Building a better learning environment

As schools across the country approach the end of their design lives, the structures where our children are educated are beginning to show signs of extreme wear. A March 2000 U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report on school construction expenditures revealed some alarming figures that highlight the magnitude and severity of the school building issue. The GAO study reported that in 1998, the average public school building was 42 years old and that the total construction expenditures for fiscal year 1997 exceeded $24 billion. Two states, California and Texas, each reportedly spent in excess of $2 billion on school construction. Across the country, local, state and federal officials are grappling with the financial side of building new schools.

Amidst the concern over aging schools and the cost of school construction, very little press has been given to the use of "green building" concepts by towns and cities in designing new schools. As environmental professionals, we all have an opportunity to actively participate in school design -- through participation in local school building committees, discussions with local officials and providing awareness to fellow residents on the benefits of green building design.

Aside from the chance to improve the environment in which our children learn, the magnitude of the potential cost savings is staggering. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that $1.5 billion can be saved annually at schools throughout the nation through energy conservation measures and better building design.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that $1.5 billion can be saved annually at schools throughout the nation through energy conservation measures and better building design.

Along with these savings can come priceless good public relations. News articles generally focus on negative impacts from environmental incidences, such as the contamination of a public drinking water supply. Using green building design concepts to build more environmentally-friendly structures presents an opportunity for local government to show citizens and neighboring industries they are at the forefront of environmental innovations. Instead of covering the town that was recently fined for hazardous waste violations, journalists can focus on the town that built a school featuring natural daylight, stormwater and gray water recycling, solar energy and enhanced eco-education, in the process saving the town $200,000 annually on operation and maintenance expenditures.

Green building concepts

So, what is a green building? There's more to making a green building than using solar panels, installing water conservation devices and maximizing natural day lighting in teaching areas -- although these items are a good start.

Examples of key components to green building design include:

  • Easy access for pedestrians, bicycles and mass transit;
  • Building layout that minimizes east-west walls and maximizes southern exposures;
  • Window treatments to maximize winter solar effects and reduce summer overheating;
  • Solar technologies to partially fulfill heating needs;
  • Incorporation of the school's design into the education curriculum;
  • Regulated indoor air quality through natural ventilation systems, placement of barriers, maintenance activities that minimize harmful contaminants and installing air quality monitoring equipment; and
  • Stormwater management and gray water recycling strategies for water reuse and irrigation.

In addition, the commissioning of a building is very important in whether the actual benefits of a green building are realized. Commissioning is the systematic process to ensure that building systems work as specified, school staff are trained on the equipment and that system documentation is adequately provided.

The extent to which a building design uses these concepts can be measured objectively using a rating system formulated by the U.S. Green Building Council, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. Buildings are rated from bronze to platinum, based on the extent that green building concepts are used. Architects who have worked with the LEED system indicate that new schools have a very difficult time meeting the gold rating. A silver or bronze rating is considered impressive.

Nationwide data demonstrates benefits

Real data generated by school districts that have used green building concepts -- both in the form of bottom-line savings and improved test scores -- are one way to demonstrate the benefits of such an approach.

Potential life cycle cost savings include:

  • Energy and water conservation;
  • Reduced solid waste disposal through recycling and waste prevention;
  • Reduced maintenance associated with high-efficiency systems; and
  • Improved air quality resulting in reduced absenteeism among staff.

Examples of school systems where Green Building design has resulted in bottom line savings include:

  • Raleigh, N.C. had $165,000 annual savings through natural day lighting and a radiant barrier to reflect sun;
  • Washington County, Tenn. realized $82,000 in annual savings on energy through installation of geothermal heating and cooling systems;
  • Portland, Ore. projects a $2.2 million savings from an energy conservation program throughout the school district; and
  • Idaho Falls, Idaho realized an $8,500 savings over a 10-day period at one school from a modified heating/lighting shutdown protocol.


In addition, working and learning in a building that employs natural day lighting has been shown to increase test scores among students and lower absenteeism among staff. In California, a study by the Heschong Mahone Group showed that students who were taught in classrooms with more natural day lighting scored as much as 25 percent higher on standardized tests than students in the same district with no or less natural day lighting.

Test results for a group of 21,000 students in Fort Collins, Colo.; Seattle, Wash.; and Orange County, Calif. (areas with different weather patterns) showed that students progressed faster on math and reading tests with natural day lighting. The results were improved by 20 percent (math) and 26 percent (reading) in California and between 7 and 18 percent in Fort Collins and Seattle. Lastly in Sunnyvale, Calif., worker absenteeism dropped 15 percent in the first year at Lockheed Building 157 with the introduction of natural day lighting.

The funding issue

A Green Build Conference was recently held in February 2000 in a Boston suburb where local, state and federal environmental and educational officials met with architects and environmental consultants to discuss this topic. Presentations were made to demonstrate the benefits of green building design. Participants concurred that this facet of school building design was generally a good idea.

Working and learning in a building that employs natural day lighting has been shown to increase test scores among students and lower absenteeism among staff.

The underlying message, however, was that the state funding formula does not allow for the construction of more environmentally friendly, energy efficient schools. Towns and cities are free to incorporate green building design concepts; however, they still need to design and construct their schools within a predetermined cap or cost per square feet of school. The general notion is that the cap figure does not allow for expensive "extras" such as high-efficiency heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, motion sensor lighting and optimum building envelopes to enhance natural day lighting.

Once funding is obtained for a particular school construction project, selecting architects and engineers who have experience with green building design is essential if the city or town truly desires a "green school." If the architect thinks green schools are about testing sub-grade soils for contamination or proper asbestos containment during demolition, you may want to consider another firm. Architects who are at the forefront of green buildings will not only examine these issues but can also design certain "green" features that represent a low capital expenditure and provide concepts discussed in this article. The funding issue becomes more difficult as the cost of the school construction increase above what is considered normal or average for a particular area of the country. Utilizing green features and still keeping the school construction cost reasonable will allow school planners to "sell" the project to both the advocates for green schools and the financially sensitive officials and residents.

Final thoughts

The quality of our children's education is of paramount importance. We need to find the best balance of monies and resources to provide this education, and green buildings can be a component of a sound education system.

Financing municipal projects and getting stakeholder buy-in are challenges that local officials deal with every week. The benefits of Green schools, including improved standardized test scores, lower operations and maintenance costs over a building with a 30- to 50-year design life, conservation of our natural resources and a better atmosphere for children to learn in, will surely pique the interests of many residents. Incorporating green building design into our schools may or may not be economically feasible; but at the very least, it is worth public discussion as cities and towns move through the design phase of their new schools.

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This article appeared in Environmental Protection, Volume 11, Number 10, October 2000, Page 77.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.

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