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Coloring It "Green"

Most schools face similar operating challenges. Administrators and facility staff try to reduce operating expenses amid rising utility and energy costs, and in some cases, shortages. To help alleviate the problem, architects and engineers develop design solutions, and manufacturers develop innovative products to improve building efficiency. Both seem to be converging on a key trend: green building design.

Nationwide, schools are getting “smarter” by creating high-performance facilities. Using green design, schools can create sustainable buildings that use fewer resources and increase energy efficiency. Research shows that green buildings not only reduce the impact on the environment, but also create a better learning environment. Introducing natural light, for example, has been shown to increase productivity. The benefits of green construction and design are so valuable that many states have programs that offer financial assistance to high-performance schools.

School restrooms and locker rooms provide two of the best opportunities to reduce water usage and decrease costs. Schools can take a number of steps beyond water conservation to help create a healthier indoor environment. Think of restrooms as mini-ecosystems that are part of an integrated approach to designing, building and maintaining a green school.

Green guidelines

California was among the first states to create a program to encourage building high-performance schools. The Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) seeks to increase energy efficiency through education, marketing and incentives aimed at schools and architects. According to CHPS, school districts can save 30 to 40 percent annually on utility costs for new construction and 20 to 30 percent on renovated schools by using energy-efficient designs.

A number of other school-focused building guidelines have been created, including the U.S. Department of Energy's EnergySmart Schools Initiative and programs provided by the Sustainable Buildings Industry Council. Many state-sponsored efforts also have begun.

In the LEED

Within the last decade, the U.S. Green Building Council's voluntary Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) program has become the national standard for green building design. The LEED Green Building Rating System provides a specific set of guidelines and uses a scorecard to measure building performance.

To achieve LEED certification, a facility must meet minimum standards in six areas of building design:

  • Sustainable sites.
  • Water efficiency.
  • Energy and atmosphere.
  • Materials and resources.
  • Indoor environmental quality.
  • Innovation and design process.

A project must earn at least 26 out of a possible 69 points across these categories to be LEED-certified.

As a next step, the USGBC has formed a committee to establish guidelines specific to schools. A draft of the Application Guide for Schools is slated to be completed sometime this summer. The goal is to help schools apply LEED standards to their unique building and renovation issues. The LEED credits are likely to remain unchanged in the guidelines for schools, but the strategies for achieving them will be slightly different.

Reducing water consumption

A building can earn five points in the water-efficiency category by reducing water consumption and using innovative water technologies. These reductions are measured using a baseline of what a traditional facility of the same size would consume. The five possible water points:

  • Water-efficient landscaping (50 percent reduction).

  • Water-efficient landscaping (no potable use or no irrigation).

  • Innovative wastewater technologies.

  • Water-use reduction (20 percent reduction).

  • Water-use reduction (30 percent reduction).

Some new schools working toward LEED certification have found innovative ways to use collected rainwater or gray water for toilet and urinal flushing or other non-potable uses. Schools have a number of other ways to incorporate water-saving strategies into school restrooms and locker rooms. Specifying low-flow fixtures, metered faucets and water-free urinals can reduce water consumption by more than 30 percent.

Using green products and more efficient fixtures may result in higher initial costs, but improved technology will save money over the building's life cycle. Initial costs are offset by decreases in long-term expenses. Using new fixtures in a restroom renovation also means less maintenance and improved resistance against vandalism.

Efficient toilets and lavatories

Replacing existing toilets that use as much as 4.5 gallons per flush (gpf) and specifying low-volume toilets that use only 1.6 gpf can save about 14 percent in school water use, according to the city of Tampa's “Water Efficiency Checklist for Schools.” Ultra-low-flow toilets and waterless urinals are needed to meet LEED requirements. Additional water savings can be achieved by installing sensor-activated flush meters that control the water used during peak times.

Innovative technologies also can be incorporated into lavatory systems. Photovoltaic cells can store and use energy collected from normal restroom lighting. This energy is used to power the lavatory's sensors and valves. These units operate without batteries and or electricity.

Although many local codes require a maximum of 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm) for lavatories and faucets, specifying lavatories that use just 0.5 gpm can save additional water. Also look for low-flow showerheads that use two gallons of water each minute, rather than those that use three or more. Another option is the use of infrared or metered faucets, which ensure that water is running only during the time a user activates a faucet.

To decrease energy costs for heating water, consider installing lavatories with tankless water heaters. These devices provide hot water on demand and are concealed within the pedestal of the lavatory system. Handwashing fixtures with tankless heaters require only a cold water source. Only the hot water needed at the faucet is heated, rather than an entire hot-water tank.

Incorporating sustainability

In addition to choosing products that reduce water use, look for ways to incorporate other environmentally friendly products. Choosing sustainable, green products creates a healthier facility for students and staff.

For walls, use low- or no-VOC paints. These paints are durable enough for high-traffic washrooms, yet have few to no volatile organic compounds such as benzene and formaldehyde. On floors and locker room walls, ceramic tiles made from recycled glass are a popular choice.

Another option is colored concrete made from fly ash, a by-product of coal burning. Mineral-fiber and wood-fiber ceiling tiles made of recycled material can be used for drop ceilings.

Alderson is the brand and LEED manager for Bradley Corporation, Menomonee Falls, Wis., a USGBC member and manufacturer of locker room products, plumbing fixtures, washroom accessories, partitions and emergency fixture.


  • 14

    Percentage of total water use that can be saved by replacing existing toilets that use as much as 4.5 gallons per flush (gpf) and specifying low-volume toilets that use only 1.6 gpf.

    Source: City of Tampa, “Water Efficiency Checklist for Schools” (

  • 26

    Minimum number out of 69 possible points that must be earned for a project to be LEED-certified.

  • 30 TO 40

    Annual percentage that can be saved on utility costs for new construction by using energy-efficient design practices.

    Source: Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS)

  • 20 TO 30

    Annual percentage that can be saved on utility costs for renovated schools by using energy-efficient design practices.

    Source: Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS)

A closer look at a LEED gold-certified project

Third Creek Elementary School, Statesville, N.C., was the first K-12 facility to be registered with the U.S. Green Building Council's Green Building Rating System. A growing population in the Charlotte area and the need for additional community resources led to the construction of a new school to replace two aging schools.

Here are a few ways the new 92,000-square-foot school earned its “green” status:

  • Situating the building to maximize daylighting for classrooms; occupancy sensors in each room reduce the need for lights.

  • Installing water-free urinals; low-flow, metered faucets; and showers.

  • Creating a wet pond that serves as a stormwater-management facility and an outdoor classroom. Wild grasses and native trees and plants require no irrigation.

  • Using recycled content in more than 50 percent of the building materials. Green products include recycled-content carpet tiles, cellulose insulation, recycled-glass ceramic tiles and straw particleboard.

  • Diverting more than 50 percent of the construction waste from local landfills.

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