Education officials used to debate whether they could afford to pursue green design and construction. Now the green movement has gained a foothold not just in education, but in society at large, and the prevailing attitude seems to have shifted. Can schools afford not to go green?

As budgets are slashed repeatedly, education administrators must put a premium on efficiency. Dollars saved through more efficiently operated facilities can help prop up critical education programs that otherwise would fall victim to dwindling financial support.

So even as schools and universities eliminate jobs, increase class sizes and scramble for other ways to reduce expenses, many of these same institutions are maintaining or extending their commitment to energy-efficient and environmentally friendly design and construction, and to operational practices that provide safe, healthful and cost-effective learning and working environments.

Double platinum

In the early years of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating program, achieving a certified rating—the lowest of the four LEED levels—was an accomplishment that brought kudos to an education institution. A platinum rating—the highest level—was a lofty goal that many dismissed as too arduous to obtain.

But as designers and builders have gained more experience and become more adept at incorporating sustainability into facilities, the unattainable is now within reach for many schools.

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, administrators have established a high bar for sustainability at Bren Hall, which houses the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. It has received a coveted platinum rating in two different LEED categories, the first building in the United States to receive that distinction.

The facility, which opened in 2002, received a platinum LEED rating for new construction, and the university boasted of having the greenest lab facility in the nation. In 2009, officials decided to seek LEED certification for Bren Hall in the Existing Building category, and again received the highest rating.

Among the green attributes in the 84,000-square-foot building: solar panels installed on the roof; efficient lighting system and controls; reclaimed water used for irrigation and for first-floor toilets; waterless urinals; drought-resistant landscaping; incorporation of recycled content and renewable resources in construction materials; and use of paints with low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

To achieve a platinum rating as an existing building, the university had to show that the sustainable strategies incorporated into the building design were being adhered to and enhanced by energy-efficient and environmentally sensitive operations. An evaluation of the facility showed that its energy use was one-third to one-half less than similar buildings of similar function.

Officials say Bren Hall earned the Existing Building platinum rating without major retrofitting. The most prominent changes were upgrading laboratory fume hoods and buying credits for renewable wind and solar energy.

Another building on the UC Santa Barbara campus, the Marine Research Science Building, also has earned LEED certification in the Existing Building category. Since it opened in 2006, building engineers have been able to reduce energy use by 44 percent.

The university says it plans to have 25 campus facilities certified by the end of 2012 in the LEED Existing Building category. It also has a policy that any new building on campus must meet LEED silver standards or higher.