You are here


A Deeper Shade of Green

School administrators are raising the bar on sustainability efforts, and the results are paying off big time.

For many schools, “Going Green” once meant turning out the lights after leaving the classroom, filling the recycle bins, and celebrating Earth Day. Not anymore. Although such activities remain staples of environmentally conscious school systems, that consciousness has exploded in an era of high energy prices, global warming threats, and multiplying concerns about the health of students in today’s school buildings.

Built-in window blinds in classroom windows at the Pleasant Ridge Montessori School in the Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) allow the amount of daylight coming in to be adjusted.

"We've evolved to a greater understanding of what the definition of a sustainable school is. Schools are starting to look at the greenhouse gases they produce and asking, ‘What’s my community footprint?” says Ari Kobb, senior manager for energy and environment at Siemens Building Technologies, one of an increasing number of companies working with districts to reduce their impact and save money.

“The standards for sustainable schools are constantly changing and improving. In some ways they are a moving target,” adds Ariel Dekovic, the communications and membership manager of the Collaborative for High Performing Schools (CH PS), a San Francisco-based organization that “verifies” schools as sustainable. CH PS-verified schools have proliferated to more than 40 and embody the group’s signature priorities of creating healthy, comfortable, and well-lit spaces for learning, as well as conserving energy and water.

To be sure, district leaders and their school boards have been listening to calls—from former Vice President Al Gore’s campaign on global warming to President Obama’s push for alternative energy sources—but an even greater driving force has been the emergence of new green technologies, ranging from water- and electricity-saving sensors to more efficient heating and cooling equipment. “For schools it’s exciting because these are the kinds of technology that five to 10 years ago might have been out of the realm of possibility,” says Dekovic. The U.S. Green Building Council’s Rachel Gutter adds that in the past, school administrators didn’t necessarily have the framework, community experts, models or the availability of products. And Gutter, senior manager for the schools sector, says that more basic green building materials have become cost-effective. “Nowadays, the prices for paint finishes and lower emitting furniture are comparable to their out-gassing counterparts” (which slowly emit chemicals into the air during their lifetimes), Gutter points out.

Where can district administrators interested in energy efficiency, managing carbon footprint, and creating learning friendly environments turn? Over the past three years, national, state, and local organizations dedicated to sustainable schools have ratcheted up their standards, support, and recruitment efforts. Here is a sampling of the most successful.

The Shallowater (Texas) Independent School District has been using wind energy from five turbines?three at its high school (above) and one each at its middle school and intermediate school.

The Gold Standard

The standard for school sustainability comes from the U.S. Green Building Council, which for the past decade has evaluated commercial construction in categories such as materials and resources, energy and atmosphere, indoor environmental quality, and innovation and design. This rating program, or LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), awards points that add up to Silver, Gold, or Platinum certification, as determined by a third-party inspection.

In 2007, the USGBC created LEED for Schools, which covers new construction and renovations and fits school-specific needs such as classroom acoustics, mold prevention and air quality. “Youngsters particularly are more susceptible to environmental toxins,” Gutter says. “And improved acoustics let students hear better.”

Since 2007, the number of LEED-certified schools has multiplied from about 80 to 150, and more than 400 schools planning or engaged in construction projects have registered for eventual certification. “Despite the economic downturn, we haven’t seen a slowdown at all,” Gutter says, adding that one or two schools register every day.

LEED schools can earn up to 69 points for a myriad of sustainable features. They get one point for achieving a 20 percent reduction in water use, and additional credits for reaching 30 percent and 40 percent. The Optimizing Energy Performance category provides up to 10 points, which incrementally reward improvements of 14 percent to 42 percent for new buildings and 7 percent to 35 percent in building renovations. And using recycled materials and certified wood, adding “cool roofs,” which deflect heat, and recycling construction waste also add credits.

For example, the new high school in the Northland Pines School District in Eagle River, Wis., achieved its Gold certification in April 2007, and in its first year of operation used 31 percent less energy and 35 percent less water than it would have without conserving. The school’s contractor recycled 83 percent of the waste left over from construction.

More striking, Gutter continues, was the construction cost—$116 per square foot, compared with $154 for construction that does not meet sustainable standards, the 2006 national average for new high schools. Gutter says the tough economic climate may be perfect for green schools that are struggling financially.

Last April, the USGBC released a LEED 2009 update that changed its scoring system to better suit the particular conservation needs of different regions of the country. A school district in the Southwest could earn more points for water conservation, and one in California could concentrate on energy conservation.

While LEED standards have become best known in new construction projects, the USGBC has in the past year targeted renovations in existing schools and has launched pilot programs in a dozen districts, from DeKalb County in Georgia to Poudre, Colo. “We looked for districts that had already bought in to LEED,” explains Gutter, who says her organization also offered $35,000 in green consulting services for each district.

And last April, the Alliance for Leadership and Interconnection celebrated in part the success of Cincinnati Public Schools, in which all 22 schools under design will be LEED Silver or higher, the largest concentration of LEED-certified schools in the country by a district. Ohio is the leading state in the country for implementing green design in schools, says Ginny Frazier of ALLY, a citizen’s group that provides guidance for policy development and environmental sustainability implementation.

Meeting High Performance

The Collaboration for High Performance Schools (CHPS) has emerged as another national organization that sets sustainability standards and verifies that schools have met them. What began as an informal group of California schools a decade ago has developed into an influential force reaching districts in Washington, Texas, Colorado, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and New York. “When we started, our focus was on efficient use of energy and other resources,” recalls CHPS’s Ariel Dekovic. “But the definition of a high-performing school has grown much larger to include the health and comfort of the building and whether students can hear and see well.”

Gladstone High School in Oregon will process rainwater from its drain spouts through the detention pond and rock-lined bioswales starting to form on the ground behind the building?s new extension.

