Low carbon is the future of leisure

Faced with an ageing leisure stock, local authorities and universities are reviewing their future. Nick Preedy explains the options they have.

Nick Preedy, project lead on the Sports and Wellness Hub project, looks at options to help estate owners adjust to a low carbon future, and how working with contractors from an early stage is the best way to help determine how this looks in each individual case.

As a nation, we have suffered from under investment in leisure facilities for several years. Many towns and cities across the UK have leisure centres that are no longer serving their intended purpose, and those local authorities and universities that are investing in such amenities are finding that the need to meet sustainability targets - not to mention rising energy bills - is creating design challenges.

Finding a solution is made even more urgent by the pressing public health concerns that have driven aspirations for community wellbeing, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic. So how can leisure facilities provide this improved health and wellbeing while also ensuring alignment with ambitious climate commitments?

Evaluating the options for low-carbon leisure centres

There is no escaping the fact that leisure centres are energy hungry. With pools to heat, large halls to light and gym facilities to ventilate, centres that traditionally run on fossil fuels are finding that their costs are spiraling.

With that in mind, new-build leisure centres that have low-carbon approaches built in right from the outset are becoming an increasingly popular option. A recent example of this is Rushcliffe Council’s Bingham Arena in Nottinghamshire, which completed earlier this year and is already surpassing its energy efficiency targets.

The facility was designed to be 78% more efficient in terms of carbon emissions than other leisure centres in the local borough, with an innovative 25m pool that utilises a steel frame rather than a traditional concrete solution. This design feature alone brought significant embodied carbon benefits, with greenhouse gas emissions reduced by 45%.

We carried out a low-carbon technologies assessment to provide assurance that the chosen design included the most suitable renewable energy sources, and our Energy Synergy service tracks operational energy performance against design to make sure the facility operates at peak efficiency.

While Bingham was designed to meet BREEAM Very Good, there is also the option to work to other energy efficiency standards where appropriate. One example of this has been the work we have done alongside Spelthorne Borough Council on its new leisure facility, which has been designed to be one of the world's most advanced, energy efficient Passivhaus leisure centres.

Once complete, the £42.5m project will be the first wet and dry leisure centre to achieve the Passivhaus standard in the UK, consuming up to 60% less energy compared with a standard new building and optimising natural daylight and photovoltaic panels to generate energy from renewable sources.

Another project that has used our Energy Synergy service to make informed decisions on energy usage is the University of Warwick Sports Hub, which is one of the best sports facilities at a UK university. Tying in with the goal of becoming the most physically active campus community in the UK and the university’s ambitious climate commitments, exceptional energy efficiency was a critical aspect of the Sports Hub.

This required the kind of extensive monitoring that Energy Synergy provides, which can be used to help identify energy savings once the building is in use. The Sports Hub has been operational for three years now, but within the first year alone this monitoring identified energy savings of £40,236 and a carbon saving of 98,520 kgCO2e.

Considering the rise in energy costs, this equates to £104,000 a year in today’s value - a significant saving.

Consider retrofitting or decarbonising your leisure centre

Thinking of both the environmental and financial considerations, many local authorities and universities are looking for options that can serve the twin purpose of being sustainable while also providing access to leisure facilities for their communities.

Another option to consider is how retrofitting an existing facility can help in the medium- to long term, something which we delivered for Oxford City Council’s portfolio of pools and leisure centres through our Decarbonise Today service.

Oxford is aiming to be a net-zero-carbon city by 2040 or earlier, with the council targeting reaching zero-carbon across its own estate and operations by 2030. With that in mind, we worked with the council to introduce heat pumps across its four facilities, offsetting the vast majority of emissions associated with the existing gas-fired heating installations.

In total, the decarbonisation strategies at the four leisure centres are anticipated to save a total of 963 tonnes of CO2 annually - a 56% reduction in emissions.

When it comes to leisure, getting it right is essential. According to UKActive, public leisure generates around £3.3 billion in social value on account of improved health, life satisfaction, and educational attainment every year, and engages some of our nation’s most vulnerable groups.

With that in mind, it’s important to work with partners who understand the lay of the land with leisure schemes and how to ensure you get the best value from your project. By working collaboratively from an early stage, the options can be thoroughly explored, and the best course of action determined with confidence. We can help you explore whether retrofit or new build is the best option for you with both cost and carbon in mind. Contact us here for an informal conversation.

Join us for a leisure centre site tour

Another way to review your options is to look at how others are doing things. With this in mind, we are offering a limited number of places for local authority and university estates and leisure teams to visit some of the leading low-carbon leisure projects we've delivered recently.