Vacant for the past 10 years, old Waltham High School, a solid institutional building of civic pride, was on the chopping block. The history, continuity and value of public education the building represented in Waltham, Mass., had been subordinated to the reality of program needs, economics and state school budgets. Notwithstanding murals, neoclassical friezes and student graffiti dating to the 1920s, fears of exorbitant renovation costs and questions about the building's suitability led the community to ignore the building's “Most Endangered Historic Resources” status designated by Historic Massachusetts. It voted to demolish the 1902 structure.

An initiative for historical restoration from the architectural team, in conjunction with the city's desire to save this historical building, came to the rescue. At no additional cost, the program was adapted to preserve some of the building's 100-year-old features. The school building committee was persuaded to reverse its position on the school.

Good choices

Not only was the decision to save old Waltham High School a triumph for historic preservation, but also it was a “green” decision. In fact, the decision to renovate vs. construct is one of the “greenest” choices a school can make — as well as being one of a family of fundamental decisions on green building that determine the sustainability of a project. While helping to prioritize the most important aspects of a project at the start, these decisions usually incur no additional design fees, and enable school and university administrators to take advantage of available grants and rebates, as appropriate.

For example, improving envelope design beyond code minimums can save money in the long term. One such code, recently enacted by Massachusetts and soon to be adopted by all northern states, calls for heat to be extracted out of exhaust air. Because of high ventilation requirements in educational buildings, a tremendous amount of heat is lost via exhaust. Heat recovery is a reasonable requirement that has a significant recycling cost that will pay for itself relatively quickly.

Wading through today's inundation of high-performance green information, and cutting through the image of green to arrive at an understanding of what is really critical and cost-effective can be daunting. Green design often is perceived as adding significantly to first costs, hard to justify, too complicated and confounding, and difficult to carry out. Consequently, few school administrators have been willing to incorporate even basic elements into the development of their projects. But, many green buildings cost the same amount, or even less, to build than the alternatives.

By educating themselves, administrators can make informed decisions on how to approach green design. Armed with a knowledge and understanding of the specific region and the greening strategies that work in it — for example, New England poses heating and cooling challenges, as schools now stay open for 12 months of the year — every building designer should be able to achieve some basic results.

Getting to green

Some useful tenets in the journey to green:

  • Use an integrated design process. An architectural firm and its consultant team should have “green” experience and a track record of creative problem solving.

  • Retain the embodied energy within a building by renovating rather than building new. Embodied energy is the energy needed for procuring raw materials, manufacture, transport, construction, maintenance and repair.

  • Pay attention to building orientation. Whenever possible, direct the long axis of a building to the south. This strategy can reduce air-conditioning loads, make the building more comfortable and save energy. For buildings in northern climates, it also allows for desirable winter solar gain on the south side, which, if properly controlled, can reduce heating costs and improve comfort.

  • Use low-e glass throughout the building to retain heat. Using tinted or reflective glass at south, east and west facades helps minimize heat gain from direct sun, while clear low-e glass on the north facade maximizes daylight.

  • Provide operable windows for natural ventilation in all occupied spaces, and install energy-management systems with thermostats in each classroom for local control.

  • In a low-rise building, use clerestory windows and skylights to illuminate interior corridors or rooms from the interior through the use of view lights. With offset balcony circulation, this daylighting can be extended through two or more floors of the building.

  • Specify energy-efficient mechanical systems including condensing boilers and water-efficient plumbing fixtures. Utility rebates often are available for these features, bringing down the initial cost significantly.

  • Use light-colored roofs to keep the building cooler in summer and to reduce the “urban heat island effect.” On a white roof, air-handling equipment will pull in cooler air during the air-conditioning season.

  • Include a daylight harvesting system, which senses the amount of daylight in a space and adjusts the light as needed. Lighting-level sensors tied to dimming ballasts create effective energy cost savings.

  • Preserve existing mature trees on site, and plant new trees to shade parking lots to reduce the urban heat island effect.

Going the extra green mile

Architecture, more than any other profession, has a significant impact on the use of resources. This can extend far beyond making basic design decisions, such as building orientation and daylight harvesting. The U.S. Green Building Council estimates that a well-thought-out, aggressive green design actually can reduce energy consumption by as much as 50 percent, and lower utility costs by as much as $1.20 per square foot.

For example, a more aggressive strategy might include providing an alternative source of power. Schools that can afford higher first costs may want to install photovoltaic panels, wind turbines and fuel cells. Down the road, as traditional sources of electricity become more expensive, these strategies, which fall more to the engineering side of the equation, will increase in popularity.

A green conscience

Green ethics easily are espoused but often not followed. A commitment by the institution to be aware of and sensitive to the environment is necessary to maximize efficiency. If not inculcated from the beginning, green design often is too difficult to carry out. Convince stakeholders to help assemble the team and make a commitment. Then, begin embarking on green efforts. A first step could be providing dedicated space for cardboard, paper and aluminum recyclables, and contracting with a local company to collect them. It also is important to educate teachers, maintenance personnel, and electricians. Users at one school inadvertently disconnected a light-sensing-level system; consequently, the lights were left on. This left administrators wondering why they were not seeing energy savings.

Be prepared for backlash. Not everyone will cooperate, and some may even work against a new awareness, viewing it as an inconvenience in an already-too-busy day. Others may be resistant to move beyond what they consider to be their personal comfort zone of temperature and humidity, not understanding that employing elaborate mechanical systems to narrow these personal zones is expensive. Designing a building that gives its users control over their environment allows users to feel more comfortable in a broader range of environmental conditions.

Applying even the most basic green design principles has an enormous upside beyond the obvious energy and material dividends. Green buildings themselves become a source of innovation and a statement about educational values by tangibly demonstrating to students the importance of responsible and efficient use of natural resources.

Soleau, AIA, is president and chief executive officer of Flansburgh Associates, Inc., Boston. He has specialized in the design of college and university buildings, as well as K-12 public and private schools, serving as principal-in-charge for more than 150 educational facility projects. Ross, AIA, is principal and head of the firm's Green Team. He has more than 27 years of experience in master planning, architectural design and management of educational projects.