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Going Green

In Wake County, N.C., school officials needed to deal with stormwater runoff at Combs Elementary School, so they spent $100,000 last year on a retention pond. It holds the water and slowly discharges it into the drainage system.

Now, the district has to address similar runoff issues at another elementary building. But this time, instead of a retention pond, officials are looking at a rainwater collection system. For about the same money, the system would collect the water and use it for the school's irrigation and toilet-flushing needs.

The difference in the two approaches, says Jyoti Sharma, director of facility planning for Wake County Schools, is that the district now is placing increasing emphasis on the principles of sustainable design — and has developed what it calls “high-performance” guidelines — as it pursues its building plans.

“The goal of sustainability is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” says Sharma.

Schools across the nation are embracing these “green” strategies. The Alliance to Save Energy, which has created a Green Schools educational initiative, defines a green school as “environmentally conscious, fiscally responsible and well-connected to the real world.”

Green policies cover a wide range of design strategies, equipment choices and behavioral changes, all of which are intended to improve the energy efficiency or environmental friendliness of education facilities and operations.

Incorporating green thinking into schools begins at the earliest stages of planning for construction or renovation, and filters down into what students are taught in classrooms.

“The payback is really tremendous,” says Sharma.


Besides the long-range benefits of good environmental stewardship, green policies help schools and universities provide healthier surroundings for their students and staff.

In a report, “Poisoned Schools: Invisible Threats, Visible Actions,” the Child Proofing Our Communities Campaign states, “Record numbers of schools are going up on contaminated land, without protective guidelines against exposure of children to soil, water and air toxins.”

Last year, the Los Angeles School District was forced to abandon construction of the half-finished $200 million Belmont Learning Complex because of concerns about the presence of methane and hydrogen sulfide. The site is a former oil field.

In St. Charles, Ill., East St. Charles High School was closed indefinitely in March for environmental testing after the district found potentially dangerous mold growing in the building. Other schools across the nation have closed classrooms or entire buildings to deal with mold or other conditions that were making students and staff ill.

Using green strategies can help schools identify potential environmental problems or community concerns at an early stage before it has committed too many resources.


Using environmentally sensitive principles to build and operate school facilities sets a good example for the children being educated and provides benefits to society at large. But the key reason that green schools are becoming more common is the bottom line: they save money.

The federal government says education facilities spend more than $7.1 billion each year on energy — 12 percent of all commercial energy consumption. The U.S. Department of Energy believes schools could shave 25 percent off their energy bills through better building design, greater use of renewable energy sources, technological upgrades, and improved operations and maintenance.

To realize the savings, schools and universities have to take a more comprehensive, long-range view of costs.

“Three or four years ago, there was not necessarily a recognition that it's the whole cost you need to look at,” says Sharma. “There has been a lack of correlation between the capital and the operating costs. The deferred maintenance backlog is so large, we can't afford to increase it.”

Examples abound of schools and universities that have upgraded their facilities to conserve energy, cut costs and reduce pollution:

  • In San Antonio, the Northside School District has received a Clean Cities National Partner Award from the U.S. Department of Energy for operating a fleet of clean-fuel-burning school buses. The district operates 94 percent of its 472 buses on propane, which burns cleaner than gasoline or diesel, and soon will phase out the remaining buses that could not be converted to propane.

    Since beginning the conversion of its fleet in 1981, the district has cut costs for fuel and maintenance. The district's emission tests found that propane-fueled buses release 65 percent fewer pollutants than regular gasoline. Other school districts are reducing pollution by using buses fueled with compressed natural gas, or even vegetable oil.

  • In Los Angeles, the school district and the city's Department of Water and Power (DWP) have teamed up to plant 8,000 trees on school campuses in the “Cool Schools” program. It's based on a simple premise: trees create shade that keeps buildings cooler. That can lower air-conditioning and other electricity costs by up to 20 percent. The trees also absorb carbon dioxide and, by trapping and holding water, reduce the stormwater runoff that can cause flooding.

    The U.S. Forest Service reviewed the program and found that each dollar spent on Cool Schools returned about $2.37 in reduced energy costs and improved air quality.

  • In Iowa, winds are typically strong enough to take advantage of wind-generation capabilities. The Forest City and Akron-Westfield community school districts have each built wind turbines to reduce their consumption of non-renewable energy. Forest City estimates savings of $50,000 a year from wind-generated power.

  • The Kingston School District in New York, the University of Missouri at Columbia and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, each have upgraded energy efficiency in their facilities. They have been named 2001 Energy Star Award winners by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for their efforts to reduce energy consumption.


Schools have been working to improve their buildings' energy performance for years: more efficient lighting, heating and cooling systems, windows, insulation, and other improvements are common in schools.

