Asumag 457 Greenerpastures

Greener Pastures

Sept. 1, 2007
Schools and universities have countless opportunities to adopt sustainable approaches that conserve resources.

Education administrators don't have to be deeply committed to the ecology movement to see the value of conserving energy and providing more environmentally friendly facilities. Reducing energy costs frees up funds for learning programs. Providing more healthful facilities can help students and teachers ward off illness and disease and perform more effectively.

Growing concerns in society — and especially among students — about global warming and the long-term future of the planet tip the scales even more in the direction of environmentally conscious strategies and systems on school and university campuses.

For schools eager to adopt a green philosophy regarding design, construction, operations and maintenance, plenty of opportunities exist. In the past, energy-saving efforts may have consisted of turning down a thermostat, pulling down the shades, or putting on a sweater. But as knowledge about conservation grows and technologies make it easier to identify and quantify savings, administrators have more sophisticated tools available:

  • Daylighting

    One of the givens in 21st-century school design is that students and teachers respond positively to daylighting. Studies that show students perform better in classrooms with well-designed daylighting have won over skeptical educators and administrators. The benefit to energy bills is more tangible: adding natural light means less reliance on more costly artificial light.

    By using skylights, light shelves, clerestories, louvers and other window strategies, designers are able to deflect and diffuse natural light so that it illuminates learning spaces without glare from direct sunlight that can be detrimental to student performance.

    Light sensors, occupancy sensors and timers help schools increase or reduce the needed amount of lighting depending on weather conditions or how a space is being used. Low-emissivity window glazing improves efficiency by allowing light in and keeping out unwanted heat.

  • Water

    Environmental advocates say schools can cut water consumption by 30 percent through basic techniques to improve efficiency.

    The U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Design Guidelines for High Performance Schools recommends these steps for conserving water:

    • Use native planting materials and landscaping strategies that minimize the need for site irrigation.

    • Use a rainwater-catchment system for irrigation and toilet flushing.

    • Use graywater from sinks and water fountains for site irrigation.

    • Use soaker hoses and drip-irrigation techniques that minimize evaporative losses and concentrate water on the plants' roots.

    • Use timers on irrigation systems to water at night.

    The guide also encourages schools to install low-flow plumbing fixtures. Conversion to no-water urinals can significantly reduce a school's water consumption.

  • Geothermal

    Many schools and universities have boosted their energy efficiency with geothermal heating and cooling systems. The systems take advantage of the relatively constant temperature of the ground, and transfer heat between the ground and the building. When a building needs heat, the system extracts energy from the ground and pumps it into the building; when the building needs cooling, the system sends heat from the building to the ground.

    “Office buildings and schools are particularly good applications for geothermal heat pumps,” the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority says. “These facilities have relatively high occupancy, fluctuating usage schedules, and widely varying heating and cooling requirements within individual zones (offices and classrooms) that are difficult to meet efficiently with conventional systems.”

  • Wind and sun

    Other systems that some schools have adopted to improve their energy conservation include photovoltaic panels that collect solar energy and convert it to electricity.

Schools with the right climatic conditions can benefit by installing wind turbines that use the kinetic energy from the wind to produce power. The Department of Energy says using wind energy becomes cost-effective in most areas when the average wind speed exceeds 10 miles per hour.

A green shade of crimson

A new Harvard University building that opened in 2006 as part of the school's library system incorporates many of the environmentally friendly design strategies detailed above.

The 30,405-square-foot building at 90 Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge, Mass., is designed to use 43 percent less water than a comparable facility. Dual-flush toilets and low-flow hand sinks cut consumption, and sensors shut off water flow when it is not needed.

The building is designed to use energy 32 percent more efficiently than is required by codes. Ground-source heat pumps provide heating and cooling. Skylights in the roof and a glass curtainwall on the north side of the building allow ample amounts of daylight into the facility.

The building's white roof reduces the cooling load, and the materials used in construction emit little or no volatile organic compounds.

The building has received a gold LEED rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. University officials say it is the eighth building at Harvard to receive LEED certification.

Improved learning

West Brazos Junior High School in Brazoria, Texas, is another education facility that has received LEED certification. Among the green features on its 53-acre campus:

  • Clerestory windows and light shelves bring daylight deep into the school; low-e glazing improves the building's thermal efficiency.

  • A highly reflective roofing system reduces the heat-island effect.

  • Native, drought-resistant landscaping reduces irrigation requirements and water use.

In their first year in the building, students' test scores improved in reading, mathematics and social studies.

“We found that implementing sustainable features into our school did not add to our construction costs,” says Martha Buckner, assistant superintendent of the Columbia-Brazoria Independent School District. “Better yet, our students have achieved higher test scores during their first year in the new school.”

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

Pennsylvania projects

For schools ready to pursue green energy systems and strategies, many state and federal agencies, as well as private organizations, have grants and other incentive programs to help institutions adopt more sustainable approaches.

Pennsylvania has been awarding grants through its Energy Harvest Program since 2003. Last fall, several schools and universities were among those receiving grants for projects that involve renewable energy technologies. Among the recipients:

  • The Western Wayne School District, $1 million, for a geothermal heat-pump system at a new 120,000-square-foot elementary school.

  • Kane Area School District, $355,563, for a wood-biomass-fuel heating system in the district's high school.

  • West Chester University of Pennsylvania, $248,458, for a geothermal heat pump heating and cooling system as part of a building renovation.

  • Dickinson College, $250,000, for a system of photovoltaic cells on the roof of the school's facilities management building.

  • Manheim Township School District, $225,000, for a ventilation system to complement the geothermal and radiant heating and cooling systems at the district's high school.

  • Susquehanna University, $150,000, for a steam/condensate pre-insulated piping system.


Percentage of energy used for cooling in a typical U.S. school.


Percentage of energy used for lighting in a typical U.S. school.

Percentage of energy used for heating in a typical U.S. school.


Percentage of energy used for hot water in a typical U.S. school.


Source: U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Design Guidelines for High Performance Schools

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