Many people skeptical about environmentalism may have a stereotyped view of the typical advocate for green design. But the cartoon image of a tie-dye-wearing, granola-eating, tree-hugging hippie that is obsessed with saving whales is as outdated as the idea that a double-loaded corridor constitutes innovative classroom design.
Times change, and as pollution continues to plague cities, energy prices escalate and average temperatures creep higher, the argument that society can't afford to squander its limited resources has been embraced by more than just environmental activists. More and more education administrators and architects are among those pushing schools and universities to use sustainable design strategies and practices to construct and operate their facilities.
And as more schools and universities have come to realize that they benefit from having meaningful connections to the communities that surround them, the decision to pursue environmentally friendly facilities and campuses is not just a bottom-line financial equation for a school's number crunchers, but also a deliberation that takes into account the well being of the whole community.
“Schools are public buildings that can be around for 100 years or longer,” says Heinz Rudolf, a principal architect with Boora Architects in Portland, Ore. “It's an investment.”
The time is now
Schools and universities have become more amenable to green design and construction for a number of reasons. Concern about global warming, though still debated in some political circles, has convinced enough people that the phenomenon should be taken seriously.
“It's no longer considered a kind of myth,” says Rudolf. “With Al Gore and the movie, ‘Inconvenient Truth,’ there is so much discussion about global warming. People are more open to discussing it and doing something about it.”
On college campuses, many students concerned about the environment have provided an impetus to get their schools to adopt green strategies and practices.
“There is a generation of kids beginning to be aware that their parents haven't done much to address environmental issues,” says Bruce Coldham, principal architect with Coldham & Hartman in Amherst, Mass.
At the same time, advancements in technology and construction techniques have given builders and architects more tools that enable a facility to achieve higher levels of sustainability. Designers and facility managers also have better tools to accurately assess the energy efficiency and environmental quality of buildings.
“In the last 10 years, there is more of a scientific approach used,” says Rudolf. “Performance can be measured. Systems can be modeled — it's not just guesswork.”
Another hurdle for budget-sensitive education institutions to overcome was the perception that sustainable design and construction jacked up project costs. The argument put forth by environmental advocates that schools would easily recoup any higher initial costs with long-term operational savings was of no help to educators unable to persuade taxpayers or legislators to allocate more money upfront.
But in recent years, more schools and universities have adopted a long-term perspective about their facilities and factor in life-cycle costs when they decide how to pursue construction projects. Meanwhile, some studies indicate that the higher initial cost of a green project is not all that burdensome. “Greening America's Schools,” a 2006 report by Capital E, a consultant on clean energy, found that designing and constructing a sustainable facility adds about $3 a square foot to the cost of a project, which amounts to a green premium of about 2 percent. Savings through reduced energy and water consumption, as well as savings seen because of the improved health of students and employees, helps schools quickly recoup that additional spending.
Evidence that a design strategy will not only save energy but also improve student performance makes it even easier for educators to embrace sustainable design. The widespread acceptance of daylighting strategies in school projects has come about in recent years after a 1999 study by the Heschong Mahone Group that linked effective classroom daylighting with improved student performance.
One overriding element that has served as a catalyst for sustainably designed schools is the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. For educators used to following a curriculum and accustomed to dealing with grades, the LEED system is right up their alley.
LEED awards points for various sustainable features or strategies in a construction project — the more elements that meet LEED standards, the more points. Based on how many points awarded, a project can be designated as certified, silver, gold or platinum. The maximum number of points for a new construction project is 69.
The council is working on establishing a separate rating system for school buildings that would take into account some aspects that are more critical in education facilities.
Ahead of its time
Even though Clackamas (Ore.) High School has achieved LEED silver certification, Rudolf says the facility was designed before the Green Building Council established LEED standards. The design remained in the planning stage while the school district struggled to find the budget to build the facility; eventually, the 265,000-square-foot facility was built and opened in 2002.
Without LEED to guide him, Rudolf used his own concepts of what a sustainable school design should be, and he hit his target so well that The Green Guide newsletter selected Clackamas as the top green U.S. school in 2005.
Rudolf used a full-scale classroom mockup at the Lighting Design Laboratory in Seattle to help him determine the most efficient ways of mixing daylighting and electric light to illuminate the school. Students built another classroom mockup to test the effectiveness of the ventilation system. The result is that the school uses as much as 40 percent less energy than if it had been built to minimum state energy requirements.
Other sustainable elements in the Clackamas design:
Sensors assure that lights and air conditioning are turned on only when needed.
Concrete slabs and masonry walls are used as thermal mass to help stabilize the building temperature.
Native, drought-resistant plants reduce the need for irrigation and pesticides.
Materials were chosen for low maintenance and long life. Many of the materials are from local sources or are composed of recycled material.
A six-acre wetland was preserved.
Even the greenest building needs to have regular checkups to make sure it is continuing to perform as it was designed. Rudolf says periodically putting the facility through a commissioning process is vital.
“You need to tune the buildings up,” says Rudolf. “You have to re-commission the building and see if anything is out of whack and doesn't respond correctly. This is too good of a building to ignore and let slide.”
Science laboratories, which frequently deal in dangerous materials, have unique environmental issues that could make it more difficult to create a sustainable facility. At Yale University in New Haven, the school was able to renovate lab space that now houses the School of Medicine's Department of Neurobiology.
