Overcoming Obstacles to Going Green

Overcoming Obstacles to Going Green

Strategies to meet sustainability and cost goals in the design, construction and operation of education facilities.

In recent years, green design has evolved from a cutting-edge idea embraced by ecology-obsessed activists to an idea embraced as a badge of honor by schools and universities across the nation.

A consensus has formed among architects, school facility managers and educators that sustainably designed projects are desirable and make sense for the environment and for an institution's long-term finances.

But just because many of the key decisionmakers agree about the wisdom of green design and construction doesn't guarantee that the planning process will move forward smoothly and result in a high-performance, energy-efficient, well-run, environmentally friendly education facility.

Green projects, like most construction and renovation projects, may encounter roadblocks on the path from concept to reality: permits, zoning requirements and other bureaucratic obstacles imposed by planning commissions, school boards or other government agencies; unexpected reductions in available funding; breakdowns in communication among a design team; a failure to follow up after a project is completed to make sure the benefits promised are being delivered.

Education administrators and designers must be prepared to address those issues while making sure that the solutions do not diminish the environmentally beneficial qualities envisioned in the planning.

Solar strategy

In Hopkinton, Mass., facilities director Brian Main, seeking ways to cut energy costs and reduce the town's dependence on fossil fuels, did some research on his own and brought forth a proposal in 2008 to install an array of solar panels on the town's high school and middle school, as well as the police and fire stations.

"I thought I would dazzle people with this endeavor," a bemused Main recalls.

The array of 1,800 photovoltaic panels began operating from the roofs of the four buildings in November 2009, but Main says there were times during the process that he thought his energy-saving efforts would never see the light of day.

Early on, the police and fire department officials said they favored the project, but the town's school committee was skeptical. Members were concerned, Main says, about making a 20-year commitment to placing the panels on school roofs and whether that would hinder any roofing upgrades that would need to take place.

Without the school facilities, the solar installation wasn't feasible, so Main worked on persuading school officials. He persuaded the company that would install the photovoltaic panels to provide the school system with curricular materials to teach Hopkinton students about solar energy. The company also agreed to install a kiosk at the high school to display how much energy the system is producing.

The school committee ultimately approved the plan, but the proposal nearly ran aground again when economic troubles led to cuts in the tax credits available to municipalities for solar installations. The town was able to overcome that obstacle by partnering with Boston Community Capital, a non-profit organization. To take advantage of the tax incentives available to companies installing solar power, it formed a for-profit entity that paid for the panels, and sells the solar power to the town at a reduced rate.

As the town dealt with state agencies to seek approval, Main got conflicting answers about whether the project would have to go out for competitive bidding. Then he found out that, legally, the town had to approve a lease for the solar installation.

"They said we needed a lease even though no money was changing hands," says Main. "It had to be approved at the town meeting, which happens only once a year."

Fortunately for the project, the timing of the town meeting did not disrupt the schedule for installation, and townspeople approved the lease.

The solar power collected by the panels in Hopkinton is expected to offset energy costs by about 15 percent, Main says.

The panels' presence also has sparked greater interest among townsfolk for environmental initiatives.

"It has created a lot of interest in the town," says Main. "There now is a sustainable green committee."

In addition, Main says, the town's plans for a new elementary school will incorporate sustainable strategies spelled out by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools and the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED standards.

Working together

Even when funding is in place and all the stakeholders are unabashed champions for sustainable design and construction, a project can bog down when members of the design team aren't communicating effectively.

"One of the big challenges is to integrate the systems that need to work together," says Phil Dordai, managing principal with the architectural firm RMJM.

That was the goal RMJM had in designing the Athenaeum at Goucher College in Baltimore, Md. The $48 million, 103,000-square-foot facility includes a student center, library, academic space, exercise facilities, a stage and theater, and food-service operations.

"It serves as the center of the campus," says Dordai. "It's the heartbeat of the place."

Goucher is seeking LEED silver certification for the Athenaeum. Among the sustainable strategies incorporated into the facility are green roofs, dual-flush toilets, waterless urinals, water-efficient landscaping, motion-activated faucets, zoned HVAC and lighting systems, bike racks, showers and changing areas, solar water heating, light-activated motorized window shades, insulated glass, motion sensors for lighting, displacement ventilation and high-efficiency mechanical systems.

"The sustainable approach developed organically," says Dordai. "School officials were interested in sustainability, and students were quite interested as well."

To come up with the most effective green strategies for a facility, designers have to determine how the various design elements interact with one another; a seemingly innocuous change in one feature can weaken the environmental benefits that other features are expected to provide.

"Architects need to bring in engineers earlier and work out issues such as artificial lighting, daylighting, heat loads," says Dordai.

