In an office at Ohio University, an installation of solar panels powers an employee's computer. In a grade school in Edmonds, Wash., a drainage system collects stormwater runoff for irrigation. In a classroom building at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, bamboo, cork and recycled materials cover the floors of conference rooms.
What ties all these building characteristics together? In each example, school officials made design decisions or selected materials and equipment with an eye on how those decisions affect the environment. Does the building contain environmentally friendly materials? Do the facility's systems use energy, water and other resources efficiently? Is the facility a healthy and comfortable setting for students to learn?
Those are the questions more and more schools and universities are asking as they embrace sustainable-design principles in planning and constructing facilities. As resources become more scarce and expensive, and technological progress enables institutions to use materials and maintain facilities more efficiently, more administrators see sustainable design as a way to maximize their budgets, conserve resources, create learning opportunities for students, and provide their communities with an example of social responsibility.
“There's a feeling that this is the right thing to do, that sustainable design is something educational institutions have an obligation to do,” says Dean Rodeheaver, assistant chancellor for planning and budget at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (UWGB).
Sustainable design, also referred to as green or high-performance design, encompasses a wide array of factors. The U.S. Green Building Council, a coalition that promotes environmentally responsible construction, defines green design as practices that significantly reduce or eliminate the negative impact of buildings on occupants and the environment. It cites five broad areas: sustainable site planning; safeguarding water and water efficiency; energy efficiency and renewable energy; conservation of materials and resources; and indoor environmental quality.
In the past, many schools shied away from pursuing sustainable design because of concerns that it would boost the initial costs of a project or because administrators were unconvinced that it would see the promised benefits.
“Five years ago, no public school was going there,” says Mary Holland, an architect with Cicada Architecture in Philadelphia. “School superintendents and school boards are risk-averse.”
College campuses, with a wider variety of facilities and different budgeting philosophies, have been more likely to explore sustainable design than K-12 districts.
“One of the main differences is that colleges and universities, especially private schools, are more accustomed to tracking life-cycle costs,” says Holland.
Some campuses, such as UW-Green Bay, have track records of being involved in energy conservation, and officials there were more receptive to pursuing sustainable design, says Rodeheaver.
But over time, as sustainable designs became actual facilities that delivered on the promise of greater efficiency, comfort and health, more school districts were willing to take a chance on sustainable design. The key factor for most institutions, always struggling to justify their maintenance and facility budgets, is saving money.
“For most school districts, the primary motivation is the economic benefit,” says Ed Peters, director of capital projects in the Edmonds (Wash.) district.
Non-economic factors have swayed administrators to consider sustainable design. Designs that allow more daylight into a school facility appeal to educators because of evidence that daylighting not only saves on electricity bills, but also can improve student performance.
A widely cited 1999 study on daylighting by the Heschong Mahone Group provided statistical substantiation to support something that many designers and educators had long believed — that a classroom illuminated by daylight was a better learning environment than one that depended predominantly on artificial light. The study also helped school officials understand what kinds of daylighting strategies were most effective: diffused light and lighting levels that could be controlled by the teacher.
“It helped show that there were better and worse ways of achieving daylighting,” says Peters. “It showed what to do and what not to do, how to bring light deeper into a room.”
Studies of business facilities that showed a correlation between indoor air quality and employee absenteeism also are relevant to school administrators, says Holland.
“If a school can cut down on absenteeism and reduce the numbers of substitutes they need each year, that can make a big difference,” says Holland.
The Edmonds district has built several schools using sustainable design strategies, says Peters. One of the more prominent examples is the Terrace Park School, which houses grades K-8.
“Everybody on all sides of the plans for the school was passionately involved in creating a sustainable facility,” says Edwards.
Some of Terrace Park's characteristics:
A drainage system that collects stormwater from the roof and the site and uses it to irrigate the campus.
Energy-efficient motors and carbon-dioxide sensors that control ventilation in the gymnasium, multipurpose room, library and administrative spaces.
Placement of windows, clerestories and light shelves to reflect sunlight deeper into classrooms.
Beams salvaged from the existing school were refinished and reused throughout the school.
Minimizing the use of finishes on floors, walls and ceilings results in fewer materials being consumed.
Crushed concrete from the existing school was reused as fill for the new facility.