Architects Bob Skolozdra and Jay Brotman with Svigals + Partners in New Haven say one of the keys in creating an energy-efficient lab space was a ventilation system that could quickly remove any dangerous fumes and replace it with 100 percent outside air.
Another lab feature critical to the work being performed is an effective climate-control system. Unwanted fluctuations in temperature and humidity levels could adversely affect experiments.
The renovation of the Yale lab also improved the working atmosphere from a collection of small, dark lab spaces into an open, airy space infused with daylight. Ninety percent of the rooms have windows, and daylight sensors in offices and labs help reduce energy use even more.
“Green labs … attract and retain top talent because researchers find them far more desirable than the typical cold, sterile laboratory where people are segregated into tiny cubicles,” says Brotman.
Other environmentally friendly touches include cotton insulation made from recycled blue jeans, wheat straw cabinetry panels, and water-based paints and finishes.
More than numbers
For architects like Rudolf and Coldham, who were committed advocates of green design long before the Green Building Council and LEED came on the scene, the rating system might have been unnecessary, or even a little restricting. But for many education administrators, architects and others involved in building construction, the LEED ratings filled their need for a straightforward definition of what a green facility is, and a clear way to achieve a “green” designation.
“I think it's a good guideline — a road map,” says Rudolf. “It really shows you how you can achieve these things.”
Coldham, whose Massachusetts firm is a strong advocate of green architecture, says the LEED program has been “astoundingly successful” in focusing attention on environmentally friendly design and construction techniques and stimulating market demand for green buildings.
But Coldham says that LEED's mechanism for determining whether a project can be considered green — its point system — causes many planners and builders, as well as their clients, to concentrate more on accumulating points instead of creating the most environmentally friendly facility.
“It turns green design into a list of features instead of an elegant integration of design components,” says Coldham.
In some cases, Coldham suggests, it might be better for the environment for a builder to forgo the opportunity to amass LEED points for some features so it can focus on elements that will provide a greener facility. But as long as the system focuses on acquiring points, designers and builders will be tempted to go for the points.
“If LEED becomes merely an exercise of base-touching and accounting, we may not attract the talented people who want to get involved in green design,” says Coldham.
Rudolf, in advocating green design, says he has encountered skepticism from school officials or community members who feared he would design a “Taj Mahal” or a building filled with frills. In those cases, the trump cards he plays are the buildings themselves.
“We go on a tour, and I show them the contrasts between sustainable buildings and other schools,” Rudolf says. “Once we go on a tour of some buildings, that makes all the difference.”
Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at email@example.com.
A sustaining commitment
More schools and universities have been embracing environmentalist philosophies and sustainable practices, but it's fair to say that few education institutions are as committed to green campuses as the College of the Atlantic (COA) in Bar Harbor, Maine.
With less than 300 students, COA has had sustainability as a key part of its mission since its founding in 1969. Examples of its commitment to environmental stewardship abound:
In 1999, alumni donated Beach Hill Farm to the school. The 73-acre, certified organic farm provides fresh produce for campus food services. In addition, the college uses the farm as an educational resource to teach students about sustainable food production and farmland stewardship. Fruits, vegetables and herbs from community gardens also are used by the campus kitchen.
COA has signed a 10-year contract to purchase its electricity from a wind power farm that is to be built in Maine.
To minimize landscaping maintenance on campus, the school uses mostly native species and long-naturalized plants.
Food waste and some paper is composted and used in the school's community gardens; other paper is recycled.
Several buildings do not use artificial light during the day, instead relying on light shelves and other daylighting techniques to illuminate the space.
The school also is about to embark on construction of sustainable student housing. The design, by Coldham & Hartman Architects in Amherst, Mass., calls for six 8-bed buildings constructed using wood-frame techniques. The roofs will be sited and inclined to maximize solar energy potential. The buildings will be heated with clean-burning biomass pellet fuel and will have composting toilets; gray water heat recovery; and an energy-recovery central ventilation unit to deliver tempered fresh air.
Last fall, as the college inaugurated David F. Hales as its fifth president, it raised its commitment to sustainability yet another notch by declaring that the school would be a “net-zero” campus for greenhouse gas emissions.
“From this day on, COA will do whatever is necessary to avoid and reduce emissions, and for those missions we cannot avoid or reduce directly, we will invest in quantifiable and verifiable emission reductions elsewhere that totally offset our contributions to the warming of this planet,” Hales said at his inauguration in October.
A green Long Beach
The Cesar Chavez Elementary School, which opened in 2004 in Long Beach, Calif., is one of the first truly “green” schools in California, according to the Collaborative for High Performance Schools.
The 75,000-square-foot facility was designed by LPA Inc. and built by McCarthy. It incorporates numerous sustainable features:
North-facing windows, light shelves, sunscreens, skylights and rooftop light monitors enable daylight to provide much of the building's illumination. Sensors adjust fluorescent lighting depending on available daylight.
Energy usage is reduced by 33 percent more than is required by the state's energy code. Water usage is reduced by 30 percent.
Operable clerestories, windows and skylights provide natural ventilation systems.
Low-energy window glazing and shading features repel glare and solar heat.
Recycled and recyclable materials are used throughout the building.
Landscaping and light-colored concrete reduce the heat-island effect.
Sharing an adjacent community park enabled the school site to be reduced by four acres.