For several years, schools and universities have been battered by a sputtering economy that on many campuses has brought about slashed budgets, curtailed programs, shuttered facilities and terminated employees. But throughout the gloomy financial conditions, one of the bright spots for education institutions is the continued growing embrace of green design and construction strategies.
The economic downturn has slowed the pace of school construction and renovation in many communities, but for those institutions that have acquired the money needed to carry out facility projects, many have run the numbers and concluded that sustainable design and construction strategies are the best way to provide their constituents with an environmentally friendly, energy-efficient building that will last a long time.
From coast to coast, administrators and architects are collaborating to create school spaces with design elements once seldom seen on campuses, but becoming more and more common: ample daylighting that reduces the demand for artificial light; highly efficient heating and cooling systems that enable schools to provide a controlled climate at a much lower cost; solar panels and wind turbines that generate energy and don't create greenhouse gas emissions; water-saving fixtures and rain collection systems that result in less consumption of fresh water; and wetlands, native vegetation and green roofs to provide students and staff with connections to nature.
For facility managers, the cost savings that sustainably designed schools provide are a key selling point; for educators, the ability to help plan a building with an eye toward integrating those green building features into the curriculum and enhancing student learning is an exciting opportunity.
"Usually a building is already there and you deal with the space you have," says Dan Hoffman, assistant superintendent with the Reynoldsburg (Ohio) district, which opened a sustainably designed high school in 2011. "We were able to start with the architect, and that opportunity hasn't happened very often."
The push for sustainable design is taking place throughout the construction and design industry, but the education sector has clearly become a leader in delivering green facilities:
•The Collaborative for High Performance Schools has created a series of best-practices manuals that offer schools resources for designing buildings and selecting materials that are energy-efficient and environmentally friendly. Its recognition program acknowledges designs that achieve sustainable standards.
•The U.S. Green Building Council, through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, has created what has become a sought-after way for schools to certify that a project has incorporated strategies for saving energy and having minimal effect on the environment.
•Forty states have established mandates or incentives for sustainable design and construction of public facilities, says the National Conference of State Legislatures. In addition, many local governments, individual school districts and universities have standards that call for sustainably designed education facilities.
•Acknowledging the importance of school facilities to the green movement, the U.S. Green Building Council created the Center for Green Schools in September 2010. The center says that the amount of LEED-certified education facility space in the United States (166 million square feet, as of December 2011) represents a higher percentage than any other market sector. A center poll in 2011 found that nearly three out of four Americans supported federal investment in facility improvements that created more healthful schools.
•The Center for Green Schools Report Card 2011 provides a statistical measure of the growth of the sustainability movement in education: 4,352 facility projects at colleges and universities have pursued or are pursuing LEED certification; 1,370 projects have earned some level of certification (either certified, silver, gold or platinum); another 2,982 higher-education projects have registered for LEED certification and are awaiting for the process to be completed. The report card singles out Harvard University and its 50 LEED-certified facilities as the No. 1 campus for LEED projects.
At the K-12 level, 579 projects have LEED certification, and another 2,982 projects have registered to go through the process. Ohio, with 315 K-12 LEED projects, is the state with the most.
Standard of Ohio
Ohio stands at the top of the list of K-12 LEED projects because the state’s School Facilities Commission, which provides funding to districts for facility improvements, mandated LEED standards for projects. With more than $4 billion in funding to disburse to Ohio districts wanting to upgrade their campuses, the commission’s standards have made Ohio a green leader.
"A lot of people are looking to Ohio to find out, ‘How do I get green schools?’" says Columbus architect Kirk Paisley, a leader of an Ohio Green Schools Rally at the end of February in the Reynoldsburg district. "The simple answer is ‘Move to Ohio.’"
The promise of what a new, sustainably designed high school in Reynoldsburg could offer is what persuaded assistant superintendent Dan Hoffman to return to the district. He had worked for Reynoldsburg for 27 years and had left to join KnowledgeWorks, a group that focuses on new approaches to high school education.
The new high school was an opportunity to be part of a new, sustainably designed facility that would have a 21st-century approach to education. The new facility is based on a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) model with a specific focus on environmental science.
The campus includes a green roof and four acres of wetlands that are used to complement and enhance learning. Two yurts—small, domelike structures more commonly used by nomads in Central Asia—have been placed on the campus grounds. They have 180 degrees of windows, and students can observe the wetlands and conduct experiments in them.
