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Efficiency: Worth the Energy?

Whether you're starting from scratch or shaping up, options abound for energy savings in schools

The Answer: $1.5 billion for America's schools

The Question: If the costs of unnecessary energy use in schools were subtracted fromot the $6 billion schools spend on energy every year, what would be saved?

That alarming equation is courtesy of data from the U.S. Department of Energy, which tracks how much taxpayers spend on energy for the nation's K-12 schools. Nearly half of the energy usage in schools is for space heating (compared to about 6 percent for space cooling). Water heating and lighting each account for about one-fifth of the educational energy puzzle. About 25 percent of that total energy use is superfluous.

Simple ways of cutting back--which involve nary a saw or nail--abound. Just ask Edgar Hatrick, superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools in Leesburg, Va. During the district's decade-long contract with the Wichita Falls, Texas-based firm Energy Education, the school system has realized savings of more than $6 million. The company creates individual plans for districts with recommendations in the areas of conservation and management.

"Many of the changes are simple or have to do with behavioral changes," Hatrick says. "Every dollar I don't send to the power company is a dollar that can be used in the classroom."

Still, there's no question that districts benefit from the construction of energy-efficient schools (also known as high-performance or "green" schools). Peter Templeton, a deputy director at the U.S. Green Building Council, says that everyone wants to know if building green costs a lot more than building traditionally.

Districts don't always have to spend more money up front, says Ellen Larson, policy and program manager for the Sustainable Buildings Industry Council. It's all about setting goals early and being willing to accept trade-offs.

"It's hard to spray green on a building late in the process," says Templeton, who handles the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.

"In a green, LEED-certified school, you'll have a healthy environment for high-performing kids. We're essentially taking into account the issues of performance, productivity, health, operational maintenance," says Robert J. Kobet, president of Sustainaissance International, a Pittsburgh-based design and development firm that specializes in green designs.

"In the end, the owner benefits from all those things and more importantly, the kids benefit, too," adds Kobet, who is also co-chair of the LEED for Schools program committee.

In fact, the whole community benefits. "Ten years ago, sustainability was a nice thing to have around, because it could show some long-term benefits," says Kelvin Lee, superintendent of Dry Creek School District in Roseville, Calif. "Now it's gotten to the point where we must include sustainable design in our buildings, not only as good practice but as responsible stewards to our community."

Here's what the journey to energy efficiency looked like for three schools:


Iredell-Statesville (N.C.) School District

When this district found itself with two school buildings--one a K-2 and the other for grades 3-5--that were more than ready for retirement, building a combined K-5 school seemed like the best option. From the beginning, administrators planned to make Third Creek Elementary a green building, by equipping it with energy-saving materials and products that are both energy efficient and good to the earth.

Yet, the project costs, which came to about $11.9 million, weren't much more than for a traditional building, says Rob Jackson, the district's construction manager. "We determined early on that there were some features that would cost about $100,000 extra to include, but the payback period for those features would be only about two-and-a-half years," he says.

The project's LEED-accredited professional, Bryna Dunn from Richmond, Va.-based Moseley Architects, says there were many important green design components for the school, which was completed in August 2002 and is the first K-12 school to earn a LEED v2.0 Gold Certification. Offering the most dramatic energy savings, Dunn says, are classroom lighting and waterless bathroom urinals.

Each classroom has four levels of lighting control, with switches from different zones located in different locations. The result: Only areas that need light get it. Occupancy sensors and building-wide control systems turn lights off when rooms or areas aren't being used.

"Even in a small [downtown] building, there still are methods to produce substantial parts of your building's electrical needs."
-Chin Lin, HMFH Architects, Cambridge, Mass.

In addition, classrooms feature light shelves to bring in more daylighting, Dunn explains. Special glazing was used on windows to create high-performance glass that holds heat inside during the winter and reflects the sun's heat in the summer.

Meanwhile, the choice of bathroom fixtures has also been a wise one. Dunn says, "The building cut water use to about 70 gallons of water per student per year," compared to about 192 gallons of water per student in a comparable school. Third Creek's first-year water bills totaled just over $2,000, he adds. By definition, waterless urinals and low-flow plumbing fixtures generally lower water consumption more than 30 percent below what's required by federal law.

To help ensure everyone knows about the energy-saving design, there are about 20 signs posted throughout the school. The signs "show all the recycled material and some of the things done to save energy, including natural lighting and how it takes place," says Principal Dale Fox. Lessons on how the building's sustainability and energy savings are also being added to the school's formal curriculum.

Students even seem to be performing better on standardized tests. "Test scores went up quite a bit, from an average of 65 percent [in 2001-02] to 79.8 percent [in 2002-03]," says Fox, who partially attributes the gains to the building. Statewide, students are tested in grades 3, 4 and 5.

The school's 85-acre site will soon include an outdoor science classroom with a pond, six miles of nature trails, a picnic area and log cabins. The grounds will be used by schools throughout the district for field trips.

Iredell-Statesville's newest school will benefit more directly from Third Creek. Its green design is now the model for Woodland Heights Elementary School, currently being built.


Boston Charter School

Energy-saving construction is possible with virtually any kind of school construction project--even an historic renovation of an urban landmark building. In an adaptive reuse project, MATCH became one of the city's most energy efficient schools after its $4.7 million renovation. It has driven usage down by more than 30 percent.

The 1917 structure, originally built as the Lincoln Motor Car company headquarters, completed its $4.7 million renovation in August 2002. The public charter school takes up the first two floors of the three-story structure, with the third reserved for future expansion.

