In today’s construction industry, thinking green and minimising environmental impact are paramount. Building regulations, government targets, and corporate values drive the push for sustainable practices. With the rapid advancement of technology, new solutions are becoming more efficient, integrated, and cost-effective, making their adoption essential for maximum impact.

We recently visited Mid Kent College’s Maidstone campus to explore their new Skills Factory and Home Energy Centre. Here are some of our “takeaways”, that our staff discussed at a subsequent workshop.

Mid Kent College: Pioneering Sustainable Training

This cutting-edge facility trains future and current professionals in the plumbing and heating industry, emphasising sustainable practices. The training centre serves a diverse group of students, including young individuals starting their careers, those changing professions, and established businesses seeking to upskill or diversify their offerings.

Mid Kent College is also investing heavily in its infrastructure. A significant project will transform their Maidstone campus to run on ground source and solar energy, while the Medway campus will utilise air source pumps and solar energy. These upgrades demonstrate the college’s commitment to practicing what they teach, showcasing real-world applications of sustainable technologies.

Emerging Technologies in Sustainable Construction

Heat Pumps: Ground source and air source heat pumps (ASHPs) are central to future heating solutions. These systems use electricity rather than gas, offering significant efficiency gains despite a slower heating response. Homeowners accustomed to traditional combi-boilers will need to adapt to these new systems, which require patience for their eco-friendly benefits. Vertical ASHPs on commercial buildings, as implemented at Mid Kent College, illustrate a space-efficient, aesthetically integrated solution that enhances building design and energy management.

Photovoltaics (PV): Solar panels, while reliant on sunlight, can significantly reduce energy costs and carbon emissions. Optimal placement is crucial to maximize efficiency, whilst taking account of obstructions and restrictions related to conservation areas and alike. Though initial costs are high, long-term benefits include increased property values and substantial reductions in electricity bills. Innovations like vertical solar panels on commercial buildings represent a forward-thinking approach to sustainable energy integration.

Costs and Efficiency

The initial costs for new technologies like heat pumps and solar panels are higher than traditional systems, but they promise long-term savings and environmental benefits. Government incentives and industry pressure are expected to drive these costs down over time. For example, a ground source pump can convert 1 kW of energy into 3 kW of heat, significantly outperforming traditional combi boilers.

Despite the higher upfront costs, the long-term energy efficiencies are clear. Heat pumps are quieter and more efficient than before, and well-integrated solar panels can potentially generate excess energy that can be sold back to the grid, creating an additional revenue stream. However, the current high electricity prices present a challenge to the widespread adoption of electric-based technologies.

When we provide cost advice, as Quantity Surveyors for a project, we will always take into account emerging technologies, along with a fabric first approach. We know our advice is key to a successful project.

Workforce Development: Addressing the Skills Gap

A major challenge in the adoption of sustainable technologies is the skills shortage. Mid Kent College is addressing this by training new professionals and upskilling existing ones through their Home Energy Centre. However, there remains a significant need for more trained installers to meet the growing demand for these technologies.

The college is proactive in reaching out to young students and their parents to promote the plumbing and heating industry as a viable career path. They are also exploring flexible training options for working professionals, such as evening or weekend courses, to accommodate those who cannot afford to take extended time off work. Additionally, there is lobbying for government funding to support lost income during training periods, aligning workforce development with government sustainability targets.

Challenges and Solutions in Sustainable Construction

The integration of sustainable technologies in construction is complex. Technologies like heat pumps and solar panels should be viewed as part of an integrated system to maximize efficiency and reduce energy use, pollution, and carbon emissions. Retrofitting older buildings with new technology can be challenging and less efficient if not combined with improvements like better insulation and glazing.

New build projects offer the best opportunity to plan with new technology in mind. Current insulation requirements already create energy savings, but integrating systems like solar energy with ground or heat source pumps can significantly enhance overall efficiency and environmental impact. Recent changes to building regulations, such as Parts F, L, O, and P, accelerate the move to renewable energy and improved insulation, promoting a holistic approach to sustainability (as discussed within our recent insight about Solving the Impact of Part L).

Scaling Up and Future Prospects

As urban areas expand, the need for sustainable energy solutions becomes more pressing. Technologies like ASHPs and GSHPs (ground source heat pumps) are adaptable for various building types, from residential properties to large commercial buildings and schools. These systems can provide heating and cooling year-round, enhancing energy efficiency across different sectors.

Mid Kent College is leading by example, showcasing how emerging technologies can be integrated into educational facilities and construction projects. The challenge now lies in scaling up these solutions, improving manufacturing speed, reducing costs, and ensuring a trained workforce is ready to implement these technologies effectively.

The college exemplifies how education and technology can drive the construction industry towards a greener future. By integrating sustainable technologies and training a skilled workforce, the college is preparing to meet the challenges of reducing environmental impact. As technology continues to evolve, the construction industry must embrace and integrate these innovations to achieve long-term sustainability goals. The collaboration between education, industry, and government will be crucial in turning these ambitions into reality.