Green Schools: A Design Fad or a Trend Worth Embracing?

To some people, green schools (i.e., schools specifically designed to minimize energy consumption and maintain sensitivity to the environment) are a fad, the design world's equivalent of the Beanie Baby, Pokemon card or Razor Scooter. But are green schools really just a passing fad? Or will the concept behind them help revolutionize the way schools of the future are designed and built?

As an educational architect, I have seen several educational design fads pass out of popularity. For example, the infamous “open classroom” fad has literally taken decades to undo. And, of course, there was the energy-efficient-design fad brought on by the oil crisis of the 1970s. While significantly cutting energy consumption, this fad also had the unfortunate side effect of practically eliminating natural daylight from schools.

Green schools seem different from these two fads, however. Though I won't pretend to be an expert on the subject, I have made a concerted effort to learn as much as I can about it. My conclusion: The green school philosophy incorporates some good, sensible approaches to the environment that educational architects -- and the school administrators who employ us -- should take seriously. First some background.

What's in a Name?

Green schools are such a new concept that the very name of the movement keeps changing. Green school design has also been referred to as “Sustainable School Design” and “Environmentally Sensitive (or Responsible) Design.” More recently, terms like “High Performance Schools” and “High Impact Learning Centers” have been used to highlight the positive attributes of green schools and encourage broader support.

Nevertheless, a green school is an environmentally sensitive facility that minimizes energy consumption, while ensuring that the needs of today's students are fully addressed. While one could argue that all schools incorporate some green qualities, a truly green school incorporates many different features. In particular, green schools:

- incorporate an energy-efficient design;

- use building materials that are non-toxic, recycled and renewable;

- conserve water and other natural resources;

-emphasize waste management;

-promote a healthy indoor environment, including indoor air quality; and

-demonstrate energy-efficient design principles.

In short, green schools -- like the Walker Elementary School I toured recently in McKinney, Texas -- are clean, healthful, energy-conscious and environmentally sound. In fact, the Walker Elementary School, designed by SHW Architects and named to the 1999 Earth Day Top 10 List for environmentally responsible design projects by the American Institute of Architects, is an excellent example of green schools at their finest. Here are a few reasons why.

A Site for Sore Eyes

Obviously, it is easier to design a new green school than to renovate or retrofit one, particularly when it comes to placing the building on the site. Site orientation is a basic design principle that should always be a primary concern on any project. For example, the site orientation for Walker Elementary School was deliberately chosen so that the numerous light monitors used to bring natural daylight into the facility could face south. However, other site issues -- many of which are incorporated at Walker Elementary -- should also be taken into account, including:

- solar orientation and prevailing winds;

- preserving existing trees and topsoil;

- minimizing impervious material (i.e., reducing concrete and asphalt paving areas);

- providing walking/biking paths to the school;

- selecting a new site in close proximity to public transportation; and

- planting vegetation that requires minimal irrigation and maintenance.

Discarding Our “Throw-Away” Mentality

Often we are quick to discard our existing schools instead of renovating them. Generally, the rationale is that the renovation cost is close enough to the cost of new construction, so why not simply build a new school? However, for the Brecht Elementary School, in Manheim Township School District, Pa., the decision was made to renovate an existing school even though the renovation cost was very close to the cost of new construction. (Renovation cost: $92 /sq., ft. as compared to $110 / sq. ft. for new construction in 1999.) The cafeteria addition even included higher-cost products like stone and exposed timber, so there would be a seamless transition between existing construction and new construction.

One of the easiest ways to make an impact on any school renovation project is to make sure the contractor salvages and recycles building materials that are demolished. For example, concrete, rock, asphalt and brick (CRAB) can be very costly to dispose of due to their weight. On the plus side, however, each of these materials is easy to recycle. As a result, CRAB can be crushed and re-used as base material on-site or taken to a concrete recycling company. So, too, can the materials used in doors and windows be recycled rather than hauled to a landfill. In fact, some contractors specialize in recycling building materials, so be sure to incorporate the proper language in your specifications to provide adequate on-site monitoring and contractor certification.

Selecting Building Materials and Mechanical Systems

Selecting and incorporating green building materials should be an important part of any project. Some relatively new products -- like wheat board and “waterless” toilets -- are well worth considering due to their negligible effect on the environment. But even firms like carpet manufacturers are making their products greener by incorporating a greater amount of recyclable materials. Ideally, of course, products should be reviewed and evaluated based on their “cradle to grave” impact. In other words, all stages of a product’s life cycle should be analyzed for their environmental impact. For example:

- How are the raw materials

- extracted and processed to make the product?