Chin Lin of HMFH Architects in Cambridge, Mass., selected energy-efficient light fixtures and arranged the windows to maximize daylighting. One of the school's unique energy-saving features is located outside.

A photovoltaic system on the roof captures the sun's energy and transforms it into usable electricity. "Whenever there's sun, the system produces about 14 percent of the electric consumption of the school," Lin says.

"It's hard to spray green on a building late in the process."
-Peter Templeton, deputy director of LEED & International Programs, U.S. Green Building Council

Funding for the system came in the form of a $491,530 grant from the Renewable Energy Trust, which is run by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, the state's development agency for renewable energy.

Even though the photovoltaic system contributes to the building's energy efficiency, Lin acknowledges that installing the panels--strictly from the economic impact and payback perspective--might not make sense right now for another school. "But it proves that even in a small building in a downtown environment, there still are methods to produce substantial parts of your building's electrical needs," he says. "We can still have modern, renewable solar panels up on the rooftop and integrate everything together," while maintaining a big part of the building's historically significant features.

In addition, the building's water loop heat pump system moves heat from one side of the building to another, if needed. So on a sunny November day, when the southern side of the building would naturally become hot, the system would transfer some of that heat to the cooler, northern-facing areas of the school.

Educators at MATCH tapped into student interest in science and architecture by working the solar panels into the ninth-grade science curriculum. The school, which focuses on integrating technology into all core subject areas, serves 180 inner-city students who are among the poorest in the state.

MATCH is also working to more visibly raise awareness of its energy-efficient building. "We'll soon have a kiosk in our lobby with our Web site and photovoltaic real-time meter and output information available for all students, staff and visitors to see," says Executive Director Alan PG Safran.


Salida (Calif.) Union Elementary School District

It sounds almost too easy: Don't turn on the lights, and you'll save big bucks on your school's energy bill. But that was the plan for this K-5 school designed to maximize daylight and eliminate the need for electric lighting as much as possible. Administrators at the year-round school, built in 1997, were almost forced to make seasonal energy efficiency a priority.

The energy-savings benefit of using natural light to illuminate classrooms is only part of the story. Here's what a 1999 study on daylighting in schools, performed for a gas and electric company by the Heschong Mahone Group in Fair Oaks, Calif., found: Classrooms maximizing natural light were most conducive to student learning. Students in classrooms with the most daylighting have 7 percent to 18 percent higher test scores than in classrooms with the least natural light, according to the study.

"Lighting is the largest component of energy use, followed by HVAC, so when you turn lights off, you're not using all that energy and you're reducing the overall load of your air conditioning and getting the most bang for your buck," explains Jim Blomberg, president of Sunoptics Prismatic Skylight, the Sacramento company that installed Dena Boer's skylights.

The 47,000 square-foot school has a total of 102 skylights incorporated into its design and includes deep overhangs at vertical windows. Classrooms have high-efficiency fluorescent lights--T-8s with electronic ballasts--recessed in the horizontal ceiling strips between skylights. And walls have been painted a bright white, to better reflect natural lighting.

The cost of the skylights and designing the ceiling around them would have added $2,500 per room, but the school was able to maintain a standard construction budget of $4.7 million. To make it work, there were some tradeoffs, such as a simple concrete exterior, instead of brick. The architect also diverted some funding from the hallways and exterior construction to concentrate on the actual classrooms. Assisting in the cost-savings process is that skylights mean fewer lighting fixtures are required in each room.

Jim Yardy, director of facilities in Salida, says the school's dedication festivities provided an opportunity to demonstrate the skylights' efficiency to community and state representatives. "We did a PowerPoint presentation of the stages of school construction, and when we closed the skylights, it was completely dark in the room. When we opened them, it was sufficiently bright, strictly from the sunlight," he explains.

Skylights are in virtually every room and area of the school--including bathrooms and all common areas. Because the school was designed for the relatively mild climate of Salida, which is not prone to extreme weather conditions, there are no interior hallways; all student movement between classes is out of doors.

Although most of the skylights open to provide ventilation, the school's residents have found that it doesn't pay to keep them open for long. Flies from the surrounding agricultural area become unwelcome guests.

But overall, Superintendent Tony Borba says everyone has responded well to the skylights. Personally, he'll take a daylit room over one with unnatural light, which he says affects his ability to think, any day. "In one particular office that had no natural lighting, when faced with a difficult problem, I found myself walking outside to be able to think more clearly," he says. The need to get out to "see the light" is hardly an issue at today's Dena Boer.

Savings Made Simple

Not about to begin a major renovation or build a new school? There are several quick and relatively inexpensive steps you can take to both lower energy bills and increase the quality of life within existing classrooms. Some to-do's:

Replace inefficient boilers, lighting and other systems, and save up to 30 percent annually. Target the most inefficient systems first. Use T8 electronic systems in classrooms instead of traditional fluorescent lighting fixtures.

Install programmable thermostats and occupancy sensors for lights.

Implement energy awareness programs. Encourage facilities staff, teachers and students to change their behaviors. They should, for example, turn off lights and computers when not needed and turn thermostats down over holiday breaks.

Schedule regular preventative maintenance checks to make sure building systems are running properly.

Contact your state energy office to arrange for an energy audit of your school facilities.

Simply walk through your school buildings with an eye toward cutting energy usage. You might be surprised at the number of opportunities you see to save energy.

Peggy Bresnick Kendler is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Conn.

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