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Green Light on Energy Use

Environmentally friendly schools are here to stay.

Just a decade ago, saving the environment and global warming were issues that few Americans worried about.

But now, talk of using less energy and recycling everything from plastic to laptops is commonplace. And the idea of a "carbon footprint," or the measure of all energy used, is even entering school administrators' lingo.

Consider how much energy a school district uses: the electricity to light classrooms, the natural gas to heat schools, the diesel fuel to run school buses, and the energy to create and ship every product, from books to carpet. Since creating energy also creates carbon dioxide, a main source of greenhouse gases, environmentalists have dubbed the measurement a "carbon footprint."

It's a concept used mostly for individuals or households, but it can apply to schools as well. For example, a global action plan by the Stockholm Environmental Institute released last March noted that schools in the United Kingdom are estimated to produce 9.25 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year-about a quarter of all emissions from the government sector-and outlines recommendations to create a nationwide green school movement around carbon footprinting.

In the United States, however, the idea of carbon footprinting schools hasn't gone as far just yet.

Growing Green Action

While the process of determining a school building's carbon footprint is still in its infancy in the United States, interest in improving the environmental impact of school facilities, and the support available, is at an all-time high. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, for instance, unanimously passed a resolution in July requesting more federal support for K12 green school demonstration projects and research. The resolution may be having some effect. An amendment to the federal energy bill this session called for $200,000 annually for the next five years for indoor environmental quality research in K12 schools. It had not been acted on as of early October.

Judy Marks, the associate director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, says that when it comes to green buildings, the usual excuses- too expensive, too untested, too weird, too difficult-won't cut it anymore.

"We get more calls about this, we see it more often as a session or workshop at conferences, and we see more articles and more books about green schools," Marks says. "And to put it in perspective, any new school built in Europe today, it's just the way they build. It's the mainstream. They don't even question it."

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has seen a huge increase in interest in green schools. The council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, which uses points to measure the design, construction, and operation of high performance green buildings, has been given to 55 schools around the country to date. However, another 370 schools are in the pipeline for certification.

USGBC has seen such demand for green school certification that it launched a new program in April, LEED for Schools, which is the USGBC's first rating system created for a particular type of building. The program gives points for school-specific features, such as joint-use agreements that allow other groups to use the facility, and also has stricter requirements for some features, such as minimum acoustic standards. Like LEED, the program gives buildings a silver, gold or platinum rating depending on how many points the design accrues.

"To put it in perspective, any new school built in Europe today, it's just the way they build." -Judy Marks, associate director, National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilty

"We saw a tremendous demand for a system specifically tailored to the needs of school facilities," says Rachel Gutter, the LEED sector manager for K12 schools and higher education. "On a near daily basis we're getting contracted by school districts or state agencies."

School districts, counties and even states are requiring schools to use green building techniques. In late September, the Ohio School Facility Fund passed a requirement that all new schools and major renovations be certified as LEED Silver, using $4.1 billion in primarily state money for school facilities. The plan will create at least another 250 green school buildings in FACILITIES AND CONSTRUCTION the state in the next two years.

Since 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, has required all new buildings to receive at least a minimum score on the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) criteria, a rating system similar to LEED.

Today, 23 school districts in California, including San Francisco and San Diego, have signed a resolution pledging to meet CHPS criteria, and New York, Massachusetts, Washington, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Connecticut are using green school measurement processes built off the CHPS model.

Last November, California voters approved Proposition 1D, which allocates $100 million in incentive grants for schools based on how many CHPS criteria points are earned, both for new construction and renovations. Such programs are becoming more common. The state of Pennsylvania provides up to $500,000 in support to a school district for each new building that is LEED certified, for example. And the High Performance Schools program, led by the Oregon Department of Energy, offers technical assistance, design guidelines and financing for new green schools across Oregon.

Michigan Masterpiece

Whitmore Lake High School in Whitmore Lake (Mich.) Public Schools opened last fall to replace a building constructed in 1961. Some of the features that helped the 155,000-square-foot school be so green-it's been certified LEED Silver-contribute to its style. There are sky-blue panels of energy efficient glass, a white roof to reduce the heat load, and abundant natural light streaming into the main hallway. But many of its green features aren't easily seen.

"There are a lot of interesting things that can't be seen by the naked eye," says Kimberley Hart, the district's superintendent. "In fact, we're going to put up signs so students and members of the public can learn about how the building works."

