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Peak Performance

Every educator's goal is to provide a learning environment that enables students to perform their best. But in many schools, students find obstacles on the path to excellence: the school building itself.

Facilities that have ill-advised designs, inadequate ventilation, poor acoustics, dim lighting, drafty doors and windows, inefficient heating and cooling systems, and other flaws can create conditions that impair a student's ability to learn. Poorly performing facilities also can drain budget resources that could be targeted to benefit students directly.

Motivated students and teachers can — and have — overcome deficient school facilities, but few would dispute the assertion that learning occurs more easily for more students in a well-designed, well-functioning building. More educators, architects and community members are working to see that students and teachers have facilities that enable them to achieve peak performance.

High-performance schools are facilities that enhance the learning environment for students while saving energy, resources and money. They can help students boost test scores, increase attendance rates, reduce operating costs, improve job satisfaction among teachers and staff members, and teach students and the community at large about environmental stewardship.

“Our goal is energy-efficient schools that are healthy and comfortable,” says Sara Greenwood, outreach manager for the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS), a California-based organization that helps schools improve energy efficiency.

Where to start

The characteristics that define a high-performance school encompass just about every aspect of building design, construction and operation. So, the extent to which a school or university incorporates high-performance elements into its facility can vary, from just a handful of features to a comprehensive effort that begins with the initial planning of the facility.

By exploring high-performance possibilities during the design process, administrators can determine what will most improve a building's performance and if the budget can accommodate them.

“Most directors of facilities want to learn all their options up front,” says Greenwood.

In many cases, architects want to pursue sustainable design and high-performance facilities, but school officials, wary of higher initial costs, have to be persuaded.

“Architects and engineers sometimes come to us to help educate school administrators and get them on board,” says Greenwood.

Even high-performance features that boost a construction budget initially can prove to be more cost effective when viewed over the lifetime of a project. Significant savings on utility bills over time can recoup additional construction costs.

“School districts can save 30 percent to 40 percent on annual utility costs for new schools and 20 percent to 30 percent for renovated schools by applying high-performance design and sustainability concepts,” the CHPS best practices manual states. “The potential for savings is greater in new schools because it's possible to ‘design out’ inefficiencies from the outset, thereby saving money year after year.”

Schools also can reduce the bite on their budgets by taking advantage of federal and state incentives that reward energy efficiency and conservation.

Many choices

CHPS and the U.S. Department of Energy have created best-practices manuals for building high-performance schools. Each provides hundreds of pages of information on the factors that school designers can incorporate into a building to have it perform more efficiently.

CHPS recommends focusing on these areas: daylighting, energy efficiency, indoor air quality, maintenance, commissioning and training, acoustics, sustainable materials and waste reduction.

By examining just one category — energy efficiency, for instance — planners can see the number of decisions that affect cost and comfort, as well as how each decision interacts with other choices to affect overall efficiency.

Energy efficiency encompasses electric lighting, daylighting and fenestration, building enclosures, HVAC systems, water use and selection of materials. For lighting, school officials have to consider how to achieve the proper mix of direct and indirect light; determine how the lighting system may affect the demands on the HVAC system; determine where more efficient fluorescent lighting is appropriate; whether dimmers, occupancy sensors or photovoltaic systems should be installed; and how to integrate electric lights with the building's daylighting strategies.

Check your work

To ensure that the high-performance features incorporated into a school design are working once the building is completed, schools should use commissioning. This process will ensure that the specified equipment has been installed and is running properly.

“It is a powerful tool to indicate if the designers and contractors have done what they were hired to do,” the CHPS manual states.

Another key to making sure a high-performance design delivers on its promises is to train the staff to maintain the facility properly.

The CHPS recommends that schools have a thorough maintenance plan that includes a set budget, availability of needed operations and maintenance manuals, provisions for preventative maintenance, a system to track work orders and adequate training of the maintenance staff.

“Unless building staff is given the skills to perform quality operation and maintenance practices, there is no hope that a building will continue to perform optimally,” the manual states.

Once high-performance features are in place, they can also be used for teaching students about energy conservation and environmental issues.

“Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems; lighting equipment; and controls systems can be used to illustrate lessons on energy use and conservation, and daylighting systems can help students understand the daily and yearly movements of the sun,” the CHPS suggests.

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

A campuswide commitment

At Carleton College, an 1,800-student liberal arts school in Northfield, Minn., students, staff and faculty members have embraced efforts to make the campus more environmentally friendly. Recycled materials, energy-efficient equipment, daylighting and energy management systems have been incorporated in recent construction projects.

