Advancing School Performance: Indoor environmental quality, Resilience and Educational outcomes (ASPIRE)

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Bartlett Sch of Env, Energy & Resources


Despite the fact that 10 million children in the UK spend 30% of their life at school, around 70% of that time inside a classroom, the building design determinants of indoor environmental quality in classrooms are poorly understood to date. However, there is significant evidence that poor indoor air quality and exposure to excess indoor temperatures can have detrimental impacts on the learning performance and health of pupils, in particular asthma, placing a high burden on national health services. This is particularly important when we take into account the increased vulnerability of children's bodies to indoor environmental hazards: Children breathe more indoor air pollutants than adults for their size, have a limited ability to thermoregulate and their immune systems are still developing. School buildings are, in the meantime, responsible for 15% of the UK's total public sector carbon emissions, with energy costs associated with heating, cooling, lighting and appliances being a large portion of school budgets. The school building sector could, therefore, play a pivotal role in the UK's transition to a low carbon building stock.

Policymakers, building designers, school managers, educators and parents in the UK recognise the importance of creating healthy and low carbon school environments but they need the tools and mechanisms to identify the best strategies to achieve them. Ensuring high indoor environmental quality in our school buildings whilst meeting pressing carbon emissions reduction targets is an urgent research priority and a major engineering challenge for the UK construction industry. Addressing it will not only help tackle the Government's 2018 Industrial Strategy Clean Growth targets but also help meet national strategic needs to protect the most vulnerable in society, increase educational attainment and reduce health inequities. As a response to this challenge, the interdisciplinary project ASPIRE aims to address a key knowledge gap: Can school buildings achieve low carbon emissions whilst maintaining high indoor environmental quality that enhances learning and health?

Our work will bring together, for the first time, three of Europe's largest studies on the impact of classroom indoor air quality and temperature, and schoolchildren's learning and health in temperate climates. Their novel, systematic co-analysis will establish relationships between exposures to indoor air pollutants, temperatures and ventilation rates and cognitive performance and health symptoms for a wide range of educational settings.

We will analyse Department for Education data to construct a library of school building archetypes that are statistically representative of the UK school building stock. The archetype descriptions will include details such as interior layouts and building fabric characteristics and will be used to simulate the energy, thermal and indoor air quality performance of each archetype under low carbon building design and operational strategies in the current and future climate. These scenarios will be co-created as a result of two-way communication with stakeholders from the government, public health bodies, the construction industry and school communities during extensive, structured workshops that form an integral part of the ASPIRE project.

By using the relationships established during the systematic analysis of existing field data and the modelled indoor air pollution and temperature exposure levels, we will evaluate the impacts of building energy efficient design and operational strategies, occupancy and climate change scenarios on educational attainment, and health costs at the national level.

This tremendously exciting new project will pave the way in understanding and improving the holistic performance of low carbon, healthy school buildings, and inform the development of effective policies and best practice school design guidance in close collaboration with our stakeholders.

Planned Impact

The beneficiaries of the ASPIRE research outcomes include UK Government departments and regulatory agencies, local Government, the building construction industry and, in particular, practitioners and professional organisations and associations involved in the design, construction and maintenance of school buildings. Schools and communities will be the ultimate beneficiaries of the proposed work due to improved indoor air quality, comfort and sense of wellbeing in classrooms, increased work productivity for teachers and academic performance for pupils. This will, in turn, increase educational attainment, which is a key indicator of wellbeing at the population level, thus resulting into significant socioeconomic benefits for the entire UK population. Fuller details of the beneficiaries and associated pathways to impacts are provided in the 'Pathways to Impact' section of our proposal.

Reducing the energy use and carbon emissions of our school buildings around the country is vital for the Government's climate change mitigation targets. Building construction and management professionals, public health professionals, local authorities, school staff, parents and communities urgently need a toolkit that will help them select the most effective low carbon building solutions that do not jeopardise children's cognitive performance, health and wellbeing. Currently, however, this topic is underresearched and commonly neglected by the many actors involved in the design, delivery, operation and maintenance of a school building. To limit the potential unintended consequences of strict energy efficiency standards on indoor air quality and overheating, a systematic, interdisciplinary approach is needed.

We very much view the ASPIRE project as the first step towards developing a strategic multi-stakeholder research platform that will involve all actors participating in the creation of low carbon, healthy and productive indoor learning spaces. Our experienced research team will work alongside our excellent stakeholder team to a) assess the relevance of the project findings for building regulations, building construction standards and public health protection guidance for learning environments and b) generate new, evidence based, best practice guidance for the design and retrofit of school buildings from a layman's perspective that will be disseminated to industry and policy audiences by our Project Partners (Department for Education, Public Health England, the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers, Architype, Atelier Ten).

To reflect the importance of accelerating the impact of the project, we have developed an entire Work Package dedicated to our stakeholder engagement and impact activities with devoted specific investigator time and PDRA resources. Throughout the project, we will be actively supported by the UCL Public Engagement Unit and the UCL Bartlett Strategic Communications team to effectively engage with this diverse range of stakeholders and beneficiaries. A particular strength of this integrated approach is that research dissemination occurs organically through participation of the stakeholders in the co-creation of knowledge during the collaborative workshops and frequent project meetings. Our stakeholder team consists of representatives of the government, policy and industry sectors, and school communities, with many of whom we have already actively engaged to help us shape the present project proposal.
Description Adapting school designs for health and wellbeing during and post pandemic
Amount £10,022,078 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/R511638/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2021 
End 03/2023
Description School Buildings Adaptation, Resilience and Impacts on Decarbonisation in a Changing Climate (ARID)
Amount £45,505 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/V01000X/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2020 
End 08/2021
Title Data dRiven Engine for Archetype Models of Schools (DREAMS) 
Description In the context of the ASPIRE project, we are developing the Data dRiven Engine for Archetype Models of Schools (DREAMS), a novel, data-driven, archetype-based school building stock modelling framework. DREAMS enables the detailed representation of the school building stock in England through the statistical analysis of two large scale and highly detailed databases provided by the UK Government: (i) the Property Data Survey Programme (PDSP) from the Department for Education (DfE), and (ii) Display Energy Certificates (DEC). 
Type Of Material Computer model/algorithm 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact School building stock modelling frameworks such as DREAMS can be powerful tools that aid decision-makers to quantify and evaluate the impact of a wide range of building stock-level policies, energy efficiency interventions and climate change scenarios on school energy and indoor environmental performance.