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Green Solutions for School Design and Operations

April 2, 2021
The funding allocated by Congress to help schools through the Covid-19 pandemic can be used to improve the health, safety, and sustainability of schools.

Designing and building sustainable school facilities has become a familiar element of planning for many administrators and educators. But sometimes, urgent health and safety needs demand immediate attention and take precedence over longer-term strategies for boosting energy efficiency and reducing environmental impact.

The Covid-19 pandemic that has disrupted school operations for more than a year certainly qualifies as an urgent health and safety crisis. Schools and universities have had to dip into emergency funds and scramble to acquire personal protective equipment, carry out repairs and reconfigure facilities in an effort to provide safe and healthful learning spaces for students.

The worry among some advocates of sustainable schools is that education institutions will put sustainability and energy efficiency on the back burner in the rush to get schools back to some semblance of normalcy.

The Center for Green Schools rejects that thinking. It sees the response to the pandemic—specifically the billions of dollars in relief aid on its way to schools—as an opportunity for schools to incorporate long-term, sustainable approaches as they upgrade facilities to make them safer, more healthful and better able to protect students and staff from Covid-19 or future threats.

“The one-time nature of these funds makes them an excellent fit for durable investments in facilities that will provide long-term health benefits and financial savings,” the center says. “One-time Covid-19 relief funding will not solve the longstanding underinvestment in school buildings, but it will provide welcome relief to school districts that have been using their limited funds to do unplanned repairs and upgrades to deal with the pandemic.…Careful planning for the use of these federal relief funds on school buildings can benefit schools for years to come.”

The center has teamed with Undaunted K12, a group that supports schools’ efforts to reduce carbon emissions, to provide recommendations for how schools can spend their Covid relief funds to “maximize opportunities for student and teacher health, equity and climate resilience.”

The title of the guide makes its focus clear: “Five Guiding Principles—How Schools Can Use American Rescue Plan Funding to Ensure Healthy, Resilient Facilities for Students and Reduce Energy Costs and Emissions.”

Five Principles

Since December, the federal government has allocated $176 billion in Covid relief aid for K-12 schools—$54 billion in the December Relief Act and $122 billion in March’s American Rescue Plan Act. The legislation specifies that expenses related to facilities are one of the allowable ways schools can use the funds.

“This relief represents an enormous opportunity to address and support student needs during the ongoing pandemic, address persistent inequities and to build back better,” the guide says.

Here are the principles that the center believes schools should be following as they decide how to spend those funds.

Investing in school infrastructure is central to address equity. “Schools in high-poverty areas are more likely to have conditions that are unsafe and unfit for learning,” the guide says. “Improving these physical environments may improve the health of students who are most at risk for disease, reduce teacher turnover in communities that struggle to recruit qualified teachers and inspire improved attendance at schools with lower graduation rates,” the guide says.

Healthy schools advance student learning and success. “The Covid relief funds provide an opportunity for schools to make durable, long-lasting improvements in facilities, which will affect the health and learning of current and future students,” the guide says.

Efficient, resilient operations save money today and tomorrow. “Investing in measures to strengthen school infrastructure is likely to reduce future spending on repairs necessitated by extreme weather events,” the guide says. “By using Covid relief funds to invest in energy efficiency and resilience, schools can turn a one-time investment of federal funds into a stream of ongoing budget savings.”

Navigating a changing world requires data and planning. “Advancing our school facilities to be more pandemic- and climate-resilient will be work that accelerates in the coming years,” the guide says. “Schools that use Covid resources to invest in gathering insight and engaging in robust planning exercises—such as benchmarking, facility master planning, and developing technical specifications—will be both better positioned to attract additional resources and to navigate future challenges.”

A shifting economy and climate require new ways of teaching. “As school leaders seek to enhance teaching and learning and care for students returning to the classroom, Covid relief funds offer an opportunity to invest in training and supports to deliver a curriculum that prepares students to thrive in a changing climate,” the guide says.

The guide cites numerous examples of facility upgrades that schools are allowed to carry out with Covid relief funds: improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act; upgrades to high-performance HVAC systems; training for maintenance staff on proper maintenance of HVAC equipment; upgrades of building envelopes to improve daylighting; remediation of mold, lead and other sources of poor indoor air quality; installation of mechanical ventilation and advanced filtration systems; replacement of windows to allow for improved intake of fresh air; installation of solar or wind systems for power generation.

“The focus of the funding included in the American Rescue Plan Act and the December Relief Act is on protecting student and teacher health from both the virus and from other environmental hazards,” the guide says. “Healthy environment considerations go hand in hand with energy efficiency. Projects that are implemented to protect health have the potential—if well-planned with energy efficiency and building electrification in mind—to save the school system money in the long run.”

