Green Schools Score High Marks

The Jonathan E. Reed School in Waterbury, CT, design by Svigals+Partners, New Haven, was built on a brownfield site, requiring extensive site remediation. Photo: Robert Benson Photography, courtesy Svigals+Partners The Jonathan E. Reed School in Waterbury, CT, design by Svigals+Partners, New Haven, was built on a brownfield site, requiring extensive site remediation. Photo: Robert Benson Photography, courtesy Svigals+Partners

The “little red schoolhouse” used to be the traditional turn of phrase associated with early U.S. education facilities, but green has become the dominant color of those institutions in recent years. Green means energy efficiency of course, but the term has taken on much broader meanings and connotations, whether it is applied to K-12 facilities or college and university campuses.

“Green schools are facilities that improve the learning environment while saving energy, resources, and money,” said Richard Walker, manager, Business Solutions, Trane, Davidson, NC. “Green schools take an integrated, whole-building approach to optimizing key building systems and technologies to support the mission of the educational facility, creating conditions that improve student and teacher health, productivity, and comfort. In short, green schools reduce the use of natural resources, while quantitatively and verifiably increasing student performance and test scores.”

Jorge Mastropietro, Jorge Mastropietro Architects Atelier (JMA) New York, defines green as “an environment that’s healthy for the people who use it as well as one that considers its effect on the planet more generally. So when it comes to design, for example, green would entail the careful use of natural resources in a way that considers the effect on human occupants as well as the effect on broader ecosystems. A green school is one whose design emphasizes a holistic approach to these issues—saving energy, resources, and money. But we think it entails a specific teaching philosophy, too, where the design becomes a starting point to teach students about what it means to be green.”

Green building features at the Jonathan E. Reed School include automated lighting that maximizes the use of natural daylight while minimizing energy consumption; white roofing membrane to reduce solar heat gain and related energy needed to cool the classrooms; and polished-concrete floors with low embedded energy and low maintenance requirements. Photo: Robert Benson Photography, courtesy Svigals+Partners Green building features at the Jonathan E. Reed School include automated lighting that maximizes the use of natural daylight while minimizing energy consumption; white roofing membrane to reduce solar heat gain and related energy needed to cool the classrooms; and polished-concrete floors with low embedded energy and low maintenance requirements. Photo: Robert Benson Photography, courtesy Svigals+Partners

“There are several characterizations of what a green school is, depending upon what type of environment and where the school may be located in the world,” Theresa M. Genovese, AIA, LEED AP, CetraRuddy, New York, commented.

“However, a green school should strive to create a place that reinforces an awareness of how our actions will impact our environment. We believe that one important fundamental principle is that the school or learning environment leads by example. This may be exhibited by how the school teaches about the environment, operates (minimizing environmental impact), or how the school was constructed,” she said.

“Additionally, learning spaces that integrate strategies which assist in reduction of natural resources and take advantage of the local climactic conditions, while instructing the students through example on how to work with the environment, should be paramount in conceptualizing any new green-school project,” Genovese added.

The Interdistrict Discover Magnet School, Bridgeport, CT, designed by Svigals+Partners, features many cost-effective energy conservation and sustainability strategies, including solar power, storm-water retention and reuse, and recycled materials used in construction. Photo: Robert Benson Photography, courtesy Svigals+Partners The Interdistrict Discover Magnet School, Bridgeport, CT, designed by Svigals+Partners, features many cost-effective energy conservation and sustainability strategies, including solar power, storm-water retention and reuse, and recycled materials used in construction. Photo: Robert Benson Photography, courtesy Svigals+Partners

The terms green and sustainable often are used interchangeably but are subject to more nuanced interpretation. Most often, they share common values.

“In 1987 The World Bank defined sustainability as, ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,’” Walker commented. “This definition of the term sustainable is still applicable today and is a higher-level concept than green. Meeting sustainability needs requires a balance between social, economic, and environmental objectives. Many would define the term green as making decisions that are environmentally friendly and help preserve the earth, such as recycling or buying locally grown food,” he explained.

Mastropietro observed that the terms are used interchangeably, but said, “I think green is a broader term; sustainable is mostly about the use of natural resources. Green is also about healthier spaces,” he said.

Net-zero schools are another variety of green schools. They aspire not just to be energy efficient but to generate renewable energy on-site to equal the total amount of energy used by the building on an annual basis. They are the greenest of green schools.

