Not so long ago, some derisively called them treehuggers. Education administrators and designers who raised environmental issues would urge schools and universities to adopt more efficient energy use, pursue recycling and conserve water — that all made sense, but where would they stop? With solar panels? Wind turbines? Roofs with plants growing out of them? Urinals that don't use water? Heating and cooling systems that pull energy out of the ground? People with a business to run couldn't waste precious time obsessing on such touchy-feely matters.

Now, fuel prices are settling in at historically high levels; warnings about the melting polar ice cap no longer are dismissed as irrelevant; entire TV channels are dedicated to the environmental movement; and the politician once mocked as “Ozone Man” for his relentless focus on ecology has won a Nobel Peace Prize and an Academy Award for his insistent warnings about the consequences of global warming.

More and more people are viewing the world through green-tinted glasses, and those crazy ideas about making school and university facilities more environmentally friendly suddenly are appearing to be prudent and responsible.

“This past year is when things finally took off,” says Anja Caldwell, green building manager for Montgomery County, Md., schools.

High-performance leadership

Among the groups that have been advocating for environmentally friendly school design for years are the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, whose Best Practices Manual for high-performance school construction has been adopted by the U.S. Department of Energy; and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), whose Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification has provided incentives for numerous education institutions to embrace green design strategies.

The LEED rating system picked up additional momentum in 2007 when the USGBC established a rating system specifically for K-12 schools.

“We now are registering an average of one school project a day,” says Rachel Gutter, school sector manager with the USGBC. “It's a pretty tremendous response. The market is ready for it.”

As its name implies, LEED for Schools accounts for issues and conditions that are more critical in a K-12 setting, such as acoustics, mold prevention and using the facility itself to teach.

“K-12 is one of the greatest areas of uptake in green construction,” says Gutter. “Green schools really resonate with most people. It's about children — healthy kids and a high-performance environment.”

LEED for Schools addresses some of the omissions that had convinced some administrators that the system was not a good match for their schools.

“It's easier for schools to adapt to LEED for Schools,” says Montgomery County's Caldwell. “Before it was a mitten. Now it's a glove.”

Colleges and universities can seek LEED certification using either the New Construction or Schools rating system, but K-12 schools need to use the new LEED for Schools system, Gutter says.

Caldwell says that in Montgomery County, her green efforts occurred under the radar and mostly were focused on energy conservation.

“The feeling was, ‘If it doesn't produce kilowatt-hour savings, we're not interested,’” she says.

Gradually, the school district embraced a broader perspective about green schools, and Great Seneca Creek Elementary School, which opened in Germantown, Md., in 2006, became the first school in the state to receive a gold LEED rating.

The school is expected to conserve 370,000 gallons of water a year because of low-flow fixtures, waterless urinals and dual-flush toilets. The school has a reflective roof to reduce the heat-island effect, a geothermal heating system to reduce energy costs by 30 percent, and includes bike storage and showers to encourage bicycling. The project recycled about 90 percent of its construction waste.

When the Montgomery County government mandated silver LEED standards for the county's public facilities in 2006, officials came to Caldwell with concerns.

“They said, ‘Can we do this?’” Caldwell recalls. “And we could tell them, ‘We already did.’”

Another catalyst spurring the green movement forward is the Ohio School Facilities Commission's decision to incorporate LEED standards into the state's school construction guidelines. All new construction or major renovation projects in Ohio's public schools must seek at least a silver LEED rating.

“That's a minimum of 250 schools in the next few years,” Gutter says.

At the higher-education level, the growing commitment to green in 2007 was exemplified by the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment.

As of January, the leaders of more than 470 schools had signed the commitment, which calls for each institution to develop a plan for becoming climate-neutral within two years. Among the steps the commitment encourages are constructing new campus facilities to achieve at least a silver LEED rating and adopting a policy to purchase Energy Star-certified products when possible.

“While we understand that there might be short-term challenges associated with this effort,” the commitment states, “we believe that there will be great short-, medium-, and long-term economic, health, social and environmental benefits, including achieving energy independence for the U.S. as quickly as possible.”