"On a near daily basis we're getting contracted by school districts or state agencies." -Rachel Gutter, sector manager for K12 schools and higher education, U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design

The school's geothermal system uses 71 heat pumps, four energy heat recovery units and 47 miles of underground pipe to heat and cool the building, using less energy than a conventional system. It also allows each room to have its own temperature system, so teachers on the sunny side don't have to open windows in the middle of the winter to let out the extra heat that is required by other classrooms in the shade. "Just from the comfort level," says Tom DeKeyser, the school's principal, "the climate control system is fantastic."

Sensors in the classroom automatically regulate the amount of daylight streaming in and provide a constant amount of light throughout the room, therefore using less electricity, according to DeKeyser. Where possible, the building uses materials that are from sustainable sources, such as a linoleum floor in the main hallway, instead of vinyl, which is toxic to produce and can cause health problems when incinerated. Paints and adhesives with low volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have been used as well to improve indoor airquality, and the contractor recycled 83 percent of the construction waste.

All told, the facility was projected to save $80,000 a year from the geothermal unit alone, and that was a few years ago before energy prices spiked, DeKeyser says. So the facility is likely saving more.

But the dollars from energy savings alone aren't the only advantages to a green facility such as Whitmore Lake High. Fiscal advantages of green buildings are the major motivation behind the construction of green schools, according to Education Green Building SmartMarket Report, released this year by McGraw-Hill Construction Research and Analytics, but concern for "improved health and wellbeing" was the most critical social reason.

And research has shown that improved health is a bottom-line issue as well. More daylight has been linked to improved student performance, better ventilation and low VOCs mean fewer sick days and better productivity for students and teachers, and a green school helps attract and retain staff , according to Greening America's Schools: Costs and Benefi ts, a 2006 report by Capital E. All told, the study figures a green school costs about $3 more per square foot to build but gives back clear and hidden benefits that equal $74 a square foot.

New Ideas for Old Buildings

While the first thought that comes to mind for a green building is a shiny new facility like Whitmore Lake High, many districts are finding ways to be green without breaking new ground. "There's a lot of value in an old building," notes Tim Dufault, president of Cuningham Group and a member of the leadership group on the Committee on Architecture for Education of the American Institute of Architects. "Tearing it down uses a lot of energy and places a tremendous burden on the environment to landfill all that construction waste."

The Crockett (Texas) Independent School District didn't have the funding for a huge investment in green upgrades to its high school, early education building, and a former junior high school being converted to district offices, says John Walker, the district's business manager. From a menu of options provided by the energy-consulting firm TAC, district officials chose lighting upgrades, automatic thermostats and a new well system as the most cost-efficient ways to make some environmental improvements. Walker is particularly pleased with the well system, which uses unprocessed water for keeping the landscaping green, which saves the district money.

All told, the projects cost $783,000, paid for with a lease purchase that uses the money saved in energy and water costs each month to pay off the loan, which means no extra money in the budget. "We used a third-party finance company and a number of bid proposals," Walker says. "Through five months, we're averaging about $7,000 a month in savings."

"We're going to put up signs so students and members of the public can learn about how the building works." -Kimberley Hart, superintendent, Whitmore Lake (Mich.) Public Schools

In Rockville, Md., the Montgomery County Public Schools used a new green facility, Great Seneca Creek Elementary School, to create enough interest to launch a districtwide green construction program that encompasses its more than 200 schools. Great Seneca has features such as dual-flush toilets that save 43 percent more freshwater than typical toilets by allowing children to choose a lowwater option if they excrete only urine, a geothermal heating and cooling system, and bathroom stall dividers made from recycled plastic. Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and other elected officials have visited the site, which has been certified LEED Gold.

"Montgomery County now has legislation that all public buildings must get environmental nonprofit, runs a Green Schools program that works at the district level to enroll staff , faculty and students at several schools to create a customized plan for saving energy in the building and creating schoolwide energy awareness. This year the program will be working in southern California, supported by funding from Southern California Edison, and in Rochester, N.Y., where the Rochester City School District has committed resources to the program.

"We help schools start to pay attention to turning off lights when leaving a room and turning off computers when not in use-how to do easy weatherization, using blinds correctly to affect heating and cooling needs," says Emily Curley, the program associate for the ASE's Education team.

In Montgomery County, a similar program requires every school to aim for at least a 5 percent reduction in energy costs, and more than 100 schools are averaging between 5 and 10 percent reduction, according to Hillary Kirchman, the program manager of the district's School Eco Response Team program.

IA program to replace 32-watt bulbs with more efficient 25-watt ones cost the district $1.4 million. However, with an estimated return of $1.16 million a year, the entire project will begin to generate savings for the district in less than two years, Kirchman says.

"Sometimes it's just common sense," Marks says about green school facilities "Good light, good acoustics, good ventilation makes for a better place to learn."

Carl Vogel is a freelance writer in Chicago.