Schools are being squeezed from all sides: shrinking budgets, soaring energy costs, aging and crowded facilities, and growing pressures to boost student test scores. Administrators face tough choices as they try to provide the best learning environment for students.
One facility improvement that touches on all of these concerns is daylighting. Effective daylighting can help schools realize significant energy savings, increase student attendance and test scores, demonstrate environmental responsibility, and provide a better climate in which students can learn. A variety of programs are available to institutions interested in reaping the benefits of daylighting.
The Dalles Middle School in The Dalles, Ore., has been recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council for its energy efficiency. The school reduced its operating costs by more than 45 percent through energy-saving technologies that included extensive use of daylighting. Tubular skylights were installed in the classrooms, along with lighting controls and sensors that adjusted the fluorescent lamps to supplement the natural light. By collecting and distributing both direct and ambient light, the skylights delivered natural lighting throughout the school.
"People don't realize how expensive it is to operate an inefficient school facility," said Forrest Bell, superintendent of Central School District 13J in Monmouth-Independence, Ore.
The district's new Ash Creek Intermediate School, a high-performance, daylighted school featuring tubular skylights, expects to have half the energy costs of a similarly sized district facility with outdated design.
"We wanted a building that gets us the most value for our dollar and gives our kids an advantage," says Bell. "At Ash Creek, we use nature as our ally. We want people to recognize that the features in this building are ones they should expect and demand."
In most schools, the cost of energy is second only to salaries. Effective daylighting can lower that expense significantly. The National Center for Education Statistics has found that 72 percent of the cost of energy in educational buildings goes toward electricity; the majority (56 percent) goes toward electric lighting. Effective daylighting strategies, used with lighting controls and dimming systems, can reduce or eliminate the need for electric lights during the school day. Daylighting also reduces the demand on cooling systems. According to the Collaborative for High Performing Schools (CHPS), school energy costs average $100 per student per year; effective design solutions can save up to $50 per student per year.
Daylighting also can provide an unexpected revenue source. Studies have shown that improved school design, including the use of natural light, can reduce student absenteeism by several days per calendar year. In most jurisdictions, the amount of school aid a district receives is tied to attendance; even small increases can affect school funding significantly.
California is leading the way in energy-efficient school design and programs; its schools spend $700 million annually on energy. Increased energy efficiency could reduce that figure by 20 to 40 percent and free up desperately needed funds for classroom instruction.
The California Energy Commission has established the Bright Schools Program to help schools identify, design and install more cost-effective, energy-efficient lighting and HVAC systems. Schools can secure low-interest loans to subsidize energy-related deferred-maintenance projects or to match modernization funding from other state programs.
"Although our primary goal is to facilitate the installation and proper use of products and equipment that reduce the use of energy, we also recognize the importance of non-energy-related benefits that result from daylighting systems, including improved student performance," says Randel Riedel, contract manager with the California Energy Commission. "We are pleased to be able to assist schools in realizing these significant public benefits."
The U.S. Department of Energy's EnergySmart Schools campaign is another program that helps schools carry out energy-saving strategies such as daylighting. It offers free technical help and training to school districts, as well as contacts in other communities that already have built or renovated using smart-energy concepts.
School bonds have provided another valuable source of funding to integrate modern daylighting into classrooms. The Natomas Unified School District in Sacramento, Calif., has experienced an 18 percent growth rate, and state funding has not kept pace. Students have been placed into portable classrooms that lack natural light. The district recently approved a $300,000 bond to install 267 skylights in 121 portable classrooms.
"With the economic pressures placed on districts today, schools are moving not only toward energy efficiency, but toward energy self-sufficiency," says Mike Mormon, director of facilities and planning in the Natomas district. "The benefits of daylighting extend beyond just providing a better learning environment for students, but to impacting the bottom line for districts."
Other financing strategies
The EnergySmart Schools campaign points out that school districts can consider the energy efficiency of their facilities as a ready source of cash. Like home equity, this "energy equity" can be used to leverage a loan to finance energy upgrades.
Utility companies also may provide rebates, incentives, partnership programs or grant opportunities to support energy-efficient projects. Some states, including California, New York and North Carolina, offer tax credits to help offset the cost of upgrades. School districts can research what financial help is available through the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (DSIRE) at www.dsireusa.org.
Daylighting efforts need to be designed thoughtfully to provide the appropriate amount of light and avoid glare, shadows, heat gain and other distractions. Daylighting should be integrated with electric lighting in a comprehensive strategy. Controls should shut off electric lights automatically when daylight is adequate. Occupants should be able to control the level of lighting in a room to adjust to changing conditions. Dimming capabilities allow the level of natural light to be adjusted from 100 percent down to 2 percent to accommodate activities such as watching movies and slide presentations, or for naps.
Del Mar Elementary School in Morro Bay, Calif., has taken advantage of daylighting improvements to teach its students about energy conservation. The school received a $15,000 conservation grant from the California Consumer Services Education Department to retrofit five classrooms with natural lighting. Each classroom, with about 920 square feet, was outfitted with six 21-inch tubular skylights. Before the installation, students measured the light levels in each room with the fluorescent lights on. After skylights were installed, they measured the light levels of only the natural light provided by the skylights. There was an overall sustained light increase of 25 percent.
"We are thrilled with the quality of the natural light," says Cindy Vix, a teacher at Del Mar. "It's unbelievable. Even on cloudy days, we still have enough light in the classroom. The students have become very energy conscious. They don't want the electric lights on and are adamant about turning them off."
Daylighting also is working its way into the modular realm. Tubular skylights can be an effective daylighting solution for these classrooms. Danny Parker, senior researcher with the Florida Solar Energy Center, says skylighting installed in experimental portable classrooms in Cornwall, N.Y., provided a significant improvement.
"A real accomplishment of the project has been to conclusively demonstrate that overhead daylighting of portable classrooms is both physically feasible and desirable," notes Parker.
Westfall is vice president, sales and marketing, with Solatube International Inc., based in Vista, Calif.