Not so long ago, some derisively called them treehuggers. Education administrators and designers who raised environmental issues would urge schools and universities to adopt more efficient energy use, pursue recycling and conserve water — that all made sense, but where would they stop? With solar panels? Wind turbines? Roofs with plants growing out of them? Urinals that don't use water? Heating and cooling systems that pull energy out of the ground? People with a business to run couldn't waste precious time obsessing on such touchy-feely matters.
Now, fuel prices are settling in at historically high levels; warnings about the melting polar ice cap no longer are dismissed as irrelevant; entire TV channels are dedicated to the environmental movement; and the politician once mocked as “Ozone Man” for his relentless focus on ecology has won a Nobel Peace Prize and an Academy Award for his insistent warnings about the consequences of global warming.
More and more people are viewing the world through green-tinted glasses, and those crazy ideas about making school and university facilities more environmentally friendly suddenly are appearing to be prudent and responsible.
“This past year is when things finally took off,” says Anja Caldwell, green building manager for Montgomery County, Md., schools.
Among the groups that have been advocating for environmentally friendly school design for years are the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, whose Best Practices Manual for high-performance school construction has been adopted by the U.S. Department of Energy; and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), whose Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification has provided incentives for numerous education institutions to embrace green design strategies.
The LEED rating system picked up additional momentum in 2007 when the USGBC established a rating system specifically for K-12 schools.
“We now are registering an average of one school project a day,” says Rachel Gutter, school sector manager with the USGBC. “It's a pretty tremendous response. The market is ready for it.”
As its name implies, LEED for Schools accounts for issues and conditions that are more critical in a K-12 setting, such as acoustics, mold prevention and using the facility itself to teach.
“K-12 is one of the greatest areas of uptake in green construction,” says Gutter. “Green schools really resonate with most people. It's about children — healthy kids and a high-performance environment.”
LEED for Schools addresses some of the omissions that had convinced some administrators that the system was not a good match for their schools.
“It's easier for schools to adapt to LEED for Schools,” says Montgomery County's Caldwell. “Before it was a mitten. Now it's a glove.”
Colleges and universities can seek LEED certification using either the New Construction or Schools rating system, but K-12 schools need to use the new LEED for Schools system, Gutter says.
Caldwell says that in Montgomery County, her green efforts occurred under the radar and mostly were focused on energy conservation.
“The feeling was, ‘If it doesn't produce kilowatt-hour savings, we're not interested,’” she says.
Gradually, the school district embraced a broader perspective about green schools, and Great Seneca Creek Elementary School, which opened in Germantown, Md., in 2006, became the first school in the state to receive a gold LEED rating.
The school is expected to conserve 370,000 gallons of water a year because of low-flow fixtures, waterless urinals and dual-flush toilets. The school has a reflective roof to reduce the heat-island effect, a geothermal heating system to reduce energy costs by 30 percent, and includes bike storage and showers to encourage bicycling. The project recycled about 90 percent of its construction waste.
When the Montgomery County government mandated silver LEED standards for the county's public facilities in 2006, officials came to Caldwell with concerns.
“They said, ‘Can we do this?’” Caldwell recalls. “And we could tell them, ‘We already did.’”
Another catalyst spurring the green movement forward is the Ohio School Facilities Commission's decision to incorporate LEED standards into the state's school construction guidelines. All new construction or major renovation projects in Ohio's public schools must seek at least a silver LEED rating.
“That's a minimum of 250 schools in the next few years,” Gutter says.
At the higher-education level, the growing commitment to green in 2007 was exemplified by the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment.
As of January, the leaders of more than 470 schools had signed the commitment, which calls for each institution to develop a plan for becoming climate-neutral within two years. Among the steps the commitment encourages are constructing new campus facilities to achieve at least a silver LEED rating and adopting a policy to purchase Energy Star-certified products when possible.
“While we understand that there might be short-term challenges associated with this effort,” the commitment states, “we believe that there will be great short-, medium-, and long-term economic, health, social and environmental benefits, including achieving energy independence for the U.S. as quickly as possible.”
The genesis for the Poudre (Colo.) District's embrace of sustainable design, jokes Bill Franzen, the district's executive director of operation services, was “a bunch of old hippies in a position of authority.”
As these school officials began talking in 1999 about the next generation of Poudre schools, their ideas about environmentalism, enhanced by the college-town atmosphere of Fort Collins, the home of Colorado State University, and inspired by the beauty of the nearby Rocky Mountains, resulted in a guide for sustainable design.
The guidelines listed 11 features that should be present in a sustainably designed school: sustainable site planning and landscape design; use of renewable energy sources; high-quality and energy-efficient lighting; an energy-efficient building shell; energy-efficient HVAC systems; environmentally preferable building materials; water conservation; recycling and waste management; construction-waste reduction and recycling; commissioning; and eco-education.
Poudre officials felt confident that the process they established was resulting in green school facilities. They decided to seek validation of their efforts by submitting Fossil Ridge High School, which was completed in 2004, for LEED certification.
“We had an intuitive sense that it was environmentally responsible and energy-efficient,” says Franzen. “LEED certification reinforced our belief that we were on the right track.”
The facility received a silver rating under LEED for New Construction. The school uses 60 percent less energy than a comparable high school in the district — saving $104,000 a year. Low-flow faucets and toilets, a water pond for irrigation, and an artificial surface on the athletic field help the school save $11,500 a year on its water bill. Franzen says that Fossil Ridge probably would have received a gold rating had the new LEED for Schools ratings been used.
Poudre also has built four elementary schools using a prototype design based on the district's sustainable guidelines. The last of those, Bethke Elementary, is scheduled to open later this year, and Poudre is seeking LEED certification for the project. Franzen says the LEED certification (he expects Bethke to earn a gold rating) will serve as evidence that “we have been doing the right thing.”