“It started out as student-driven,” says Richard Strong, director of facilities at Carleton. “But everybody seems to think it's a very good thing to be involved with.”

Now, the school is planning to go a step further in the path to sustainable, high-performance buildings. Carleton is going to create three different living environments on campus where groups of students will live and observe how their surroundings affect the environment.

The first will be a standard single-family, two-story house built in 1919. The second will be a conversion of that standard house that will incorporate sustainable measures — solar panels, additional insulation, energy-efficient windows — without significantly destroying the integrity of the house. The third will be a house designed, developed and built incorporating sustainable-design features.

Strong says the houses will in effect be laboratories where students can observe how different designs, equipment and behavior can affect a building's energy consumption and its impact on the environment.

“It's quite an investment by the students, staff and faculty,” says Strong. “It will take five years to build it… and then we'll rebuild it and rebuild it again,” says Strong. “That's the exciting part.”

The idea for the houses came out of an Environmental Advisory Committee of students, faculty members and staff members that Carleton established in 2000 to address issues related to sustainable design.

The school follows the Minnesota Sustainable Design Guide ( for construction and renovation projects on campus. Construction of student housing in 2001 incorporated low-flow showerheads, Energy Star-rated appliances, and landscaping that used only plants native to the area within 20 miles of campus. An academic and dining hall construction project incorporated clerestory windows and light shelves to enhance daylighting, used stone quarried in Minnesota and carpeting that was 100-percent recycled.

Carleton also has developed sustainable solutions for handling stormwater runoff from campus parking lots, and is working with the Northfield School District to develop wind turbines to provide most of the electrical energy needed by the college and the district.

“We're doing quite a bit here at Carleton,” says Strong.

Keeping score

The extent to which schools embrace energy efficiency and wise use of resources varies widely. So, how much does a school have to do to be considered a high-performance school? A California-based organization has developed a checklist and point system to help schools become high-performance facilities.

The Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS), which promotes energy efficiency by providing information, services and incentive programs to school districts and designers, has compiled a manual that sets forth a set of criteria, similar to the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED rating system, that define whether a school in California can be considered a high-performance facility.

To qualify, a school building must meet several requirements and earn 28 out of a possible 81 points in six general categories. The categories:

  • Site (possible 14 points): “Choose sites that protect students and staff from outdoor pollution and minimally impact the environment,” the manual states. “Channel development to centrally located areas, with existing infrastructure, to protect greenfields, minimize transportation requirements and preserve habitat and natural resources.

    Points can be earned in areas such as joint use of facilities, reducing a building's footprint, situating a building close to rail or bus lines, minimizing parking, limiting stormwater runoff, installing cool roofs and reducing light pollution.

  • Water (5 points): “Limit excess water use for landscaping and ornamentation,” says the manual.

    Points can be earned for reducing water usage overall, or for specific areas, such as landscaping or the building's sewage system.

  • Energy (24 points): “Reduce environmental impacts and increased operational costs associated with excessive energy use,” the manual states.

    Schools can earn from two to 10 points based on how much the total net energy use can be reduced; points also can be earned for daylighting, increased roof insulation, installation of energy-management systems and use of renewable energy sources such as photovoltaics, geothermal and wind.

  • Materials (11 points): “Reduce the amount of construction and occupant waste entering the landfill, and promote the efficient reuse of materials and buildings,” the manual says.

    Points can be earned for recycling, composting or salvaging efforts; and using wood-based materials, or refurbished or recycled materials in construction.

  • Indoor environmental quality (17 points): This includes daylighting, indoor air quality, maintenance and energy equipment.

    Points can be earned for maximizing the use of daylight to illuminate classrooms, using low-emitting materials, developing designs that minimize contamination from chemical pollutants; using high-quality filtration in ventilation systems, managing air quality effectively during construction, installing at least one operable window in each classroom, and providing classroom acoustic levels that do not interfere with student and teacher productivity.

  • District solutions (10 points): “Integrate high-performance goals into district planning,” the manual states.

Points can be earned for using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Tools for Schools Program or a similar indoor-air-quality management plan, creating a districtwide maintenance plan, and establishing a policy to require the district to acquire equipment with an Energy Star rating from the federal government.

As part of its Rebuild America program, the U.S. Department of Energy also has created a best-practices manual similar to the one put together by CHPS.

Details of all the CHPS criteria and all three volumes of its best practices manual can be found on the web at The U.S. Department of Energy's National Best Practices Manual for Building High Performance Schools can be found at Details of the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED rating system can be found at

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