Sustainable design extends the life of education facilities. It also lessens a building's impact on the environment, lowers operating costs, increases comfort and can even raise test scores, productivity and attendance. But many school districts still shy away from the concept of green design in construction and renovation projects because of fear that it will cost more than a traditional design.

But sustainable features don't have to cost more than traditional building options. It's often just a matter of designing smarter. And even when an extra upfront expenditure is necessary to pay for sustainable components, it can pay for itself quickly through reductions of the operations and maintenance budget.

Green learning

Buildings have a profound effect on the environment and the economy, as well as on the health and productivity of those who inhabit them. According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), buildings account for 36 percent of total energy use, 65 percent of electricity consumption, 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, 30 percent of raw materials use, 30 percent of waste output and 12 percent of potable water consumption. Building green is good for the planet because it helps reduce these numbers dramatically. For schools, sustainable design has an added benefit: it provides a better learning environment.

Energy efficiency is a key focus of sustainability. A sustainable building is aligned with the direction of the sun, uses shading devices and incorporates windows to take advantage of natural light and lower electricity bills. Many older schools were built without windows to remove distractions. But in the last 10 years, some research studies have linked naturally lighted classrooms to higher scores — up to 25 percent — on standardized tests.

Sustainable components also can serve as on-site educational opportunities. Some schools capture rainwater from their roofs and use it in science classes. Other schools have installed green roofs with small gardens that cool the building, facilitate rainwater filtering and harvesting, and serve as a teaching tool for biology classes. Native plants in the landscape save on water and upkeep while teaching students about their area's natural environment.

LEED leads the way

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a coalition of leaders from across the building industry, has created the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system as a voluntary national standard for assessing building performance and meeting sustainability goals. It rates buildings on sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, material selection and indoor environmental quality. Depending on the number of points earned, buildings are ranked in one of four levels: certified, silver, gold and platinum.

The USGBC is creating a standard specifically for schools, but in the meantime, the standard for commercial and institutional projects is applicable to schools. It can serve as a baseline and checklist to keep work on track from design through to construction, commissioning and occupancy of the building.

Some items on the checklist cost no more than standard items, and others require more upfront costs but can save in the long run. Other items on the list, such as meeting the energy code, are required for facilities.

The work required to obtain a LEED “certified” rating generally increases a budget by two-thirds of 1 percent and can produce a tenfold return. Although it costs more to incorporate the more sophisticated design features required for silver, gold or platinum rating, the expense can be recouped in savings on operating costs.

A progressive example

Columbia-Brazoria (Texas) Independent School District has embraced green design principles. For example, its new elementary school has the capacity to capture rainwater from the roof and hold it in a cistern.

“Students use the recycled water in an area devoted to studying plants and science,” says Martha Buckner, assistant superintendent. “It also waters a grassy plaza outside our science and art classrooms where art students work in natural light.”

At another of the district's elementary schools, students can observe building operations, such as the fire-suppression system, HVAC systems and the computer technology backbone, behind glass enclosures. “We wanted the building itself to be a learning tool,” says Buckner.

At its junior high school, the district used recycled building materials and carpet, paint, sealants and adhesives with minimal off-gassing. During construction, recycling kept waste out of landfills, and building materials came from a 50- to 100-mile radius to cut down on pollution caused by trucks shipping components across the country. Both schools incorporate facilities for the collection and storage of recyclables, teaching students about conserving natural resources.

Native plants surround the new junior high school. “We did not need an irrigation system because these plants are very drought-resistant,” says Buckner. “That saves water and reduces maintenance costs.”

What did all this cost the district?

“We found that it did not add to our construction cost,” says Buckner. “There was some minimal upfront cost for the web-based controls of our HVAC systems, but the payback is rapid because we don't waste energy on unoccupied rooms. Rather than spending more on the operational side, sustainable features give us an opportunity to invest in instruction. Sustainable design is a matter of good planning rather than spending money.”

The district is projecting savings in operating costs of 10 percent or more. Officials hope that the junior high school will be the first junior high in Texas to achieve LEED certification.

Henrikson, AIA, is a partner (vice president) and Henry, LEED AP, is an assistant project manager with SHW Group, Dallas, an architectural, planning and engineering firm that focuses on education facilities.