The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s voluntary School Siting Guidelines provide recommendations on how to evaluate environmental factors when choosing school sites in facility planning. The Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) enacted in 2007 included provisions requiring the EPA to help develop model guidelines for siting schools.
The guidelines state that parents, communities, as well as education, environment and health agencies, share the responsibility for protecting children from environmental risks. Younger children are uniquely at risk from environmental hazards because they eat, drink and breathe more in proportion to their body size than adults. Environmental contaminants may affect children disproportionately because their immune, respiratory and other systems are not fully developed, and their growing organs are harmed more easily.
The high school I attended was situated in the old part of Minneapolis and operated from 1892 to 1969 before being replaced. The school was built in 1892 with additions in 1910, 1911, 1916 and 1926. As noted in Wikipedia:
"With this last part of the central school building added, South High School became one of the architectural wonders of the city of Minneapolis, featuring three different sections with different architectural styles, linked together in an offbeat harmony. This paragraph from the January 1927 Parent-Teacher Broadcaster summarizes it and the parts inside it the best:
‘The building itself ... is so constructed that its architecture may be easily spoken of as ancient, medieval, and modern; or, in other words, there is the old main building with its fantastic design, the manual training wing, medieval in structure, and lastly, the new building of modern architecture. The whole, colossal in size and modern to the nth degree, is set in extensive grounds … all classrooms are wonderfully large, light, and airy.’"
Attending South High required walking across several busy streets, past a cemetery, shopping center and the city garbage incinerator, through a heavy industrial area containing fertilizer and asphalt plants, and across railroad tracks. To get to the athletic fields, students had to get across a busy street. The athletic fields were across the street from a large railroad yard. The coal burning steam locomotive was still in use, which meant showers for everyone after playing on the athletic fields.
Planners situating the school in this undeveloped area in 1890 could not have foreseen the environmental issues regarding the school site. No facility planning could have predicted secondary school site needs for athletic fields or students driving cars to school by the 1950s. In 1910 only 10 percent of children aged 14 to 17 were enrolled in school. By 1970, 90 percent were enrolled.
Site selection has become more sophisticated, sometimes including environmental impact assessment. Mitigation of contaminated soil, monitoring aquifers, relocating high-voltage transmission lines or gas pipelines, migration of rare turtle species, and archaeological assessment for Indian artifacts have been necessary to make certain sites usable. Creative design can mitigate many potential environmental problems.
The right school site can enhance the educational process by providing a safe and healthful environment. The EPA cautions that choosing a site may involve many considerations that extend beyond the scope of its guidelines. Although many states have guidelines, their site selection checklists may not focus on all environmental factors.
An architect hired for a school project should include a review of the EPA guidelines and have all properties or structures, as well as surrounding properties, be evaluated for potential environmental hazards before making final decisions about using a site or structure for a school.