Under a voluntary U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) program, school districts around the country have chosen to apply comprehensive environmental techniques to the design of 34 K-12 school buildings since 1999. In all of these schools, the environmental features will likely reduce annual operating costs. In several of them, the environmentally friendly architecture has even held down construction costs.

Called Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED), the program sets standards for so-called green buildings, measures the success of designs in meeting those standards and certifies that finished buildings achieve environmental goals.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based USGBC, LEED originally targeted commercial office buildings. But architects, developers and owners have found the concept useful enough to apply to a host of other building types, including local, state and federal government buildings; nonprofit office buildings; and schools.

USGBC data shows that 650 buildings have been or are being designed to LEED specifications. Commercial office buildings compose 25 percent of the total. K-12 schools represent five to six percent.

John Boecker, director of high performance green design with L. Robert Kimball & Associates in Harrisburg, Pa., says that LEED has attracted enough projects to be considered a growing trend in the marketplace.

LEED alters standard architectural practice by emphasizing environmental design considerations in five categories: sites, water efficiency, energy use and atmospheric releases, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality.

To receive a LEED certification, owners must register projects at the beginning of the design process. LEED awards points for environmental design techniques employed in each of the five categories. For example, the use of a brownfield site, recycled materials and systems that reduce water and energy use can all earn LEED points for registered projects.

Upon completing a building, an owner must submit a project description outlining the LEED features in the building. The USGBC tallies up the points and awards a basic certification for 26 to 32 points. Buildings scoring 33 to 38 points receive a silver certification. A point total between 39 and 51 earns a gold certification. Platinum certification, the highest level, requires at least 52 points.

To date, 48 buildings, of all kinds, have earned basic certifications or higher.“Of these, a lot are silver, a large handful are gold and two are platinum,” says Taryn Holowka, a spokesperson for the USGBC. LEED also requires that buildings be recertified every five years by undergoing additional USGBC inspections.

The program has begun to catch the attention of state and local governments. In New York, an executive order encourages state construction projects to seek LEED certification. Oregon offers a stepped tax credit for commercial buildings that achieve different levels of certification: a silver certification may apply for a $105,000 credit, while a gold certification can go after a $142,500 credit. Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore., require basic LEED certifications on all public projects. Seattle requires silver certifications for its public projects.

Likewise, architects are picking up on the concept. Boecker, for example, has worked exclusively on high-performance green projects, all registered with LEED, for several years. Boecker has designed two LEED-certified buildings, two more have been completed and are awaiting certification, and two others are under construction. He is also consulting on 20 additional projects that will aim for LEED certification.

Solving the Cost Problem of Environmental Design

High costs have historically prevented the use of environmental building designs. Owners simply can’t afford to lay environmental features on top of conventional architecture. For example, triple-glazed, low E-coated, argon-filled, thermally broken window units will raise the cost of a small project by approximately $15,000. Other environmental building systems also carry substantial premiums. Adding them all together in a single building will drive any rational owner toward a lower-cost nongreen design.

According to Boecker, however, it is the design approach that creates costs and not the environmental systems.“There is only one way to make high-performance green buildings cost effective,” says Boecker. “You have to use an integrated design process. Typically, building designs create redundancies among building elements. Integrated designs create synergies instead.”

Integrated design begins with the premise that a building is a single system and not many overlapping systems. A green building designed to function as a single integrated system will likely carry construction costs close to the average of that building category. Perhaps more important, operational savings on energy costs will quickly pay for small overages and eventually provide savings that can be applied elsewhere.

An integrated design orients a building on the site so that it works with the sun instead of against it. Boecker says this typically means maximizing southern and northern exposures and windows, while minimizing eastern and western exposures and windows.

Integrated design also creates a solar envelope, perhaps by adding those $15,000 triple-glazed, low E-coated, argon-filled, thermally broken window units. In one case, Boecker reports, the enhanced windows slashed heating system costs by $25,000, while also allowing a design with a smaller heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) system. Reduced HVAC needs led to a smaller, less costly system of ducts and pipes for dis-tributing the heat and conditioned air through the building. That saved another $10,000. The net savings on these systems totaled $20,000, which Boecker applied to solar panels, helping to reduce energy use further.

On another project, the lighting designer suggested that Boecker increase the light reflectance of the paint selected for the walls from 68 to 75 percent. “That was easy,” he says. “It is just a shade lighter and virtually unnoticeable. But that step enabled us to use 25 percent fewer light fixtures. That cut our fixture costs and also reduced electricity costs for lighting by 25 percent.”

A focus on energy use is the key to integrated building design. “We begin projects by looking for ways to reduce energy use by 50 percent,” says Boecker.

Clearview Elementary School

Occupied in December 2002, the K-4 Clearview Elementary School in Hanover, Pa., features a high-performance, integrated design. Boecker led the L. Robert Kimball & Associates design team assigned to the project.

Currently awaiting LEED certification, the building design is aiming for the LEED silver category. The building has already won notice for environmental excellence. The U.S. Department of Energy selected it along with four other projects to represent the United States in a design competition held at the 2002 Sustainable Building Conference in Oslo, Norway, and it won the 2003 first prize for Places of Learning from the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association.

Clearview’s environmental design incorporates a variety of passive solar techniques including building orientation, reverse-baffle shading and overhangs on the southern face; roofing materials that reduce heat island effects; daylighting features that automatically dim the lights on sunny days; insulated concrete form walls; and triple-glazed windows.

The plumbing system uses 38 percent less water than average for this size of school building. Lighting requires 33 percent less energy than ASHRAE standards suggest. A geothermal system uses the constant temperature of the earth to cool and heat the building.

More than 75 percent of the building materials have recycled content, more than 35 percent were manufactured near Hanover and five percent qualify as rapidly renewable.

How much do all these environmentally friendly features add to the cost of a building? Exclusive of site preparation and design fees, the 43,000- sq.-ft. Clearview school cost $6 million or $133 per sq. ft. to build, compared to a $130 per sq. ft. average cost for school construction in the region.

Does $3 per sq. ft. represent a premium for green construction? “Probably not,” Boecker says. “I think it has to do with the architecture. But even if it is attributable to environmental features, it’s only about two percent above the average. That means that 48 percent of the other schools in the region cost more to build.”

Whether the two percent or $120,000 cost premium came from general architectural issues or environmental issues doesn’t matter. According to PowerDoe computer modeling projections, the energy efficient building will save $34,000 per year in utility costs and pay off $120,000 in less than four years. After that, Clearview administrators can apply the savings to educational programs.

In fact, Boecker believes that educational programs count among the strongest reasons for applying environmental design to a school building. “When done well, a green school building can become a pedagogical tool for teaching about environmental issues,” Boecker says. “What better way to do that than in a place of learning for the next generation. It makes environmental concerns part of the curriculum and eventually part of students’ lives.”