At UW-Green Bay, the sustainable features incorporated into Mary Ann Cofrin Hall, the campus' main classroom facility, resulted from the commitment of many groups — the administration, state agencies, the local utility company and HOK, the architectural firm.
Among Cofrin Hall's sustainable features:
A rainwater harvesting system in the courtyard collects rainwater from the roof structures and uses it for irrigation and other non-potable uses.
A photovoltaic metal roof generates 15,000 kilowatts of electricity a year. Photovoltaic technology also is incorporated into “vision glass.” The semi-transparent window panels allow some daylight to pass and harness the rest for conversion to electricity.
A system that allows the building to collect solar gain into a thermal cavity and pre-heat ventilation to reduce energy consumption during Wisconsin's frigid winters.
The floors are covered with renewable or recyclable flooring, such as rubber, bamboo, cork and linoleum.
Schools with sustainable design have an added benefit — they can serve as examples to teach students about environmental stewardship.
Terrace Park includes outdoor learning areas to provide hands-on education.
“It's not just a passive buffer, it's an active learning environment,” says Peters. “It's a learning opportunity to use the site as an example of watershed management.”
At UW-Green Bay, Cofrin Hall has more than 50 interactive programs that tell the story of the building's sustainable components and provide real-time displays of energy use and other environmental impacts.
Choosing the right sustainable-design strategies will depend on the specific location of a facility and the circumstances under which it is built. At Terrace Park, administrators had to take into account the requirements of the Endangered Species Act because the school is near a salmon-bearing stream.
The school uses the proximity of the stream as an opportunity to teach students about the importance of salmon in the ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest.
Some educators have worried that incorporating sustainable strategies will result in complicated designs and odd-looking facilities.
“You don't need to overdesign to create a sustainable school,” says Holland.
Rodeheaver adds, “A building can be beautiful and still be green. Some people equate green design with something that looks bizarre.”
Cofrin Hall dispels that belief. The building provides an environmentally friendly experience for students and staff without drawing attention to itself.
“The sustainable elements are so transparent you don't even think about it, that you're walking on linoleum instead of vinyl,” says Rodeheaver. “People aren't aware of the steps we've taken.”
Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at email@example.com.
The Sustainable Buildings Industry Council (SBIC) states that a high-performance school should exhibit three characteristics:
- Healthy and productive
High levels of acoustic, thermal and visual comfort, with large amounts of natural daylight, superior indoor air quality, and a safe and secure environment.
Energy-analysis tools that optimize energy performance; use of life-cycle costing; and use of a commissioning process to ensure building first-day performance.
Energy-conservation and renewable-energy strategies; high-performance mechanical and lighting systems; environmentally responsive site planning; environmentally preferable materials and products; and water-efficient design.
The SBIC also identifies seven benefits schools can realize by incorporating high-performance features into its facilities:
Better student performance.
Increased average daily attendance.
Increased teacher satisfaction and retention.
Reduced operating costs.
Reduced liability exposure.
Positive influence on the environment.
Ability to use the facility as a teaching tool.
One small step
From his third-floor office in Ohio University's Chubb Hall, Brian McCoy, an administrative assistant in the undergraduate admissions office, often would think about the amount of energy that students and staff consumed each day on the Athens campus.
“The university uses so much power to operate, there was talk about building our own power plant on campus,” say McCoy.
With a personal interest in solar power, McCoy began looking into how he could use alternative energies in his work setting. Aided by a state grant and donated materials, Chubb Hall now has 10 55-watt solar panels atop the roof. The panels absorb energy from the sun and deliver it to batteries that provide power to McCoy's office. The solar energy has been providing electricity for McCoy's lights, computers and printers since November.
McCoy estimates the installation cost about $5,200 — mostly labor — and estimates the system will pay for itself in about seven years. The solar panels last up to 25 years, he added.
If the solar panels do not provide enough energy and the batteries become depleted, as happened recently when Athens had cloudy skies for four straight days, McCoy can switch his power source back to the building's main system. But most days, the panels collect enough energy to allow McCoy to do his job and feel good about doing it in a way that preserves resources.
“It's only a drop in the bucket,” says McCoy. “But if we can show that this can work and is cost-effective on a small system, it could be a springboard for other solar projects on campus that will save energy.”