“We think this should be the goal, certainly for schools but also more generally,” said Mastropietro. “Designing with net zero in mind will help not only the environment but also the kids who use the spaces. Kids spend many hours in their school buildings, so having a building that’s more comfortable, has good natural ventilation, and that uses natural resources in an intelligent way, is not only a physically and psychologically healthy environment for the kids but also a good tool for teaching about the environment,” he said.

Designed by Leo A Daly architects, the Florida Atlantic Univ. engineering and computer-sciences classroom building incorporates photovoltaic panels; a screen wall to shade the fenestration, keeping heat off the glass and from the interior of the building; unshaded windows to allow maximum natural daylight into rooms, hallways, and common areas; north-facing skylights for diffused lighting in computer-science labs and offices; a green roof; and chilled-beam technology. Photo: Island Studio Photography Designed by Leo A Daly architects, the Florida Atlantic Univ. engineering and computer-sciences classroom building incorporates photovoltaic panels; a screen wall to shade the fenestration, keeping heat off the glass and from the interior of the building; unshaded windows to allow maximum natural daylight into rooms, hallways, and common areas; north-facing skylights for diffused lighting in computer-science labs and offices; a green roof; and chilled-beam technology. Photo: Island Studio Photography

“School districts are interested in the high-performance systems and strategies that are necessary for achieving net-zero energy performance,” agreed Trane’s Walker. “After staffing, the biggest expense for schools is utilities. Utilities are a fixed operational cost that can be reduced, which is one of the major reasons schools are taking a longer-term view and looking at net-zero strategies. Buildings are one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse-gas emissions and net zero, or carbon-neutral building design, helps buildings become part of the solution to the current climate crisis.”

Walker continued, “The efficiency of your building affects the cost of energy. As the list of deferred maintenance needs in a school grows, it can result in inefficient equipment operation, resulting in increased utility costs and poor IAQ (indoor air quality). One solution that can help schools improve the classroom environment and reduce energy usage—to free up funds that can be used for other priorities—is the creation of an energy roadmap. This not only reduces energy and utility costs; it also lets schools provide an optimal environment for student learning—for improved results in the classroom.”

Florida Gulf Coast Univ.’s Academic 7 building was designed by Leo A Daly to be the first LEED Platinum education project in the state of Florida. It achieved 42% energy savings over baseline. Photo: Island Studio Photography Florida Gulf Coast Univ.’s Academic 7 building was designed by Leo A Daly to be the first LEED Platinum education project in the state of Florida. It achieved 42% energy savings over baseline. Photo: Island Studio Photography

“Retrofitting is something that many schools are doing, but it’s usually something that happens one step at a time and, of course, the best results come from every element of the building working together as a system, so piecemeal improvements won’t lead to the best outcomes. So it is possible, but it certainly offers challenges,” said Jorge Mastropietro of JMA.

Older schools can be successfully upgraded, agreed Walker, but “there are a variety of constraints that make it difficult, such as inadequate funding, lack of staff resources and capabilities, or competing interests for time and money.

Escalating deferred maintenance in aging school facilities can contribute to rising energy costs and inadequate performance. As the list of deferred maintenance needs in a school grows, it can result in insufficient equipment operation, reduced equipment effectiveness, increased utility costs, reduced equipment life expectancy, and poor indoor air quality.”

“Because many schools face financial constraints that make it difficult to invest in facility improvements, energy contracting can be a good solution,” Walker suggested. “Energy contracting allows schools to use future energy and operational savings to help finance infrastructure improvements up front. Implementing projects using this funding option is cost effective and can, over time, largely pay for itself with minimal impact on cash flow or capital investment required,” he said.

“In an area where existing buildings are permitted to be re-purposed or renovated, be they schools or another use, then, yes, [renovation] is the preferred approach; there is nothing more sustainable than reusing an existing building. The success of the project can be defined through different lenses, depending upon the mission and strategic goals of the school. Contingent upon the type of renovation, the budget, and the desired outcome, there have been successful projects which have aligned with the client’s goals and expectations,” Genovese said.

Renovation is not without its complications, she cautioned. “We often face challenges relating to the building’s context and connection with the surrounding neighborhood, including facade modifications as well as additions to historic structures. Modifications to the building envelope to meet performance codes while retaining the historic fabric is a delicate balance; especially if the building is landmarked or located within a landmark district.”