Administrators should think strategically and spend funds on cost-effective upgrades, the guide says.

“Schools should capture every opportunity to transition away from polluting equipment, such as fossil-fuel-based heating systems or natural gas-fueled kitchen appliances,’ the guide says. “Replacing equipment to improve indoor air quality can open up opportunities to purchase efficient, Energy Star-certified appliances.”

Before making a facilities upgrade, schools should perform a life-cycle cost analysis to understand the full financial impact of various options, the guide says.
The facility upgrades should be accompanied by training and monitoring to ensure they are delivering the expected improvements.

“Facility improvements that are intended to improve environmental health or to save energy and water should be monitored and confirmed to ensure they are yielding the intended benefits and that corrections can be made, if needed,” the guide says.

In addition, “ongoing and effective staff training is needed to ensure that maintenance and custodial staff are well-prepared to support any new technology or new procedures.” 

SIDEBAR:  Net Zero scores sustainability points in Cambridge

by Lee Tedesco

The King Open/Cambridge Street Upper Schools and Community Complex is a $130 million school and community complex in Cambridge, Mass., that is part of the city’s commitment to become a Net Zero City by 2040. It is the first school in Massachusetts that has been certified LEED v4 Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The 273,000-square-foot complex opened in August 2019 and consists of an elementary and middle school, a preschool and extended-day school. In addition, it houses a public library, two pools, human services offices, and an underground parking garage, as well as the Cambridge school district’s administrative offices. It also is home to one of the Northeast’s largest geothermal well fields.

The facility consumes no fossil fuels and produces 60% of its energy on site. Key elements of its efficient design include a 74,000-square-foot photovoltaic (PV) solar array, PV sunshades, and a network of 190 geothermal wells that descend 520 feet into the earth. The ground source mechanical system supplies radiant heating and cooling.

Another element of design supporting efficient energy use is the “winged” concept, which separates different functions housed at the facility. By placing different purposes in different halves, areas of the complex not in use during a particular time of day or during school closures can operate at much lower energy levels.

“We were designing a community building for all citizens to engage, seven days a week and open all year, which runs counter to the idea of reducing energy load, but made the challenge altogether richer,” says Sindu Meier, senior associate at William Rawn Associates, the architecture firm of record. Geothermal and solar technologies are integral to achieving energy goals (geothermal wells reduced energy consumption by 54%), but the overall design and passive supporting elements also contribute to the building’s efficiency.

“A first step when building the tightest, most energy efficient building is to reduce the envelope size,” says Meier.
Materials in the assembly also supported performance. High-efficiency building products maximized access to natural light, and mineral wool insulation minimized thermal bridging. As an added benefit, insulation installed in the exterior wall helps defend against noise from traffic in the urban location.  

Covid complications

Several design strategies integrated into the complex’s design before the Covid-19 pandemic were essential in facilitating a return to classes following lockdowns. The highly flexible design and systems, including generous corridors, breakout spaces, and classroom technology enable the schools to support hybrid learning programs.

“In the current Covid paradigm, outdoor rooms have become increasingly important to help provide a safe alternative to indoor classrooms,” says Meier.
The area where net zero and healthful schools overlap most is the way air is delivered into a building. The design of the school’s air filtration system helped King Open/Cambridge Street Upper Schools bring its students back into the facility without having to make modifications to bolster indoor air quality.

The design and floor plan layout also played a role in supporting a healthful learning environment. The elementary and middle schools are organized into a system of neighborhoods that integrate large classrooms, learning breakout rooms, and open areas to support collaborative learning.

“Even though we didn’t have the pandemic lens when we were designing the building, we had an eye on the healthy school vision and this design strategy helped meet the needs of the moment when students returned to the facility,” says Kate Bubriski, director of sustainability and building performance at Arrowstreet Inc., which helped the building achieve its sustainability objectives. “Other elements that support a healthy environment include the use of red-list-free materials and furnishings.”

As an educational site, the design makes sustainability a visible learning tool for students. From their classrooms, students can see the PV array, the bioswales integrated into the civic plaza, the grey water system piping in ceiling areas, and five interactive building dashboards that track energy production and energy and water usage in real time.

An important collaborative aspect of this public project is the school’s cooperation with the city of Cambridge.

“We knew net zero was a goal for this project, but then it became a citywide requirement for other public and private buildings in the city, so we were really leading by example,” says Bubrisk.

Tedesco is technical marketing leader for Owens Corning.

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