In recent years, green design has evolved from a cutting-edge idea embraced by ecology-obsessed activists to an idea embraced as a badge of honor by schools and universities across the nation.
A consensus has formed among architects, school facility managers and educators that sustainably designed projects are desirable and make sense for the environment and for an institution's long-term finances.
But just because many of the key decisionmakers agree about the wisdom of green design and construction doesn't guarantee that the planning process will move forward smoothly and result in a high-performance, energy-efficient, well-run, environmentally friendly education facility.
Green projects, like most construction and renovation projects, may encounter roadblocks on the path from concept to reality: permits, zoning requirements and other bureaucratic obstacles imposed by planning commissions, school boards or other government agencies; unexpected reductions in available funding; breakdowns in communication among a design team; a failure to follow up after a project is completed to make sure the benefits promised are being delivered.
Education administrators and designers must be prepared to address those issues while making sure that the solutions do not diminish the environmentally beneficial qualities envisioned in the planning.
In Hopkinton, Mass., facilities director Brian Main, seeking ways to cut energy costs and reduce the town's dependence on fossil fuels, did some research on his own and brought forth a proposal in 2008 to install an array of solar panels on the town's high school and middle school, as well as the police and fire stations.
"I thought I would dazzle people with this endeavor," a bemused Main recalls.
The array of 1,800 photovoltaic panels began operating from the roofs of the four buildings in November 2009, but Main says there were times during the process that he thought his energy-saving efforts would never see the light of day.
Early on, the police and fire department officials said they favored the project, but the town's school committee was skeptical. Members were concerned, Main says, about making a 20-year commitment to placing the panels on school roofs and whether that would hinder any roofing upgrades that would need to take place.
Without the school facilities, the solar installation wasn't feasible, so Main worked on persuading school officials. He persuaded the company that would install the photovoltaic panels to provide the school system with curricular materials to teach Hopkinton students about solar energy. The company also agreed to install a kiosk at the high school to display how much energy the system is producing.
The school committee ultimately approved the plan, but the proposal nearly ran aground again when economic troubles led to cuts in the tax credits available to municipalities for solar installations. The town was able to overcome that obstacle by partnering with Boston Community Capital, a non-profit organization. To take advantage of the tax incentives available to companies installing solar power, it formed a for-profit entity that paid for the panels, and sells the solar power to the town at a reduced rate.
As the town dealt with state agencies to seek approval, Main got conflicting answers about whether the project would have to go out for competitive bidding. Then he found out that, legally, the town had to approve a lease for the solar installation.
"They said we needed a lease even though no money was changing hands," says Main. "It had to be approved at the town meeting, which happens only once a year."
Fortunately for the project, the timing of the town meeting did not disrupt the schedule for installation, and townspeople approved the lease.
The solar power collected by the panels in Hopkinton is expected to offset energy costs by about 15 percent, Main says.
The panels' presence also has sparked greater interest among townsfolk for environmental initiatives.
"It has created a lot of interest in the town," says Main. "There now is a sustainable green committee."
In addition, Main says, the town's plans for a new elementary school will incorporate sustainable strategies spelled out by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools and the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED standards.