Caldwell, a native of Germany, envisions a time when green features now routinely used in European facilities — wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, waterless urinals, dual-flush toilets — become an expected and accepted part of U.S. school buildings.
“In 10 years, people will be amazed that we ever flushed our toilets with fresh water,” says Caldwell. “Green roofs will be commonplace. There will be no incandescent light bulbs. They'll be obsolete, like an old vinyl record.”
As sustainable design becomes common, the USGBC plans to push for even greater inclusion of green strategies in schools and other facilities.
“We're headed in a direction where what we call green now will be called standard,” says USGBC's Gutter. “The momentum is there. We have to continue to raise the bar.”
Sustaining the sustainability
In the Poudre district, they are not only trying to raise the bar, but also trying to make sure future district leaders keep raising it higher.
Poudre leaders have put together a Sustainability Management System (SMS) that will enable the school system to incorporate sustainable design and operations into the policy and practices of the district.
Franzen says part of the impetus for creating the sustainability management system was that many of those involved as the green school movement began were approaching retirement age. Poudre district leaders want to make sure their ideas and philosophies outlast their tenure in the district.
“We wanted a system in place so that we could sustain the sustainability,” says Franzen. “We didn't want the district to backslide.”
According to the 59-page document describing the SMS, one of its goals is to help the Poudre district “extend its demonstrated leadership in the green building and energy conservation arenas to leadership in the operational sustainability arena.”
The SMS spells out the district's long-term goals in resource conservation, greenhouse gas emissions, sustainable education and transportation. In addition, it lists numerous short-term goals in almost every area of district operations — maintenance, business and finance, communications, curriculum, food services, information technology, security and staff development.
Beyond the bottom line
For school administrators responsible for educating students with often-scarce budget resources, cost savings and gains in student performance usually are the most compelling arguments. Montgomery County's Caldwell says that when she makes presentations about green schools to other administrators, “some are only interested in the numbers. I've gotten pretty good about showing the numbers.”
But at some point, Caldwell believes, the education community should be ready to adopt green principles even if the efforts don't benefit the bottom line.
“I think we need to move away from thinking these things will pay for themselves,” says Caldwell. “Some never will. You can't translate environmental damage into numbers. You're not seeing the real price. We should be doing it because it's the right thing to do.”
Sidebar: LEED and CHPS
So you want to build a green school, but you don't know which recipe to follow. You could LEED the way to a green facility through the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system, or you could place all your chips on the CHPS criteria put together by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools.
CHPS criteria were developed specifically for school projects and initially focused on California schools. The USGBC's LEED system had a national scope, but at first chose not to develop a specific school category. But now that CHPS has expanded its presence to become more of a national program, and the USGBC has created a specific LEED for Schools system, the differences may be more difficult to discern.
“Although both rating systems have similar intents, the CHPS criteria and LEED are structurally, philosophically and programmatically different,” CHPS says in a paper that discusses green building options for schools.
For instance, LEED for Schools awards a possible 79 points and has four levels of certification — certified (29-36 points), silver (37-43), gold (44-57) and platinum (58-79). CHPS awards a possible 85 points. It takes 32 points for a new school to meet CHPS criteria, and the rating system does not have more specific levels of achievement.
The CHPS paper states that it was developed “with the knowledge and support of the USGBC.” At the time, the USGBC had no plans to create a rating system specifically for schools. CHPS did not want to use the LEED for New Construction system because it “did not address many issues critical to high-performance schools, such as acoustics, daylighting, electric lighting, low-emitting materials, joint use of facilities, etc.”
The LEED for Schools rating system, which the USGBC began using in 2007, now covers most of those issues.
Rachel Gutter, school sector manager for the U.S. Green Building Council, says LEED's platinum, gold and silver rankings appeal to educators and administrators who are comfortable with taking tests and receiving grades for their efforts.
LEED certification “is a badge of honor for them,” says Gutter. “It is a verification. Schools need to prove they've done these things. It shows teachers and parents exactly what they're getting.”
Several states have used CHPS guidelines to develop design and construction standards for schools.
In Washington state, the Sustainable Schools Protocol is a certification system similar to LEED, but it is based on CHPS criteria. Patricia Jatsczak, high-performance building program manager for the Washington state Office of Public Superintendent of Instruction, says that although her state relied more on CHPS because it is more easily adapted to account for regional differences, both systems are valuable.
“It's the same goal — building greener schools,” she says.
Sidebar: Greening L.A. campuses
If you're wondering about the Los Angeles Community College District's (LACCD) commitment to green construction, the answer is evident in the name of the website for its construction program: laccdbuildsgreen.org.
When the district completes the projects included in its $2.2 billion bond program, more than 40 new buildings on its nine campuses will have achieved LEED certification.
Several projects began construction in 2007, including the $46 million Center for the Sciences — a two-story, 100,000-square-foot building at Pierce College in Woodland Hills; and a $38 million, 85,000-square-foot Science and Technology Center at Los Angeles City College.
Another element of the system's green building effort is an ambitious plan to install photovoltaic panels at each of its nine campuses. The goal of the “9 Megawatt Solar Energy Plan” is for each campus to produce at least 1 megawatt of electricity through solar power, which would be enough to meet all daytime electricity needs.
The LACCD is one of 11 partners chosen by the Clinton Climate Initiative to launch a pilot program aimed at significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In November 2007, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger awarded the community college district the Governor's Environmental and Economic Leadership Award. It recognizes organizations that have demonstrated leadership in conserving resources, protecting and enhancing the environment, and building public-private partnerships.
Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.