Simple Strategies

Investing in green designs for school construction projects.

A lot of misunderstandings exist regarding sustainable, or green, construction. It's important that educators understand the benefits so they can communicate them to stakeholders.

Many education professionals have heard the arguments before: “It's too hard,” “I don't have the time or money,” and “How is this going to help me now, let alone later?” These statements may sound like the words of students balking at an education, but these are some of the common misconceptions about green building. The arguments are similar, as are the answers, because green building is as achievable, as aesthetically rewarding and as wise an investment as a good education. And of that wise investment, Aristotle said, “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.”

According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a $4 investment (per square foot) in building green nets a $58 benefit (per square foot) over 20 years. Savings continue to add up over the lifetime of the facility. And while some stakeholders may focus only on short-term benefits, it is imperative that education professionals impart to them the long-term benefits of green building and of being good stewards of the environment, modeling good citizenship to students, and passing that legacy on to future generations.

What is green building?

Green building is good design created through smart strategies, such as daylighting, siting, skin selection, system selection and material selection. These strategies provide overall cost-savings and more healthful buildings, foster enhanced student performance, and offer branding opportunities as an environmentally proactive education facility.

In addition to these benefits, education professionals must consider that green building's future already has taken root. According to the USGBC, which rates and certifies green building based upon its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, LEED projects are being built in 41 countries and all 50 states. With the education sector expected to have 64 percent green building growth, according to USGBC, nationwide building mandates are likely in the near future, especially for publicly funded projects.

According to USGBC, a bipartisan caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives already has been created to advance green practices in schools. Today's students — perhaps the most environmentally conscious generation — will become tomorrow's corporate leaders and public policymakers, and also will add their voices to the impetus for federally mandated green building.

Natural choices

Some things to look at when incorporating green design in projects:

  • Natural lighting

    Effective siting on an east-west axis is one of the most crucial and cost-saving strategies in green building. Studies show that ample natural lighting in classrooms creates a pleasing environment, minimizes the need for supplemental lighting, and fosters improved learning and teaching.

    For example, window hoods, which increase comfort for much longer time spans than a typical window system, can help control the sun all year, deflecting the summer's direct heat and rays, and enabling the winter sun to enter deeply and naturally warm the spaces.

    Separate switches on interior lighting can shut off perimeter lights when enough daylight has entered rooms, further reducing the costs and needs of supplemental lighting. Selecting fixture task lighting, in which lights go down to the desk rather than illuminating the whole space, also conserves energy.

  • Roofing

    Selecting the right roof can reduce energy consumption significantly. Climatic and other regional variations are a major consideration.

    One option is a green roof planted with sturdy, low-growth, flowering sedum plants. Benefits of this type of roof are numerous. The roof filters and collects rainwater, preventing dirt and excess water in the storm system, which saves on water, sewer and drainage requirements. The rainwater captured by the roof also can be reused for irrigating landscape or flushing toilets. The roof also reduces air pollution (greenhouse gases) and cooling costs, as well as provides wind buffering and sound insulation; produces oxygen; and increases biodiversity, creating small habitats. The roof also can be a unique learning tool, offering a multitude of research and study opportunities to students and faculty alike.

  • Material choices

    Bamboo paneling is another example of creativity, aesthetic value and functionality in green building materials. Research has found that the woody bamboo panels are tough and resistant to scuffing and other types of abuse that can minimize replacement costs and waste. Providing more flexibility than the tile or block traditionally used in school corridors, bamboo panels also can be taken down to access surfaces behind them.

  • Ventilated walls

    A ventilated wall system (VWS) is relatively new in the United States, but has been used for several decades as a major system in Europe and Canada. In traditional walls, increased pressure inside the wall cavity acts as a straw, sucking water into the wall's interior cavity. Construction deteriorates when water seeps in, fostering mold and mildew. A VWS equalizes the pressure in the cavity, eliminating mold and mildew, and avoiding the sick-building syndrome that has plagued many older education facilities and caused clean-up or deconstruction costs.

  • Recruiting and retention

    An institution that demonstrates it is proactive toward sustainability has an effective recruiting argument for prospective students and future faculty members. Numerous studies of green buildings also show improved health among occupants and users.

    Collaboration with administrators, stakeholders and the project team early in the process can help identify and envision a facility that will meet the requirements of long-term maintenance, durability, serviceability and all associated costs. Having engineers at the table early can help achieve great synergies in a seamless, holistic, real-time approach, as well as result in many cost savings, including economical sizing of the mechanical systems from the start.

Stevens, a LEED-accredited professional, is a principal at SHW Group, a national education design firm with a focus on learning environments from pre-K through graduate studies. He can be reached at (248)291-0595.

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