The Choice School in Thiruvalla, Kerala, India, designed by CetraRuddy, incorporates concrete structures for thermal mass; natural ventilation and shading for reduced air-conditioning costs; all local materials; green roofs to reduce heat gain; highly insulated walls and roofs; low-toxicity and natural materials; and the use of daylight rather than electrical lighting in many spaces. Image: Courtesy CetraRuddy The Choice School in Thiruvalla, Kerala, India, designed by CetraRuddy, incorporates concrete structures for thermal mass; natural ventilation and shading for reduced air-conditioning costs; all local materials; green roofs to reduce heat gain; highly insulated walls and roofs; low-toxicity and natural materials; and the use of daylight rather than electrical lighting in many spaces. Image: Courtesy CetraRuddy

Just as there are many elements to green schools, the payoffs of green initiatives go beyond purely energy-saving, financial goals.

“Green schools are facilities that not only improve energy use but also the learning environment,” Trane’s Walker observed. “Investments in green schools have also led to the creation of ‘living labs,’ where schools are able to use the data and energy analytics they are gathering in the classroom to engage students and staff around the school’s energy goals,” he said.

Asked whether green schools were paying off, Robert J. Thomas, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, Senior Associate, Principal of Science & Technology, Leo A Daly, West Palm Beach, FL, empathetically answered “yes.”

“The energy models we do prove they pay off and, as technology develops, that margin becomes greater and greater,” he predicted.

“When we designed the first LEED Platinum education project in the state of Florida, Florida Gulf Coast Univ.’s Academic 7, Fort Myers, we achieved 42% energy savings over baseline. Over the life cycle of the building, that’s a dramatic savings for the university,” Thomas stated.

Leo A Daly is “currently finishing up a laboratory building at Lake-Sumter State College, Leesburg, FL, that is projected to save 48% over baseline,” he continued. “This is a laboratory building, so the energy costs are astronomical—to the tune of $1,000 a day for a building of this size. You take away 48% of that and you’re talking a significant savings,” he said.

“Energy cost isn’t the only benefit either,” Daly’s Thomas observed. “A sustainably designed building can add to a school’s cachet with potential students, and even improve learning outcomes. A case in point is Academic 7. I was on campus a couple weeks ago and I ended up behind a tour group that was walking through the building. The university had assigned a student tour guide to show off its sustainable features. [The student] was really proud of the building, and it really showed. The recruiting benefit of something like that is really amazing.”

“In terms of learning outcomes,” Thomas continued, “a great example is the Engineering & Computer Science building at Florida Atlantic Univ., Boca Raton. It has Learning-on-Display, which is a series of monitors in common areas displaying the building’s energy performance in real-time. For engineering and computer-science students, there is an enormous pedagogical benefit to seeing how these systems actually work. Also, we’ve been told many times how fantastic the learning environment in this particular building is. Because we used chilled beams for the cooling system, the building is whisper quiet. That makes it a great place to study.”

“Energy performance of LEED-certified projects is getting better and better thanks to technological improvements,” Thomas said, “but also thanks to the addition of commissioning into the LEED process. Commissioning is the step where an engineer goes to the building and tests every component to make sure it’s operating at peak efficiency. So, instead of just taking the contractor’s word for it, the solution is vetted and the results are confirmed before the owner takes occupancy.”

Another reason Thomas believes green schools are paying off has to do with building codes. “Across the country, states are mandating LEED principles as part of building code. We’re just coming out of a recession, and if sustainability wasn’t paying off, states wouldn’t be mandating it,” Thomas said.

“There have been many reports and metrics following the benefits of building green schools,” according to Genovese. “Understanding and evaluation of whether a project has paid off depends upon the upfront defined goals. If the investment is reviewed in context of the financial dollars spent on sustainable strategies that are responding to the goals, then there are certainly examples of schools where the investment has paid off,” Genovese said.

“As early as 2006 there was a study, Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits, which stated it costs less than 2% more to build a green school than one without incorporation of sustainable concepts. The study was conducted by Capital E and sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, the American Institute of Architects, the American Lung Association, the Federation of American Scientists, and the United States Green Building Council. The conclusion of this study was that green schools equate to enhanced student learning, reduction of facility operation costs, and reduced health costs for the students,” Genovese added.

Financial rewards and incentives for green-school construction include grants, rebates, low-interest loans, and bonus square footage, she noted.

While energy and cost savings alone should be enough to justify building green schools, the fact that they teach generations of students to use energy responsibly is a compelling reason for continued efforts to make schools as green as possible. CA

datacache— Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits

— Green Schools National Network

— The Center for Green Schools

— The Green Schools Alliance

— The Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS)

— EPA: Sensible Guide for Healthier School Renovations

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