- What effect does transporta- tion, installation and maintenance of the product have on the environment?

- Ultimately, how will the product be disposed of or recycled?

Of course, these are questions that can be answered only by the products’ manufacturers and will promote a greater response the more often the questions are asked.

Another way to significantly affect a new or existing facility's overall performance is to select the right mechanical system. For example, in many parts of the country, a geothermal system is ideal. In fact, after officials reviewed no fewer than seven different systems, geothermal became the preferred choice of Walker Elementary School (although cost concerns and the potential long-term payback eventually moved it to second place.) On the other hand, the Manheim Township School District (PA) mandates geothermal systems in every renovation project it does. The first school district in Pennsylvania to go geothermal, Manheim Township will soon rely on geothermal energy for four of its nine schools.

Daylighting Is a Bright Idea

Studies demonstrate that natural daylight has a positive effect on learning. Scholastic performance and attendance increase noticeably when natural daylight is incorporated into a school's design. Plus, health benefits (e.g., less tooth decay) can be partly attributed to the natural vitamins present in sunlight. Of course, energy conservation is another benefit of relying on natural daylight.

At Walker Elementary School, for example, daylighting is a prominent design feature. Every classroom has a large light monitor in the center of the room. (These monitors look a lot like large windows on the roof.) Via these monitors, natural light is directed into each room in such a way that electric lighting is used as little as possible. And what artificial lighting is required is kept to a minimum through dimmer switches and occupancy sensors. Naturally, incorporating these features added to the overall cost of the building, but ultimately helped provide a very bright, cheerful environment while conserving energy.

Creating a Learning Environment

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of green schools is their potential as an educational tool. By exploring a curriculum around the green school concept itself, students get a first-hand look at the positive effects of environmentally sound architectural design. As a result, the entire school becomes one huge laboratory for learning that helps spur the students' imagination and curiosity.

At Walker Elementary, for example, students can study at the outdoor eco-pond (or water habitat), watch a windmill generate power, set their watches at the sundial and observe solar collectors at work on the roof. In addition, they can monitor the water level of the school's rainwater harvesting system through the clear gauge at the front entrance vestibule. (The school's three cisterns store rainwater that is collected from the roof and later used for irrigation.) Many other of the school’s unique green features, such as the energy management system, the weather station and the air conditioning unit cutaway, have been designed to be visible to the students. In short, Walker Elementary School is itself a splendid three-dimensional environmental textbook.

Paying the Price, Now or Later

But in spite of the obvious advantages, school districts everywhere should bear in mind that nothing is free -- not even green schools. While there are significant cost savings through careful and sensitive design, there are additional costs as well. Construction costs are typically higher for projects of this sort. Plus, implementing numerous green design features and coordinating the project in a holistic manner (involving lots of participants, input and meetings) takes considerable time and money. For instance, the engineers and other consultants should be brought in at the beginning of the design, not part way through the design process as with a “traditional” project.

At Walker Elementary, estimates suggest that construction costs were roughly $1 million more than might have been the case for a traditional school. However, much of that extra cost was for the structural steel frame required for the monitors used to bring natural light into the classrooms. Significantly, those monitors should help the school district save $20,000 per year in lighting costs alone, with other design features accounting for a total per-year savings of $40,000 - $50,000. While design fees for architects and consultants tend to be higher as well, more and more states are providing grants to assist with design and construction costs. For example, the State of Texas provided a $200,000 grant to the McKinney School District that helped defray some of the added expenses of the project, particularly the initial design costs.

But even the best-designed green school can't always be justified strictly in terms of dollars and cents. Though project costs will always be an important consideration, school planners should also ask themselves how much value will be derived by the student -- and the school district itself -- in teaching by positive example the importance of resource conservation. In other words, though a life-cycle cost analysis may not completely justify a green school, a sensitive concern for the future and the lessons it can teach students often will.

In short, green schools can have a lasting effect on school districts and the communities they serve, as long as we take the time to understand the short- and long-term benefits. What better way to train students to conserve the Earth’s natural resources than by giving them a school that demonstrates how it can be done? As you undertake your next building project, remember that you have the ability to make it “a darker shade of green” than your last project, and possibly, the next award-winning “High Performance School.” In this way, the green school fad of today could easily become the green school phenomenon of tomorrow.

Joel Sims is an educational architect with Reese Lower Patrick and Scott Architects in Lancaster, Pa. A noted lecturer and author on school design issues, he specializes in designing educational facilities. He can be reached at .