A Sustainable Approach

July 1, 2006
Green building practices can help education institutions increase productivity and achieve long-term savings.

Many school districts and education institutions are making green facilities a greater priority. Green buildings, also called sustainable or high-performance buildings, can provide many advantages for schools and the people who use them. They cost less to operate, last longer and provide a better learning environment. Constructing sustainable buildings isn't just good for the environment; it's also a good business decision.

Nonetheless, some administrators have concerns about the upfront costs associated with sustainable techniques in construction or renovation projects. Some sustainable products and processes cost more initially, but others can reduce costs. Through smart planning, green design and construction techniques can reap long-term reductions in energy, facility costs and ongoing maintenance demands.

HVAC audit

A building's heating and cooling systems, including windows, insulation and roofing, help determine a facility's level of sustainability. Therefore, one of the first steps administrators should take in a construction project is to employ a LEED-certified firm or individual to conduct an energy audit. This will reveal where money is being spent on heating and cooling, whether the HVAC system is operating at efficient levels, and what can be done to increase the system's performance.

High-performance facilities should be designed with ample amounts of natural light, as this can help create a better learning environment. Some windows, however, can be a source of both too much heat and too much cold air, causing the HVAC system to work harder than necessary.

Double-paned, insulated windows reduce hot and cold airflow through the glass and save energy. The double panes have a layer between them, often filled with an inert gas, for an added layer of insulation. A low-emissivity coating on windows also can reduce heating loads by cutting down on UV rays. Windows must be installed correctly — with properly sealed seams and no cracks — to ensure maximum efficiency.

Proper insulation in the walls, ceilings or around ductwork also can ensure cost savings. By installing the appropriate amount of insulation in the right places, heating and cooling costs can be lowered dramatically.

Roofing is another area that can be upgraded to increase HVAC efficiency and create a high-performance building. In warmer climates and urban areas, dark, flat roofs absorb heat and cause a heat island to form. This increases the heat not only in the school building, but also in surrounding buildings. In warm climates, heat buildup can be significant and can increase cooling costs. Education institutions can mitigate the heat-island effect by creating green spaces with plantings on flat roofs, or by using light-colored or reflective roofing materials.

Cool metal roofs are a good choice. Metal can be installed on shallow or steeply sloped roofs, and it has a long lifespan, making life-cycle costs lower than other roof types. Additionally, metal roofs often are made of recycled material and are recyclable themselves at the end of their lifetimes. Cool metal roofing has a special coating in most colors that can deflect heat and keep roofs cool.

Greening inside and out

Green building practices are applicable inside and outside a facility. Natural lighting is one way to create a better learning environment. Open spaces help increase the effect of natural lighting and give an inviting feeling to any building. An added benefit is that open layouts are more flexible and easier to reconfigure.

Many schools have recognized the benefits of open space. At the Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, Texas, the 80,000-square-foot lower school has a spacious open area in the front of the building. This area leads to the library and other community spaces, and uses numerous windows for natural lighting.

Green techniques also can be used outside a building. For landscaping, hardy and drought-resistant native plants can save watering and replacement costs. Native plants often don't need as much water as non-native plants. Because they do not have to be imported or grown in special climates, they also might cost less. Another way to reduce municipal water use for irrigation is to provide a tank for capturing rainwater.

Inside a building, schools and universities can use recycled or rapidly renewable materials to contribute to sustainability. Bamboo can be an alternative to traditional wood floors. The growth cycle of bamboo is much less than for other woods, so it can be harvested and regrown quickly. Additionally, low-flow water fixtures and no-water urinals can be installed in bathrooms to conserve water.

Many education facilities have established recycling programs, but it is always important to reinforce the concept. Recycling stations should be easy to find and use. Signage should communicate how recycling helps lower costs. Also, recycling during construction is a way to save money and reduce landfill use. Recent documented construction projects in Texas, for instance, have been able to recycle and reuse as much as 70 to 80 percent of all construction waste.

Another key issue for a school building is indoor air quality, which can be affected by many factors. Building materials must be handled carefully to prevent the possibility of mold formation. Interior finishes also are a concern; many products use chemicals, glues and other substances that can trigger allergies and create other problems for the users. Use products with low toxicity and cleaning materials that are environmentally friendly and non-toxic to help reduce this risk.

del Monte, AIA, LEED AP, is architectural principal for The Beck Group, an integrated design and construction firm in Dallas.


70 to 80

Percentage of construction waste recycled in recently documented construction projects in Texas.

Thinking green

Seven recommendations for sustainability in education:

  1. Use occupancy sensors and energy-efficient lighting both indoors and outdoors.

  2. Use cement that has fly ash. Fly ash makes concrete stronger and also reduces the use of expensive Portland cement. Additionally, fly ash is a byproduct of the coal power industry, so it is recycled material.

  3. When possible, buy local materials. This cuts down on transportation costs and promotes nearby industries. (Examples: locally sourced stone, tiles and cabinetry)

  4. Select sites that are responsive to the climate and the heat impact of paved surfaces. The more paved areas, the more heat absorption, and this contributes to heat islands. Where there is a lot of paving, use green islands to break it up. Also, the more green space, the better the groundwater absorption.

  5. Consider using recycled and low-VOC paints. The quality is good, and the cost averages 30 percent less than comparable non-recycled paints. Also look for paints with low volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to reduce smells and bad reactions.

  6. Recycle when constructing. This includes trees that can be sent to lumber yards, scrap wood, stone, concrete, drywall, shingles and paint.

  7. Use recycled plastic lumber for outdoor uses, such as benches, playground equipment, pallets and picnic tables. Plastic lumber usually is made out of recycled milk jugs and similar plastics, and is extremely durable and long-lasting.

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