“Schools have wholeheartedly embraced daylight and natural ventilation,” observes architect Timothy Dufault, who has designed numerous LEED-certified and CHPS-verified schools and chairs the Committee on Architecture for Education for the American Institute of Architects.

Dufault prefers windows to walls in his designs and says it saves money. The CHPS “design scorecard” also lists six standards for indoor air quality, such as using low-emitting materials and thermal displacement ventilation.

The American Federation of Teachers, which has joined the National Education Association in championing sustainable schools, cites studies showing that better air quality and ventilation can cut asthma incidences by 25 percent and colds and flu by up to 20 percent. Reducing the building footprint, designing it for joint use with the larger community, and not developing prime agricultural land where endangered species live also rate highly on the scorecard. “There’s a lot of friendly competition between states and districts to be on the forefront,” says Dekovic.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has bought into the CHPS concept. With a mandate and funding to build 131 new schools this decade, 60 will meet CHPS criteria. All 75 schools completed also exceed California’s sustainability requirements by 30 percent.

More than a year ago, the district passed a resolution to become the most environmentally friendly school district in the nation, says Randy Brill, director of LAUSD’s Sustainability Initiative. “You really need to have the support of the board and superintendent, and you need qualified professionals installing energy management systems and daylighting in an intelligent way.”

The district’s existing schools stand to benefit as well. Last fall, California voters approved an additional $7.2 billion for school modernization, including $500 million for sustainability improvements such as lighting retrofits, motion sensors, smart irrigation controllers to save 260 million gallons of water a year, and the harvesting of L.A.’s abundant sunlight to generate 50 megawatts of renewable energy by 2012.

Performance Contract Pros

Retrofitting 130 older schools has been the priority for the Metropolitan Nashville (Tenn.) Public Schools over the past five years, so the district signed a performance contract with Siemens Building Technologies to do the job. The contract allows a district to invest in energy-efficient improvements paid for in coming years by energy savings. “What you’re trying to do is save dollars, but you’re ultimately saving natural resources,” explains Joe Edgens, Nashville’s executive director of facilities and operations.

Siemens has changed the lighting, instituted water conservation technology, and is upgrading the HVAC systems in many buildings, adding sensors to increase energy efficiency. So far, the district has spent $45 million on it but is seeing a $3 million annual return on investment in energy savings. It should get the investment back—probably within 20 years—or Siemens will pay the difference.

Seventeen companies, such as Johnson Controls, Honeywell and Trane, are accredited by the National Association of Energy Companies to do sustainability work. In choosing one, Edgens cautions, “check the financial background of the company, because you’re asking them to guarantee your savings over time.”

Grass Roots to Going Green

Other school districts are taking a more homegrown approach in dealing with sustainability, thanks to various statewide programs. In 2004-2005 the Minnesota Healthy Sustainable Schools programs ran a demonstration project that provided a sustainability site coordinator at three schools for one year. “Over the years, one of the main cries from schools was for someone dedicated to these issues,” says Linda Countryman, who directed the project for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. A site coordinator can bring in experts and coordinate with school staff, as well as ensure implementation, she says.

"There's a lot of friendly competition between states and districts to be on the forefront." -Ariel Dekovic, communications and membership manager, Collaborative for High Performing Schools

Houston (Minn.) Public Schools, which has two buildings and 450 students, received a detailed analysis of energy use, costs, and recommendations for savings, including turning hall lights on at 7:30 a.m. instead of 5 a.m. and reducing hot water temperature. The report prepared by Houston’s site coordinator also imposed a “no idling” policy for vehicles awaiting students and eliminated kitchen waste and toxic substances, including cleaning products and any residual mercury. For Superintendent Kim Ross, the most immediate impact was in engaging the community. “You’re looking at a systemic behavioral change,” Ross says.

Houston’s first victory was in recycling. Buying less toxic cleaning products and more energy-efficient lightbulbs, fixtures, and energy-saving devices on vending machines followed. In one year, the district saved $12,000 in electricity and gas. In the Hutchinson Public Schools across the state, the high school saved 420,000 gallons of water in a year by switching to waterless urinals.

Focused on the Bigger Picture

While projects like Countryman’s stress small changes, the Sustainable Oregon Schools Initiative (SOSI) focuses on the bigger picture, providing an online storehouse of sustainability information and working with districts to incorporate sustainability as a strategic goal and to involve the larger community. “The most educated countries have the biggest ecological footprints,” says SOSI director Lori Stole. “And in the long term—with other countries developing—we’d need four Earths to support our lifestyle.”

The Gladstone School District has emerged as the earliest adopter of SOSI principles, but Superintendent Bob Stewart felt challenged when the district expanded the high school’s science education area by 22,000 square feet. Stewart notes that the LEED-certified addition would still use 80 percent of the energy an ordinary building would consume, so the district aimed higher—by 2012, energy consumption in the 192,00-square-foot expanded high school would be the same as when it was 170,000 square feet.

What emerged was a building designed to support up to 20,000 square feet of solar panels on the roof and generate up to 200 kilowatts of electricity for the building to draw on. The new building also steers rainwater from its roof through detention ponds and bioswales—shallow waterways lined with plant life—providing cleaner storm drainage via tributaries to the nearby Clackamas River.

Other advocates for school sustainability predict that innovations in school construction will continue to expand. “The current administration’s focus on system design and alternative design is going to lead to new ideas,” says architect Timothy Dufault. “More solar cells and wind turbines may be too expensive right now but may become more bountiful.”

And the USGBC’s Rachel Gutter expects the green movement in schools to accelerate. “With technological advances,” she says, “the Platinum of today may be the Silver of tomorrow.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer for District Administration.