It wasn't that long ago that when education architects and administrators raised the notion of green construction or sustainable-design strategies, they were met with head scratches and raised eyebrows.

When she was working on the plans for Third Creek Elementary School in Statesville, N.C., in the early 2000s, Bryna Dunn, the director of environmental planning and research at Moseley Architects in Richmond, Va., recalls that her questions to vendors and contractors created suspicion and even hostility.

"We were getting a lot of pushback from vendors," says Dunn. "I would try to find out what was in products, and I would get a whole range of unpleasant responses. Some of them were thinking I was trying to reveal their trade secrets."

But in 2009, the energy-saving, water-conserving, environmentally friendly philosophies championed by those in the vanguard of the green schools movement have become not just widely accepted, but openly coveted by school systems, higher-education institutions, and the communities they serve.

A key reason for this transformation of attitudes in the education field is that the early adopters of sustainable approaches delivered on their promises: facilities that offer more healthful learning environments, use less energy, consume less water, waste fewer resources and help students improve their performance.

"Ten years ago, they would say, 'Don't bring that stuff to our campus,'" says Casey Cassias, an architect with BNIM in Kansas City, Mo. "Now they say they want at least LEED silver."

A good start

Third Creek Elementary, which opened in 2002, was the first K-12 school facility to earn a gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. Seven years later, a gold LEED rating for a school still is rare, but Dunn sees areas where the building's performance would be enhanced if it were being designed now.

"It has daylight, but it could have had a lot more daylight," says Dunn. "We could only go so far a decade ago. With technology, we could do more with it now."

Identifying the strategies to come up with a green school design was not a problem several years ago, Dunn says. The greater obstacle was finding the appropriate materials and equipment, and the companies that could provide them.

"We did waterless urinals and low-flow fixtures, but it's a lot easier to find them now," says Dunn. "Now you can pick and choose."

When planners were able to find the products and equipment that would enable them to meet sustainable design goals, they often found they were not affordable. Dunn says that a decade ago, products that emitted minimal amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) usually were too expensive.

"The options for low-VOC products were limited by costs," says Dunn. "Now every manufacturer has a low-VOC line. In some cases it's cheaper than the products that aren't low-VOC."

At the beginning of the planning process for Third Creek, the Iredell-Statesville district was interested in how better daylighting could benefit the school, and the architects were unsure how far they should push their interest in green design.

"We wondered, 'Should we tell them about LEED and all these other things we can do?'" Dunn says. "After we presented all the information to them, they said they wanted nothing less than silver. Now, in RFPs, districts ask specifically for LEED project experience, they want LEED-AP architects on the project team. It validates what we have been doing."

Moseley Architects has 11 school facilities that have earned LEED certification, says Dunn, and another 28 school projects have registered with the U.S. Green Building Council in hopes of receiving certification.

The sustainable strategies included in the Third Creek design have proven successful.

"Even though the building is being used 30 percent more than projected, it still is conserving energy as predicted," says Dunn. "It's saved $100,000 to $150,000 over five years. That has paid back everything green that we did."

More significant to educators is the improved academic performance of students during the first three years at Third Creek, compared with the test scores of the students who attended the two schools Third Creek replaced.

Changes in attitudes

Experience and technological refinements have helped planners and school administrators improve the sustainability of their construction projects over the years, but the greatest difference in a green school project today compared with a decade ago is the knowledge and acceptance of the concept, and the strategies used to achieve success.

"The perception was that it was going to cost a lot more, and schools didn't want to do it if it was going to cost more," says Brad Paulsen, an architect who is vice president of Wight & Co., Darien, Ill. "It wasn't a common part of the conversation as it is now. Now schools are bringing the conversation to us instead of our bringing it to them."

Wight architects designed Bolingbrook High School, which opened in 2004 and became the first high school in Illinois to receive a LEED rating. The green elements of the school's design include a highly reflective white roof to minimize the heat-island effect; a water-collection system that saves 360,000 gallons of water a year by reusing condensation from the air-handling system; views to the outside in 90 percent of classrooms; a lighting-control system to supplement the daylight; and using building materials with recycled content.

To win over school and university administrators skeptical about the benefits of green design and construction, Paulsen says he emphasizes four points:

  • Going green is the right thing to do for the environment.

  • A sustainable design will provide long-term savings over the life of an educational facility. "That gets a business manager's ear," says Paulsen.

  • A learning environment designed with green principles (effective daylighting, good acoustics, good indoor air quality) can have a positive impact on student performance.

  • The facility itself can be used as a learning tool. "The sites themselves are extensions of the classroom and become part of the instructional program," Paulsen says.

Before LEED

Architects are not the only ones who were ahead of their time embracing the green design movement. The Wake County (N.C.) district, as part of the Triangle J Council of Governments, helped develop in 2000 high-performance guidelines for construction projects. Jyoti Sharma, senior director of facilities at the Wake County district, says that for the first projects developed under those guidelines, Wake County had to seek out and help educate designers and builders about sustainable practices and products.

