The DfE’s 1st carbon pathfinder school – completes

Treetops Free School, based in Grays, Essex, is the Department for Education’s (DfE) first net zero carbon pathfinder scheme. On 17 August 2022, the school achieved practical completion, with Net Zero Buildings as the principal contractor.

“The concept for Treetops Free School began in 2016 due to the high demand for pupil places at Treetops School, so this day has been long awaited and anticipated, but we are finally here,” says Anthony Hattam, Headteacher at Treetops Free School.

“It is with great excitement that the pupils, staff and parents can now walk through the doors of Treetops Free School. Over the past 18 months, we have seen things slowly take shape, from an area of wasteland to the building we have today. Throughout this time, staff and pupils have been fortunate enough to make site visits and watch the progress of the build, and get to know many of the staff working on the site, I know that the pupils will certainly miss waving to ‘Tyler the Viking’ as they arrive at school every day.

“Being part of a ‘Free School’ build, and one that is ‘net zero’, is certainly a once-in-a-career opportunity for many, and something that we feel privileged to be part of. Knowing that the school will not only help the pupils of Thurrock educationally, but also environmentally, is incredibly important to us all.”

Increasing capacity for quality education

Treetops Free School offers full-time education and therapeutic behavioural support for special educational needs (SEN) students based in Thurrock and surrounding areas. Treetops provides for pupils with special educational needs, such as ASC, MLD, SLD, EMH and PMLD, as well as those with learning and visual impairments.

Following a one-year build programme, Treetops is the UK’s first school to be completed under the new DfE carbon pathfinder guidance. From September, the school can now welcome up to 140 students between the ages of three and sixteen.

Treetops Free School was established to educate pupils with autism, social and communication difficulties – and will evidence how the public sector is guiding the way in the decarbonisation of public buildings.

Dan Allison, Divisional Director, Net Zero Buildings, comments: “This building proves how green and clean the schools of the future will be. Treetops was determined to turn all the sustainability talk into action in order to make a real difference. The school wanted to find a better way to build, so we did everything possible to lower the carbon footprint of both the construction and operation of this school – right down to the finer details, such as the goat hair carpet tiles.

“The timing couldn’t have been any better – while most schools will be dreading their fuel bills this year, Treetops Free School will achieve net zero in operation – which will be supported significantly by the energy produced by its PV panels.

“Treetops is also set up to meet the teaching team’s needs and adapt to how their needs may change in the future. For example, the school currently has a 90/10 split of ambulant to non-ambulant students, as well as an 84/56 MLD to ASC mixture of learning needs. These figures are likely to change over the years, therefore the whole building is designed to be easily reconfigured.

“But from day one, Treetops’ classrooms must be set up based on different learning needs, for example, differently for ASC as they are for MLD – so the adaptability of the rooms is important.

“The challenge of the design was catering for all the various students’ educational, therapeutic and medical needs. The internal spaces range from a sensory room – with video and lighting to reduce adult intervention – to parental spaces, which will be used for family therapy.

“Outside, there’s lots of soft landscaping and permeable paving to reduce water run-off, which decreases flooding and contamination – complying with SUDS (sustainable urban drainage systems).”

Leading the way: sustainable and future-proofed

Treetops was built using a structural timber panel solution. It’s significantly insulated, as proven in the floors, walls and ceilings and meets the government’s carbon pathfinder ten-point plan.

All building systems are powered electrically – even the Bunsen burners.

The school’s PV (photovoltaic panels) will produce around 300KW pa, making the building net zero in operation.

As a lead contractor for the DfE, Net Zero Buildings followed BB104 – a non-statutory guidance – for the building of the new 3,293m2 Treetops Free School. Treetops previously worked with us on a project consisting of a new sports hall and changing block for the campus.

Dan Allison says: “Throughout the build, NZB has felt part of the Treetops team – including dressing up as Santa and taking the students on a tour around the school to familiarise them with their new school ahead of their return.”

Treetops was commissioned by the DfE and was also sponsored by Treetops Learning Community – which oversees the Treetops Academy on the same site.

The DfE offsite (MMC1) framework was launched in January 2020 to encourage schools to use modern methods of construction for new buildings. Carbon pathfinder is DfE’s directional method for the construction of new build school projects. The government intends to see 30 new schools per year built offsite, with a projected pipeline of up to £3bn over the next four years.