materials.
Catriona Forbes

Likewise, project strategies need to be backed up with rigorous detailing of the structures. The comfort of learning spaces can be affected by factors such as a poorly positioned or sized opening, ineffective angles of louvers, wrongly specified materials, the wrong color, or a badly detailed fixing.

The carbon-smart design ethos needs to be carried through all stages of the design.

Optimizing construction from start to finish

To design cost-effectively and efficiently, an in-depth knowledge of material procurement, in-country industries and processes, and logistical and practical constraints needs to inform decision-making from the outset.

In low-income countries, the cost of materials, including their transportation, makes up the largest proportion of construction budgets. Basing designs on natural materials that are locally available and tapping into the standardized procurement methods that already exist will greatly reduce costs.

The same school design may be appropriate across a district, country or even region. There may be locations where it’s logical to pre-fabricate most of the building in a workshop, as a “kit of parts” to be assembled on site.

The advantages of this approach are:

  • Access to a highly skilled workforce and experienced construction oversight
  • Rapid, quality production
  • Reduction in transport
  • Security of materials (reducing opportunities for theft)
  • Streamlining sustainable supply chains.

Good design needs to be coupled with well-supervised construction so that the efficiencies that have been designed in are implemented.

The logic of a production line needs to be carried through to the set-up and operation of a construction site.

Challenges of delivering carbon smart schools

Most governments in low-income countries have standard, approved school designs (sometimes referred to as templates or types).

Rolling out carbon-smart schools requires governments and funders to adopt new designs.

Often people aspire to an aesthetic associated with the perceived affluence of developed countries, even though it is climatically inappropriate for their context. The greatest challenge here is encouraging stakeholders to see traditional construction techniques and low-cost, naturally available materials as valuable and progressive.

I believe this challenge can be overcome by reassessing how we design and investing in training during the design process.

In the initial phase of design, engaging architects and engineers with international design expertise (carrying lessons and ideas from elsewhere) is a worthwhile investment.

However, local builders usually have much of the knowledge and practical experience required to create context-specific buildings. Other stakeholders and end-users will bring vital local knowledge.

By working through the design process with a team of stakeholders, builders and architects, this local knowledge and experience is translated into appropriate carbon-smart school designs.

Teachers and parents design their school during the ‘Nomadic School of Architecture’.
Credit: Catriona Forbes
Teachers and parents design their school during the ‘Nomadic School of Architecture’
Site visit with the design team during the ‘Nomadic School of Architecture’.
Credit: Catriona Forbes
Site visit with the design team during the ‘Nomadic School of Architecture’.

A thorough understanding of the school design is required beyond planning and into delivery, for example, in carrying out site-specific design assessments (and tailoring the standard template to sites where necessary) and for construction oversight.

It’s critical that those stakeholders selected for the design team go on to play an active role in the delivery of the schools and in promoting the benefits of the carbon-smart designs.

I piloted this idea with a “Nomadic School of Architecture” in Sierra Leone. Young engineers and experienced builders from local communities were selected to design their new school buildings.

With this “learning by doing” approach, program participants were able to assess the specific conditions of sites, adapt designs accordingly, adhere to the standards required during construction and transfer their knowledge.

In large-scale school delivery, those involved in design and construction would become the site managers for the next iteration of school buildings.

There are a number of added advantages of this training approach:

  • Good design is reliant on in-depth local knowledge; long-term experience of culture and place informs design.
  • Participants learn to problem-solve by implementing practical solutions, an invaluable skill for communities dealing with the additional challenges, across all sectors (not just construction and education), brought by climate change.
  • Most importantly, participants become advocates for carbon-smart building, with the school as a demonstration of how to build sustainably.

In a low-income context, the power of “word-of-mouth” shouldn’t be underestimated as a tool to change mindsets around carbon-smart buildings.

The majority of participants on this training program were teachers and parents of the beneficiary school. At scale, the stakeholders to be engaged include governments, funders, chiefs, local authorities, the general public, parents, teachers and students.

While not everyone involved in design will become a construction site manager, involvement is important in “selling” carbon-smart school design.

Particularly in areas where there are high levels of uncertainty, huge value is given to the permanence of structures. Concrete is seen as the most durable material (natural materials are the antithesis).

In reality, concrete isn’t sustainable, doesn’t perform well in hotter climates, isn’t long lasting when poorly executed, and in the worst cases creates unsafe buildings. What’s more, the materials required are relatively expensive and build-quality needs to be highly regulated.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t deter funders and governments from using concrete and steel as go-to materials for their standard classroom templates.

Carbon smart classroom, Tombo, Sierra Leone designed by Catriona Forbes.
Carbon smart classroom, Tombo, Sierra Leone designed by Catriona Forbes.
Catriona Forbes

People need to be convinced that the design attributes valued in concrete structures can be achieved with natural materials.

The most effective way of persuading people of this is in the construction of demonstration buildings, which allow people to see and feel a carbon-smart classroom.

In proposing carbon-smart alternatives, a thorough understanding of the desires of the stakeholders (and not just their needs) is required.

By engaging a range of stakeholders as designers, we upskill a workforce for delivery, advocate for a carbon-smart approach to schools and ensure that the buildings are what people want.


Read other blogs in this series

Climate change
Sub-Saharan Africa: Sierra Leone

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