Somerset College: The building blocks of a sustainable future

One college is leading the way in pioneering new techniques in construction, says Neil Merrick

Students entering the latest learning and resource centre at Somerset College are unlikely to be aware that they are walking on tiles made from recycled tyres.

Nor is it immediately apparent that the surfaces around the handbasins in the lavatories were made from yogurt pots, or that the walls are insulated with old cotton denim jeans.

But that's the sort of thing you'll find at the Genesis Centre for Sustainable Construction, the first centre of its kind at a further education college. It aims to promote environmentally friendly building among learners of all ages.

The £2.5m centre, named Genesis in a reference to creativity, will be officially unveiled tomorrow. But some students are already using its facilities.

It is four years since the Taunton-based college became the country's first and, so far, only centre of vocational excellence in sustainable construction. The idea of a centre built with recycled and sustainable materials came from students who were set an assignment as part of a higher national certificate programme at the college.

Four years later, the dream is a reality, thanks in part to grants from the South West Regional Development Agency and the Learning and Skills Council, which want it to be a showcase for the construction industry.

Ian Moore, the centre's operations director, is determined that it is seen as a more than just another eco-building. "We are trying to show that you can integrate the use of sustainable materials into mainstream construction, but that means you need the knowledge and skills base to achieve it," he says.

The centre, powered by renewable energy, consists of five free-standing pavilions linked by a glass wall. The clay and straw pavilions include lecture and conference facilities, while the earth pavilion is a shop selling eco-friendly products.

The timber pavilion doubles as an office block, while the water pavilion, which includes the lavatories, demonstrates the latest ways to conserve water. Roofs of rubble and sedum provide a natural habitat for wildlife.

Tim Simmons, the college's sustainable construction manager and a teacher in construction, believes the mood will benefit staff and students. "Learners are stimulated by the environment where they work. If you put people in a naturally-lit and ventilated environment, they will feel better about themselves."

The centre will eventually be used by up to 800 students on construction courses as well as those on marketing and retail courses, who will examine the success of the shop. The new building is also open to architects and other professionals in business, housing and local government who are seeking further training and development.

Some of the first learners to step inside last month were 600 schoolchildren, for a prize-giving ceremony. About 20 schools will use it for projects linked to the national curriculum, as staff hope to attract more young people into the construction industry.

According to Ian Moore, the centre is more likely to attract gifted and able students, including women, who are less likely to study construction. "There is still a perception of the building industry as men with hard hats. It needs to be far more than that."

The Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, recently called on schools - but not colleges - to be models of sustainable development. The Commons education select committee is about to inquire into sustainable building that will cover the FE capital programme.

Somerset is way ahead of most colleges in promoting sustainable construction, but others are becoming more aware of the need to be environmentally friendly. Last year, Plymouth College opened an innovation unit powered by two wind turbines, while South East Essex College boasts classrooms that channel air through concrete planks for heating and ventilation.

The Association of Colleges has embarked on an 18-month project in Southeast England to encourage colleges to emphasise sustainable construction in the curriculum and review their building programmes.

Among six colleges identified as leaders in using sustainable materials is Plumpton, a land-based college near Brighton. Plumpton is building a teaching and research centre for winery, with a sedum roof, and a centre at Battle using locally-grown wood insulated with earth. "It makes the students think," says the principal, Des Lambert.

Owen Barfield of the European sustainable growth project Grow is impressed by the enthusiasm shown by many colleges, and hopes that others will follow their example. "The lessons learnt by colleges that are promoting sustainable construction should not be lost," he says.