The high school facility’s heating and cooling comes from a geothermal system. Much of the wiring and infrastructure is left exposed and is labeled so students can see how the building functions.
"The two things we have emphasized are transparency and flexibility," says Hoffman. "The building itself is a teaching tool."
Hoffman says the combination of sustainability and the academic initiatives that take advantage of the surroundings have made the high school a place where students want to be.
"It’s more like a college campus than a high school," he says. "It has renewed interest in the district. Some students have returned from private schools."
Just a few miles from Reynoldsburg, the Columbus district has different issues as it tries to bring sustainable approaches to its facilities projects.
Columbus has many older schools, some historically significant, so building improvements have to be balanced with the need for preservation. That means the district’s approach tilts toward renovating schools rather than building new campuses, says Carole Olshavsky, the district’s senior executive for capital improvements. Because of that, Columbus had to persuade the state’s Facilities Commission to be more flexible about factoring in preservation and allowing older campuses to undergo renovation.
Columbus also has many facilities to manage and must maintain consistency as it carries out green improvements.
"We try to have a good balance of pushing the envelope on sustainability and environmental responsibility, and maintaining consistency in a large district," Olshavsky says. "We have a more standardized design and construction approach; we don’t want our maintenance staffs saddled with different systems."
Urban settings have some advantages in acquiring LEED points for certification, Olshavsky says—city schools tend to be on more compact sites and are more likely to have access to public transportation. But Columbus also has characteristics that make the path to green schools more challenging.
In addition, the conditions in the area can make some approaches, such as geothermal systems, difficult.
"We have some unusual sub-surface conditions," Olshavsky says. "Drill a few feet away you might find something totally different. You might find caves or water—we even found some natural gas."
The number of sustainable projects in Ohio led to another problem,
"A geothermal system provides tremendous savings, but there were few contractors available who could do it," Olshavsky says. "They have been overwhelmed…that escalates the price."
Despite not being able to pursue geothermal systems or other approaches such as solar panels or wind turbines that may not be cost-effective in Columbus, the district has been able to successfully complete green renovations on several campuses.
"We are seeing 30 to 40 percent energy savings in the projects we have completed," Olshavsky says.
Sidebar: Renovation of 120-year-old building earns LEED platinum
The Russell T. Joy Building at the University of Washington Tacoma has earned a LEED platinum certification for the sustainable practices incorporated into the building renovation.
The building was constructed in 1892 and housed several businesses through the years, but had been vacant since 1997, when the university began establishing a permanent campus in the neighborhood. The building opened in spring 2011.
The university points to numerous green features that helped the Joy Building receive platinum certification:
•The building captures 90 percent of rainwater and reuses it in planters.
•Water use during building operations has dropped 43.6 percent.
•The building uses 49.7 percent less energy.
•100 percent of the wood used in the renovation was Forest Stewardship Council-certified.
•95.1 percent of construction waste was recycled.
•83.9 percent of building structure was reused.
•The building now has an electrical-vehicle recharging station.
•22.7 percent of the building materials are recycled content.
•Daylight reaches 90 percent of occupied spaces.
•20.3 percent of materials were purchased within 500 miles.
Sidebar: A Green Spring
Last month, Gloria Marshall Elementary School in the Spring (Texas) district received a gold LEED rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.
It was just the latest recognition for a project that has received several awards for its sustainable elements as well as its overall design.
Last summer, judges in AS&U’s 2011 Architectural Portfolio awarded the elementary school the William Caudill Citation, the top prize for K-12 design in the competition. The Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators also has an award named for William Caudill, a noted education architect, and Gloria Marshall was selected as the 2011 winner.
The 105,000-square-foot school, designed by SHW Group, was designed to meet the sustainability criteria set forth by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools. The campus is the first school in the Houston area to have a geothermal heating and cooling system. Gloria Marshall uses 41 percent less energy than a typical elementary school in the district.
According to SHW, other green features of the school:
•A highly reflective white-colored roof.
•A wind turbine and 10,000-kilowatts photovoltaic cells on the building’s roof.
•A butterfly garden along a walking trail.
•An underground cistern that collects rainwater from the roof and uses it to flush toilets and urinals.
•Use of wood trees on the site for desks, benches and conference room tables.
•Incorporation of recycled content or rapidly renewable resources into the construction of the campus.
•Reduced water use by having no irrigation.
Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].