Budget-minded education institutions can improve acoustics and air quality, use more natural light, expend energy more efficiently, and add other components of sustainable design and high performance to their buildings without the major expense of new construction.

Improving the energy performance of an existing building can be accomplished in many ways: through behavioral changes of those using the facility, through procedural changes in operations and maintenance, and through building renovations.

When renovating an existing building, an institution should set sustainable design goals at the outset. An existing school often will have some of the basics already in place, such as a location in the heart of a community, facilities that do not have to be replaced, and nearby community resources that can be shared.

Good neighbors

Residential areas surround many older school buildings. Schools built in sparsely populated areas in the 1960s and 1970s now are surrounded by housing and businesses. This is a positive quality for existing school buildings. Placing a school where it is readily accessible to parents and community members is a first step in developing a high-performance school; parental involvement is a key indicator of student success. Existing school buildings often have that advantage.

Site improvements should be designed to reduce building energy consumption and to serve as educational resources. Replacing asphalt paving adjacent to a school with a planted area can provide significant savings in cooling costs. If the planted area also can be used as an outdoor classroom that incorporates a local ecosystem or student gardens, the renovation provides an additional benefit.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when many existing buildings were constructed, school designs gave little attention to daylighting. Many educators believed that students learned more effectively if their classrooms were cut off from the distractions of the outside world. Corridors and stairwells from these eras often had artificial lighting, with no windows. By skillfully introducing windows or skylights to windowless areas, schools can improve the performance, health and behavior of those using the space.

Replacement windows should have glazing appropriate to their location. Using sunshades and light shelves on south-facing windows can control glare and provide effective daylighting to south-facing rooms.

Improving efficiency

Schools can address the inefficiencies in their existing mechanical and electrical systems and find a source for badly needed construction financing by taking advantage of their energy equity. Energy performance contractors can help schools replace outdated mechanical and electrical systems and equipment, and make improvements to the exterior shell of buildings. The savings generated are used to pay for the improvements. The result is that a school's energy costs drop significantly once the improvements are paid off.

It is important that a school or a design professional working with the school set the goals in the design and selection of systems to be provided by the performance contractor. These goals may include quiet mechanical systems, central monitoring and control of thermal comfort, as well as the integration of renewable energy sources. Superior indoor air quality is essential, as well as high-performance heating and air conditioning. Individual classroom controls can increase faculty satisfaction as well.

The exterior walls of buildings constructed in the 1960s and 1970s often were constructed without thermal insulation. Adding insulation to walls is seldom cost-effective. But schools should pursue adding insulation to the roof as well as improving the thermal performance of doors and windows by installing appropriate framing and glazing systems.

Consideration of indoor air quality and life cycle are essential to creating a sustainable facility. Schools built before and during the 1970s often used extremely durable interior finish materials such as terrazzo corridor floors and glazed concrete wall base. Those rarely are used today because of high initial costs. These materials have a neutral impact on indoor air quality and do not emit volatile organic compounds or harbor mold growth.

The benefits of sustainable qualities in a school building can be realized in a renovated school, but only if the school, the design team and the contractor, throughout the life of the project, embrace high-performance criteria.

Holland, AIA, is a principal at CICADA Architecture & Planning, Philadelphia.

Tracking Trends by Diane Fiske

Elementary schools in the past few decades have been showcases for evolving architectural trends: open classrooms, buildings divided into “pods,” and sustainable or green design.

Elementary schools in the Delaware Valley—seven counties that spread from the Philadelphia area in southeastern Pennsylvania across the Delaware River to New Jersey—offer a typical representation of urban and suburban school construction trends.

In the 1960s, suburban schools such as Fleetwood Elementary School in Mount Laurel, N.J., provided a series of classrooms in the classic “preach-and-teach” style. In the typical concrete-block, one-story ranch style, the school was designed around one large hall. Classrooms open off the main hall. At the end of the hall, a large room was used as a cafeteria, assembly room, auditorium and gym.

Later, community values encouraged shared space, open classrooms and a new interest in innovative design. The John B. Kelly School in Philadelphia, constructed in 1968, was designed for 1,500 K-8 students in an octagon-shaped plan. A round cafeteria with a kitchen serving 600 students was placed in the middle of the entrance hall. Kelly, like many schools of that era, was built with no windows in the library, corridors or stairs.

Built with similar design theories, the Greenfield School was constructed in 1971 in Philadelphia. Its large, rectangular classroom pods were designed to house two classrooms working together, but now have been divided so that two grades share many of the long spaces. One classroom has windows, while the other is situated behind lockers that are supposed to divide the room. The school now has air conditioning, but like the Kelly School, the heating and air conditioning is not uniform throughout the building.

There was little school construction in the 1980s as student populations declined, but by the 1990s, the elementary school population began to swell.

Bridgeport Elementary School, built in 1990 in Montgomery County, Pa., is an example of the strides made in school design in the last 30 years. It has learning centers, illumination from skylights and large bay windows overlooking its hilltop setting. It has high-performance features, but does not have some of the characteristics of sustainable design such as an emphasis on natural light. Some of the mechanical systems could be quieter. The 65,000-square-foot school houses 500 K-4 students and is constructed on two floors.

More recent school projects have fully embraced sustainability. The Radnor Elementary School, a K-5 facility in Wayne, Pa., was completed in 2001 at a cost of $13 million.

The 92,000-square-foot facility sits on a 12-acre site and has a capacity for 500 students. The windows of the building face north and south to take advantage of as much daylight as possible. The pods are arranged to take advantage of daylighting, and a geothermal system provides heating and cooling. Each room has large operable windows.

Carpets and rubberized tiles in some hallways enhance acoustics. The maintenance staff uses ecologically safe floor finishes and cleaners so students and staff are not exposed to harmful vapors. Workers gain access to heat pumps for each classroom from the corridor so maintenance workers do not have to enter the classroom. Solar collectors power the technology lab and train students about the value of using this natural resource.

Fiske is an architectural writer.