Sustainable design combines those elements in a more comprehensive approach. Among the districts most active in advocating sustainable design is the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Colo. It has compiled a guidebook for sustainable design that identifies 11 features that can be found in a comprehensive sustainable school facility (see sidebar, below).

Those guidelines were the roadmap used as the district developed a prototype design for an elementary school. The first building constructed with that design is scheduled to be completed in 2002, says Bill Franzen, the district's executive director of operations.

“The thinking was that we all have to be better stewards of the environment,” says Franzen. “The reality is that we need to be changing the way we approach things.”

The guide addresses an exhaustive array of issues related to school design, construction and operations: building orientation, landscaping, bio-diversity, solar energy, wind energy, geothermal heating and cooling, daylighting, artificial lighting, window glazing, air sealing, HVAC systems, environmentally preferred building materials, indoor air quality, water conservation, waste management, construction-waste reduction, commissioning and eco-education.

Teaching students about how the construction and operation of a building affects the environment enhances the impact of a sustainable school.

“When it's tied to curriculum, you're passing on this knowledge and it takes on a life of its own,” says Franzen.


For sustainable design to work most effectively, all those involved in a facility — teachers, students, administrators, parents, architects, maintenance staff, contractors — should help decide how it is built and operated.

“The whole team discusses what aspects are usable for a given project,” says Sharma. “The key to sustainable design is not any one individual element. It's a holistic approach.”

For instance, in Wake County, one possible goal of sustainable design is reducing transportation costs by having students attend schools closer to their homes. But because the district believes it is important for a school to have students of varying socioeconomic levels, the district has decided that busing students to achieve that mix of students outweighs the costs.

In the Poudre district, Franzen says that involving all parties throughout the planning of the school is critical, as the various stakeholders see things from new perspectives.

The district's guide cautions that shifting to sustainable design may take longer and cost more for design services, but schools will realize long-term benefits, both economically and environmentally. Franzen says that the bids for Poudre's elementary prototype came in under budget projections.

“It doesn't have to cost more,” says Franzen. “It does take more of a commitment.”

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U. He can be reached at [email protected].

SIDEBAR: 11 features of sustainable schools

The Sustainable Design Guidelines from the Poudre School District list the features that represent “a comprehensive, sustainable school.”

  • Sustainable site planning and landscape design.
  • Use of renewable energy sources.
  • High-quality and energy-efficient lighting.
  • Energy-efficient building shell.
  • Energy-efficient HVAC systems.
  • Environmentally preferable building materials.
  • Water conservation.
  • Recycling and waste management.
  • Construction-waste reduction and recycling.
  • Commissioning.
  • Eco-education.

SIDEBAR: Green resources

Administrators can find plenty of information about green schools and sustainable design on the Internet:

  • . The Poudre (Colo.) School District's 69-page guide to sustainable design.

  • . The sustainable guidelines used by Wake County, N.C. Schools and other businesses in that region can be found in “High Performance Guidelines: Triangle Region Public Facilities.”

  • . Information about the U.S. Green Building Council, whose mission is to accelerate the adoption of green building practices, technologies, policies, and standards.

  • . An explanation of the Alliance to Save Energy's Green Schools Program, which helps schools improve their energy efficiency.

  • . Information about the Department of Energy's “Energy Smart Schools” program, part of the department's “Rebuild America” campaign.

  • . Second Nature is an educational nonprofit organization that works with colleges and universities to incorporate sustainability concepts into campus life.

  • . The Rocky Mountain Institute is an “entrepreneurial, nonprofit organization that fosters the efficient and restorative use of resources to create a more secure, prosperous and life-sustaining world.”

  • . The Environmental Protection Agency has its “IAQ Tools for Schools” program to help schools improve their indoor air quality.

  • . The site for the Department of Energy's Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development.

  • . The Sustainable Buildings Industry Council's mission is “to advance the design, affordability, energy performance and environmental soundness of residential, institutional and commercial buildings nationwide.”

  • . The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities compiles a list of resources here on high-performance schools.

SIDEBAR: More than the grass is green

The best way for a college to become a “green” campus is to start from scratch.

That's what John F. Kennedy University (JFKU) in California intends to do. The school, now in Orinda, Calif., plans to build a new campus on a five-acre site in Concord, Calif., with the entire design adhering to “green” principles.

Officials say they believe JFKU would be the first university in the nation to build an entire campus based on green principles.

“The university's goal is to achieve, wherever possible, the integration of sustainable principles in the building of its new Concord campus, as well as its academic curriculum,” says Charles E. Glasser, university president.

The school wants to achieve the highest rating possible from the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy-Efficient Design (LEED) system; maximize the use of green building materials; design energy and water-consumption needs using environmentally sensitive methods; and integrate green principles into the curriculum.

The university plans to break ground in 2002.

TAGS: Energy HVAC Green
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