"Over the years, more and more designers and builders have begun pushing green design," says Sharma. "Green has gone mainstream."

As an early proponent of green design, Wake County has 19 schools and three prototype designs that are considered green schools under the Triangle J high-performance guidelines. The sustainable elements in the various schools include daylighting, rainwater-collection systems, solar water heating, recycling of construction materials, drought-resistant plants, and energy-efficient heating and mechanical systems.

"I feel really good about where we went," says Sharma, who is leaving Wake County to work for a school system in Abu Dhabi. "I hope that green design has become part of the culture here."

Still, Sharma wishes there had been more progress in some areas of green design.

"I wish we could have made more progress with renewable energy. I'd like to see solar panels on every square inch of roof — but it's not cost-effective yet."

Another aspect missing from the early green school projects, says Sharma, was following and monitoring the building projects to see if they were delivering energy savings and performing as promised. "The last four years we have had a good commissioning program," says Sharma. "You need to have measurement and verification."

Although Wake County boasts that many of its school facilities are green, that designation is based on the district's own assessment of how it followed the Triangle J high-performance guidelines. Under Sharma's urging, the district has decided to begin seeking LEED certification so that the effectiveness of its green initiatives could be verified by an outside organization.

  • Read the "Sustainable housing" sidebar for information on how Elmhurst College worked to design a residence hall with the aim of receiving a silver LEED rating.
  • Read the "Green comeback" sidebar for information on Greensburg, Kan., school officials used the destruction wrought by a F5 tornado to rebuild using green design concepts.

Kennedy can be reached at mkennedy@asumag.com.

Sustainable housing

West Hall, a 170-student residence hall, opened last fall on the campus of Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill. The facility was designed with the aim of receiving a silver LEED rating.

A key sustainable feature of the project is the method for handling stormwater. The site has a network of underground cisterns that collect and store stormwater for irrigation. The hall's parking lot is 100 percent permeable so that water is collected underground instead of running off into storm sewers.

The facility includes separate chutes on each floor so students can sort out recyclables from trash, and the bathrooms have dual-flush toilets, with separate settings for solid and liquid waste. Rooftop solar panels provide energy to heat water for the residence hall. Builders used construction materials from the region, and the carpeting and foundation concrete are made with recycled materials.

Green comeback

On May 4, 2007, a tornado wiped out most of the small city of Greensburg, Kan., including its three school facilities. As the town dug itself out and formulated recovery plans, the immediate concern for school officials was finding temporary space so that the schools could reopen after the summer recess.

But in considering how to rebuild schools for the long term, town leaders wanted to take advantage of the opportunity the disaster had provided them. They could provide future generations with education facilities that would help the city recover and maybe even thrive for years to come.

"Some people wanted to rebuild quickly and get back," says Casey Cassias, an architect with BNIM in Kansas City, Mo. "But Darin Headrick, the superintendent, said, 'If we just put back what we had before, we'll continue to slide.'"

So the community took the city's name to heart and decided that the new Greensburg would be built using green design concepts. Kathleen Sebelius, the governor of Kansas at the time, asked BNIM architect Bob Berkebile, a longtime advocate of sustainable design and an early leader in the U.S. Green Building Council, to help Greensburg rebuild. BNIM was selected to develop a master plan for rebuilding Greensburg, and the city council decided that all public buildings larger than 4,000 square feet would aim for LEED Platinum certification.

BNIM typically does not work in the K-12 field, but once the community became strongly committed to pursuing green design, school officials decided they wanted to work with someone whose commitment to green matched theirs. So BNIM is designing the new K-12 campus.

"Their attitude is, 'If it takes an extra year to do the proper thing, we'll do it,'" says Cassias.

The new school will be a combined K-12 campus to take advantage of density and cut down on redundancies. The site is on the city's Main Street, so that the campus can serve as an anchor for the Greensburg community, says Cassias.

Among the sustainable elements in the design: a layout along an east-west axis to minimize glare and take advantage of southwest breezes; geothermal power; daylighting and a lighting control system; wind power; use of reclaimed and regional materials; water-efficient landscaping, and retention of water so it can be used for irrigation.

"No water leaves the site," says Cassias.

The architect adds that the school will use only 25 percent of the energy a comparable school would consume. Wind power will provide 50 percent of the school's energy, and more efficient energy use from sustainable practices such as geothermal power and daylighting accounts for the rest of the energy savings.

Some sustainable elements of the school design, such as green roofs, have fallen by the wayside for now because the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approves funding only for restoring facilities to what they were before the tornado struck.

The school is scheduled to be completed in 2010. ATS&R, a Minneapolis design firm, is assisting BNIM on education planning for the campus.