Easy on the Earth

March 1, 2007
Education administrators and architects answer the call for facilities that respect the environment.

Order's up! One education facility built to last — easy on the earth.

Sustainability is one of the hottest items on the menu of education design and construction. Its many benefits have prompted administrators and architects to seek new ways to add eco-friendly features to school and university designs.

Green in site

A building's site can make or break its sustainability efforts. With adequate forethought, site design can be a large part of an institution's decision to go green.

At the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, the campus population is expected to grow from an enrollment of about 7,000 students to 30,000 students. To prepare for this, the university has created a master plan to expand the campus in three phases. Part of that plan is to create a carbon-neutral campus, says Jeff Conroy, principal at Loebl Schlossman & Hackl, the firm providing programming and master-planning services for the project.

“They have a huge surplus of green land they have not ever developed contingent to their existing campus,” he says. “What we had was an opportunity to develop a brand new campus.”

The master plan organizes streets in small blocks that are about half the size of regular city blocks, orienting streets east and west. Buildings planned for those streets can be oriented east and west, bringing in daylight and conserving energy, says Conroy.

Situating buildings in a compact manner encourages socialization and allows open space for natural drainage or recreation. Roads are curved to follow the topography of the land and provide natural drainage. The plan also calls for a bicycle network and preserves animal habitats, wetlands and archeological sites.

The university and the architect used principles of the U.S Green Building Council's LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) pilot program and “Context Sensitive Solutions in Designing Major Urban Thoroughfares for Walkable Communities” from the Institute of Transportation Engineers and the Congress for the New Urbanism to establish objectives for the master plan. (See sidebar.)

Energy is money

One of the biggest incentives for schools and universities to adopt sustainable design features is the opportunity to save energy and reduce operating costs. Although sometimes a significant investment, practical heating and cooling solutions can offer an appealing payback.

The recently completed Colin Powell Middle School in Matteson, Ill., uses a geothermal pond system for heating and cooling. The system is estimated to pay for itself in about 6.5 years and save the district about $70,000 per year thereafter, according to 2003 figures.

“We came to the conclusion that since the school was already building a retention pond on the site, it would be wise to combine it with a geothermal system because the cost of the geothermal system would go down as a result,” says Vuk Vujovic, director of sustainable design at Legat Architects, which designed the project.

Coils for the geothermal system are stored in the pond. The coils are floated on the surface and then sunk down to the bottom of the pond once cooling fluid is added. This process preheats the air used to cool the buildings to the temperature of the pond water, which typically is warmer than the outside air temperature in the winter and cooler than the outside air temperature in the summer. This reduces the energy required to heat and cool the air as it enters the building.

Although the savings is significant, the added construction cost of the system was about $460,000.

“Geothermal has higher first cost,” says Vujovic, “but it does come with an acceptable payback, so it is then up to the school district to decide if this is something they want to pursue or not.”

The school also has a daylighting system that brings natural light into about 90 percent of the facility. The building's sloped roofing enables the school to install photovoltaic systems at a later date. Classroom wing roofs can be converted to green roof systems.

Another way to add sustainability is to design HVAC systems that work from the ground up. Underfloor ventilation is starting to catch on in the design of some education institutions, says Conroy.

The new School of Business, student center and conference center at Pennsylvania State University use an air system that introduces air at a low level and exhausts it above.

“It allows people to control their environment a little bit better so they have thermal comfort at their individual workstation,” Conroy says. “It's also more energy-efficient, and it provides fresher air where the people are actually breathing it.”

This type of air system can't be used in all environments, however. Students in laboratories would not welcome air from the floor wafting chemicals into their faces, says Conroy.

Education institutions also can consider alternative fuel technology to heat their facilities. Merrill Community Schools, Merrill, Mich., recently installed a corn boiler at its middle school. The boiler, powered by 7,200 bushels of corn each year, will reduce annual energy costs by about $10,000.

The district also added a waste oil heater in its maintenance building that runs on waste oil collected from the district's bus garage. It saves the district about $2,000 each year.

Where the green grass grows

Some schools and universities are investing in green roof technology to absorb stormwater and reduce the heat-island effect. On the other hand, some institutions are leery about putting grass, trees and dirt on their rooftops, and don't want to fork over the initial cost of installing a green roof.

Modular green roof systems are a new solution for those reluctant to install a permanent green roof. The system consists of trays of about 3 square feet made of recycled plastic. The trays hold a thin medium of plant material that grows a variety of natural grasses called sedum.

“The cost of them is becoming more reasonable, and the ease of installation is becoming so effective that you're going to start seeing a lot more,” says Conroy.

For those schools and universities that have put green roofs on their buildings, teachers and administrators are finding endless ways to connect sustainability to classroom learning.

The new middle school building at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, Bronx, N.Y., will have a green roof that will be partially accessible for teaching purposes.

The school plans to install instrumentation on the roof to measure the energy advantages of a green roof vs. a conventional roof. Portions of the roof also will be used for botany experiments, says Sandy Polsak, senior project manager with Levien & Co.

The school will have cisterns in the basement that collect rainwater for irrigation and reuse, and waterless urinals also will be installed. The students will be able to monitor water usage to see the benefits of water conservation.

The middle school is discussing the possibility of providing cutaway views of the wall construction inside the school to show students how a green building differs from a conventional building in the amount of insulation, the type of glass used, and the amount of energy consumed as a result of energy loss through the skin of the building, says Polsak.

The Calhoun School, New York City, opened its Green Roof Learning Center in 2005. Students use the roof to study aquatic environments, conduct experiments with plants and vegetation, and investigate solar access as an energy alternative. They also maintain an herb garden for use in the lunch program.

The roof also will reduce stormwater runoff by 40 percent, provide insulation to reduce heating and cooling, and help filter the air.

As the benefits of going green become more compelling, sustainable design will become more commonplace. Some green features require a large investment, but others can be added at little or no additional cost.

“Most things like daylighting, or selecting healthy materials that don't require a lot of maintenance, is a matter of simply thinking and designing properly,” says Vujovic. “Picking the right orientation of a building doesn't cost you a dime.”

Hall is associate editor for AS&U. She can be reached at [email protected].

Starting from scratch

Architects and administrators who want to include sustainability in their master plans for education facilities and campuses don't have to tackle the task alone:

  • The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), in partnership with the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), is in the pilot phase of developing a rating system to recognize development projects that protect the health and quality of life in their communities.

    “LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) Rating System integrates the principles of smart growth, urbanism and green building into the first national standard for neighborhood design,” according to the USGBC website.

    The LEED-ND Core Committee completed a preliminary draft of the rating system in September 2005. Feedback from the preliminary draft and this pilot program, which launched in February, will be used to make further revisions. The final program is expected to launch in 2009.

    The complete pilot version of the LEED-ND rating system can be found online at www.usgbc.org/leed/nd.

  • The Institute of Transportation Engineeers (ITE), in cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and in partnership with the CNU, has developed a report called “Context Sensitive Solutions in Designing Major Urban Thoroughfares for Walkable Communities.”

Using the principles of context-sensitive solutions enables community interests and environmental issues to be considered early in the development of roadway improvement projects, according to the ITE website, www.ite.org/css.

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