It's what architects call "integrated project delivery." "It's everybody contributing — the whole team focusing on the whole building and coming up with one vision," says Dordai.

Such cooperation seems like common sense, but for architects and engineers used to working a certain way, it can be difficult to break old habits.

"The traditional way has been that the architect designs it, and the engineer applies the design," says Dordai. "This requires a cultural shift. Architects need to listen to engineers more, and you also need engineers to be more forceful and willing to contribute ideas about how the space should be shaped."

Dordai adds that because an architect typically is the prime contractor on a building project, they should be the ones to take the lead in pursuing integrated project delivery.

Evaluating the effort

For a typical sustainably designed education facility, most of the attention the project receives comes when the plans are announced and when the facility opens its doors. Designers and school administrators proudly rattle off the environmentally friendly characteristics that will conserve resources, cut costs and provide an enhanced learning environment.

But the true test of whether a building has earned the right to call itself green comes later, after the ribbons are cut and the dignitaries have gone, and students and staff begin to see if the promises of energy efficiency and environmental benefits prove true.

For the designers, engineers and builders that work on sustainable projects for schools and universities, that means their jobs do not end when the occupancy permit is issued. Post-occupancy analysis of a green facility is essential to determine if a building's systems are delivering the energy savings envisioned and to identify and correct deficiencies that are counteracting the desired environmental benefits.

"Some of these systems are pretty sophisticated," says Dordai. "You need people who are trained to take care of them."

The Roadmap to Sustainable Government Buildings, a guide compiled by the U.S. Green Building Council and the National Association of State Facilities Administrators, says monitoring a building's performance after is opens is a vital step in compiling hard evidence that sustainable strategies are working.

A green project needs to include a system to track the performance of building elements. "This data will determine … whether the occupants are maximizing the building's potential, and whether additional operational systems need to be incorporated," the roadmap says.

The design team also should make sure that the people who will inhabit a building — students, teachers, custodians — are aware of the facility's sustainable features and the purpose they serve.

"Project managers should meet with building occupants and staff to explain how a green building impacts their work environment," the roadmap states. "An educational workshop is an ideal way to communicate how the green building systems work, why they were installed and what they (as users) can do to ensure the building operates as efficiently as possible … Staff, including cleaning and security staff, also should be included in the education process, since operations and maintenance of a green building requires specific care."

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

Student fees boost sustainability

Scarce funding is an obstacle for many green initiatives at schools and universities. But students at the University of Georgia have decided to back their commitment to sustainability with dollars.

They will begin paying a $3-a-semester "green fee" to support sustainability efforts at the Athens campus.

Students at the university voted in 2009 by a ratio of more than 4 to 1 in favor of imposing the fee on themselves, but their action was not binding on the school administration.

University president Michael Adams, in his 2010 State of the University speech, announced in January that he was accepting the recommendation.

"We will establish an Office of Sustainability with those funds," says Adams. "This office will provide leadership and coordination to the many sustainability initiatives on campus … and ensure that departments are abiding by the University's commitment to sustainability."

The university expects the fee to generate about $150,000 a year.

Creating a sustainability office fulfills a recommendation made in October by the school's Working Group on Sustainability to "establish a coordinating body to oversee sustainability efforts and maximize awareness of the university's activities to both external and internal audiences."

Idaho schools get help pursuing energy efficiency

To build what it hopes will be the first school in Idaho to receive LEED silver certification, the Caldwell district is taking advantage of an energy-saving performance contract with the local power company and incentives from the state.

The new Van Buren Elementary opened in September in Caldwell. The 70,000-square-foot facility's sustainable features include a V-shaped design intended to capture solar energy; large classroom windows that provide daylight throughout 90 percent of the building; building products made from recycled materials; high-performance kitchen and bathroom fixtures to maximize water efficiency; and HVAC systems that keep room temperatures consistent and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

District officials project that the campus's energy-saving features will result in 30 percent less energy consumption.

Funding for the $12 million project comes from an energy-saving performance contract with Idaho Power as well as additional assistance from the Idaho Office of Energy Resources.

In addition, schools throughout Idaho will get help becoming more energy-efficient with money from the 2009 federal stimulus package. A $17 million Recovery Act grant from the U.S. Department of Energy will enable all 703 schools in Idaho undergo audits to determine which facilities can benefit from upgrades that will boost energy efficiency for lighting, heating and cooling systems.

The Idaho K-12 Energy Efficiency Project calls for every school's heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system to receive either a tune-up or equipment retrofit to improve energy performance. The goal of the program is to reduce classroom energy consumption by 10 to 15 percent over the next two years.

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