One With the Environment

As energy costs rise and resources dwindle, schools and universities can benefit greatly by taking an environmentally sensitive approach to construction, renovation and maintenance of facilities.

Administrators free up needed budget resources by operating facilities more efficiently. Using sustainable-design strategies can set a good example for their students and the community by being good stewards of the environment, and educators can use the high-performance educational facilities that schools and universities are building to teach students about architecture, design, energy efficiency and the environment.

The interest in and desire for environmentally friendly facilities continues to grow, and schools have many options in the equipment and products they buy and in the approaches they pursue. Here are 10 ways schools can become more environmentally friendly:


Schools and universities looking to lessen the impact their facilities have on the environment often turn to geothermal energy systems. A geothermal system takes advantage of the ground temperature — typically cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter — to cool or heat a building. The warmer ground provides heat in colder weather, and the cooler ground absorbs heat in warmer weather.

In addition, a geothermal system does not generate the noise usually associated with a conventional heating and cooling system. It also eliminates the need for having a large and often unsightly mechanical unit on a school roof.


Windows — not the computer software, but actual glass openings that allow light into a room — have been making a comeback in schools over the last few years. Daylight had been common in school facilities many years ago, but the rise of electric lighting and climate-control systems caused designers to use them less.

Since a 1999 study by the Heschong Mahone Group, educators and designers have had data to back up their instincts that the right kinds of daylight in classrooms can improve the learning environment. Diffused daylight that did not create glare and that could be controlled by the teacher was found to be the most advantageous setup. The study found a statistical correlation between the amount of daylighting in elementary school classrooms and the performance of students on standardized math and reading tests.

A follow-up study in 2003 indicated that the improved performance among students was not greater or lesser in any particular grade level.

“We conclude that there do not seem to be progressive effects as children get older, nor do younger children seem to be more sensitive to daylight than older children,” the follow-up report states.

Lighting upgrades

Even though daylighting is a popular trend in school design, facilities still need artificial light when the sun sets or to illuminate areas where daylight can't penetrate. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's “School Operations and Maintenance: Best Practices For Controlling Energy Costs,” electricity use represents about 80 to 90 percent of the annual cost, and between 65 percent and 85 percent of the life-cycle cost, of a lighting system.

The guide says schools can save 20 to 30 percent in lighting energy by switching from T-12 lighting to more efficient T-8 lighting with electronic ballasts. Super T-8 lamps, with reduced-power ballasts, save an additional 15 to 20 percent.

“Delamping” — removing fluorescent lights where illumination is more than necessary — and using dimmers, motion sensors and timers also can help reduce lighting costs.


A classroom may look good, but if it doesn't sound good, students may have problems. Facilities with good acoustics are especially important for children acquiring language skills and learning to read.

The keys to having good acoustics in a classroom, according to the U.S. Access Board, which helps develop accessibility guidelines in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, is reducing background noise and controlling reverberation.

Designers should strive to create instructional spaces in shapes and sizes that minimize reverberation. The spaces should use materials that absorb sound and keep outside sounds from intruding.

To retrofit a classroom with inadequate acoustics, schools can install more absorbent ceiling tiles or sound-absorbing tiles on walls. Newer windows often can reduce noise from outside sources, and making sure doors do not have gaps that allow hallway noise into a classroom also can reduce background noise. In addition, schools can try to use sound enclosures around HVAC units to shield noise from classrooms.


To help students concentrate on their studies in the classroom, they should be provided with comfortable workspaces. Ill-fitting desks or other seating can distract students from their work.

As computers have become a standard part of a classroom setup, comfortable and appropriate seating has become more critical. Poorly designed furniture can lead to repetitive stress injuries, eyestrain, sore necks and other health problems.

Furniture needs to be flexible so that different users can adjust it for their own comfort. Ergonomics experts say classrooms should have desks and tables of different sizes to accommodate the different sizes of students in the same grade. Footrests can help students with shorter legs to sit comfortably.

Schools should strive to place computers on furniture specifically designed for the machines, so that the seat, monitor, keyboard tray and mouse can be aligned correctly to encourage good posture.

Gray water collection

Schools can conserve water by installing gray water collection systems. Gray water generally refers to untreated “used” water that is not contaminated by toilet waste, according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Best Practices Manual for Building High-Performance Schools.

Water from showers, bathroom wash basins or washing machines can be used to irrigate the landscape on a campus or to flush toilets.

Gray water is diverted from existing drain lines into lines that lead to a surge tank. The surge tank has filters, vents, valves and pumps. The pumps send the water to toilets or irrigation systems.

The best practices manual states that gray water systems can recycle up to 50 percent of wastewater generated by a school.

Comprehensive energy management

Education institutions that examine their energy use at all levels can develop strategies to reduce consumption and cut utility bills. The Fremont (Calif.) Unified School District adopted such a plan in 1999 and has put several energy-saving strategies in place: lowering building heat during non-instructional hours; carefully monitoring the use of lights and computers and other energy-consuming devices; installing skylights; eliminating non-essential appliances and lighting; developing central control systems for utility management; improving the efficiency of heating swimming pools; and closing the district office during school vacations.

The district says it has managed to reduce energy costs during a period in which it added more than 100,000 square feet of classroom space. It attributes the success of the program to the commitment of the facilities and maintenance staff, as well as the cooperation of the school board, administrators, students and staff.

For its efforts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency named the Fremont district as a 2004 Energy Star Partner of the Year.

LEED certification

Some schools manifest their commitment to energy conservation and other environmentally friendly practices by pursuing LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. The program, run by the U.S. Green Building Council, awards points for different environmentally conscious practices such as energy efficiency, water conservation, indoor environmental air quality, use of materials and innovative design.

With many students and faculty members concerned about environmental issues, higher-education institutions often are at the forefront of conservation efforts such as LEED certification.

Solar energy

Schools and universities can install photovoltaic cells on their rooftops to collect power from the sun and supplement other energy sources, as well as teach students about solar power and energy conservation.

In the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Colo., the new Fossil Ridge High School has 30 175-watt panels that frame the entrance to the main building, according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. The panels are expected to generate about 17.2 kilowatts per day.

The district says the system will be used primarily as a teaching tool for the high school science curriculum. Teachers and students will be able to perform experiments in tracking the system's annual, monthly and daily output.

Indoor air quality

Students can't learn and teachers can't teach if the building they come to every day is making them sick. Schools need to pay attention to the air quality inside their facilities to make sure that rooms are well ventilated and the air is free from contamination.

That means making sure that building occupants are not exposed to volatile organic compounds (VOCs); gases that may be released by newly installed flooring or carpeting; or by paint, cleaning chemicals or other materials. Schools should make sure that when materials are used that may generate VOCs, the area should be well ventilated to allow the potentially dangerous gases to dissipate.

Maintaining good indoor air quality also means being vigilant about monitoring for mold. Excessive moisture in a building can lead to mold growth, which can cause serious health problems for those exposed to it. The EPA states that maintaining the relative humidity in a building between 30 and 60 percent will help control mold.

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

TAGS: Energy HVAC Green
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