In the Green

In the Green

Can schools afford not to incorporate sustainable design into projects?

Education officials used to debate whether they could afford to pursue green design and construction. Now the green movement has gained a foothold not just in education, but in society at large, and the prevailing attitude seems to have shifted. Can schools afford not to go green?

As budgets are slashed repeatedly, education administrators must put a premium on efficiency. Dollars saved through more efficiently operated facilities can help prop up critical education programs that otherwise would fall victim to dwindling financial support.

So even as schools and universities eliminate jobs, increase class sizes and scramble for other ways to reduce expenses, many of these same institutions are maintaining or extending their commitment to energy-efficient and environmentally friendly design and construction, and to operational practices that provide safe, healthful and cost-effective learning and working environments.

Double platinum

In the early years of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating program, achieving a certified rating—the lowest of the four LEED levels—was an accomplishment that brought kudos to an education institution. A platinum rating—the highest level—was a lofty goal that many dismissed as too arduous to obtain.

But as designers and builders have gained more experience and become more adept at incorporating sustainability into facilities, the unattainable is now within reach for many schools.

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, administrators have established a high bar for sustainability at Bren Hall, which houses the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. It has received a coveted platinum rating in two different LEED categories, the first building in the United States to receive that distinction.

The facility, which opened in 2002, received a platinum LEED rating for new construction, and the university boasted of having the greenest lab facility in the nation. In 2009, officials decided to seek LEED certification for Bren Hall in the Existing Building category, and again received the highest rating.

Among the green attributes in the 84,000-square-foot building: solar panels installed on the roof; efficient lighting system and controls; reclaimed water used for irrigation and for first-floor toilets; waterless urinals; drought-resistant landscaping; incorporation of recycled content and renewable resources in construction materials; and use of paints with low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

To achieve a platinum rating as an existing building, the university had to show that the sustainable strategies incorporated into the building design were being adhered to and enhanced by energy-efficient and environmentally sensitive operations. An evaluation of the facility showed that its energy use was one-third to one-half less than similar buildings of similar function.

Officials say Bren Hall earned the Existing Building platinum rating without major retrofitting. The most prominent changes were upgrading laboratory fume hoods and buying credits for renewable wind and solar energy.

Another building on the UC Santa Barbara campus, the Marine Research Science Building, also has earned LEED certification in the Existing Building category. Since it opened in 2006, building engineers have been able to reduce energy use by 44 percent.

The university says it plans to have 25 campus facilities certified by the end of 2012 in the LEED Existing Building category. It also has a policy that any new building on campus must meet LEED silver standards or higher.

Second opinion

LEED is not the only rating system for judging the sustainability of school facilities. Many states, including Texas, have adopted criteria developed by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) to determine if a school facility has incorporated energy efficiency and environmental sensitivity in its design.

In the Humble (Texas) Independent School District, Atascocita Springs Elementary School, which opened in fall 2010, was designed with sustainability in mind. It not only has become the district’s first facility to earn a LEED rating, but also will be evaluated by CHPS and expects to be verified by that organization as a high-performance facility. District officials say the school would be the first in Texas to achieve recognition from each group.

The 113,895-square-foot building was designed by PBK to accommodate 950 K-5 students. Energy-saving elements in the school include low-flow plumbing fixtures, drought-resistant plants, solar panels, reflective site paving, roofs that minimize heat absorption, and use of construction materials with recycled content. The building’s three classroom wings face north-south to take advantage of daylight and reduce dependency on artificial lighting.

To meet CHPS criteria, the Atascocita Springs campus was designed to be a learning tool. It has two learning bridges that integrate the science curriculum to teach about magnetism and to study friction, speed and inertia; and interactive kiosks throughout the building for students to monitor and log the school’s solar, water, gas and electrical use. Classrooms open up to learning courtyards that include sundials, charts and number lines that emphasize the enhanced math curriculum requirements. Windows from classrooms to the hallways enable teachers to monitor learning inside and outside of the classroom.

Adding sustainability

As the LEED program has won wider acceptance from builders and designers, the Green Building Council has added new categories in its evaluation program. LEED for Schools was established in 2007 to recognize the unique characteristics that apply to K-12 school construction.

The Omaha (Neb.) district used the LEED for Schools system last year for an addition it built at Omaha North High School, which became the first facility in Nebraska to receive LEED certification under LEED for Schools. RDG Planning & Design and Vertegy, a LEED consultant, designed a four-story 32,000-square-foot addition to a school built in 1922. The new space, consisting mostly of science classrooms and labs, has earned a LEED silver rating.

Among the features that helped the facility meet LEED standards: a greenhouse that opens onto a green roof; a system that uses rainwater to provide 100 percent of the addition’s irrigation needs; 81 percent of the wood used in the project was harvested from sources certified by the Forest Stewardship Council; installation of low-flow sinks and dual-flush toilets, which reduce potable water use by 43 percent; and the use of low-emitting paints, coatings, adhesives, sealants, flooring materials and composite woods to reduce VOC emissions and improve indoor air quality.

Nearly 19 percent of the building materials were manufactured within 500 miles of the school, 32 percent of the building materials contained recycled content, and 87 percent of the construction waste was diverted instead of being taken to a landfill.

Sidebar: One of the biggest things under the sun

Colorado State University says it has completed one of the largest solar-power installations at a U.S. university.

The 5.3-megawatt solar plant at the Foothills Campus in Fort Collins began producing electricity in December. The plant will provide one-third of electricity needs on the Foothills Campus, which is about three miles west of the main campus. Officials project the plant will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 6 million kilograms—the equivalent of removing more than 520 cars off the road each year.

The solar power system is funded by a partnership that includes regional utility Xcel Energy and renewable energy developer Fotowatio Renewable Ventures. A Power Purchase Agreement structure leverages tax credits and incentives, and enables Colorado State to buy electricity produced by the plant at a fixed rate for 20 years.

“This is a practical example of our commitment to renewable energy and the public-private partnerships that are crucial to making these projects successful,” says Colorado State President Tony Frank.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

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