In a recent conversation with an engineer, I mentioned that a school we were working on would be air conditioned.“It can’t be,” he said.“You want it to be a LEED (Leading in Energy and Environmental Design) school? LEED schools can’t be air conditioned, that uses too much energy.”

That didn’t sound right to me, so I called my friend Ed Kirkbride to verify it. Ed has been a speaker in workshops on LEED schools, and was one of the early advocates of “green schools.”

Ed’s response to the engineer’s remark was simple: “He’s a nincompoop; he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Ed points out that there are design systems that must be air conditioned to meet indoor air quality, energy conservation and many other requirements for today’s school needs.

The trouble is that the engineer with whom I spoke, and many other professionals working on school design, have been “LEED Certified.” While they may be wrong in their understanding of LEED principles and concepts, they can be very authoritative in talking about them. Most of the rest of us, as laymen, tend to accept what they say as fact.

The concept of building a LEED school makes sense. We should be looking for ways to make our buildings energy efficient. A LEED school must optimize energy performance; make use of renewable energy where possible; be concerned about ozone depletion; and seek CFC reduction in heating, ventilating and air conditioning equipment through a commissioning process that evaluates the holistic operation of the systems — all good ideas that do not impinge on the educational needs of the building.

A LEED school must have a means for storing and collecting recyclables; should try, where possible, to reuse existing buildings; divert construction waste management; reuse resources where possible and make use of recycled content. The use of local and regional products is encouraged, as is the use of rapidly renewable materials..

The indoor environment of a LEED school must meet minimum indoor air quality standards; have effective ventilation; and use low-emitting materials including sealants, adhesives, paint and carpet. All systems must be controllable, and there must be a permanent monitoring system to ensure thermal comfort. All of that is well and good. But first and foremost, a school must be a place where learning takes place and the conditions for learning are optimal. That’s where we, as educators and planners, must be careful not to allow LEED to lead us astray.

Plan the Program First

Recently, I had the opportunity to review plans for six or seven LEED schools. Each had been planned with special consideration of energy efficiency, re-use of recyclable materials, proper landscaping and water use, proper orientation and other precepts included in LEED. But, in each of these cases, the one thing that appeared to be ignored was good educational practice. .

One elementary school featured a discredited “multi-useless” (or “no-purpose”) room — a combination gymnasium, cafeteria and auditorium — that will not work well for any one of the functions..

Another, in order to ensure the proper amount of daylighting, forced kindergarten children to walk from one end of the school all the way to the other, past every other classroom in the building, in order to get to lunch. They then had to return to their end of the building after lunch to use the playground. .

The key, in my opinion, is for the school district planning construction to first define the educational needs. Only then should they work with the architect and engineer to find ways in which to increase the efficiency of the building, and get it LEED certified, without significantly compromising the educational program. .

This, of course, is key to any successful building project. Often, at the beginning of the planning process, there are teachers and others who talk about what they might like, but who “know” in advance that it would be too expensive. We encourage such groups to leave cost out of their thinking; to develop a program and the facilities to serve that program, and then let the architects and others put a cost to it to determine if the district will support such a project. .

By the same token, when developing a LEED certified school, planners need to start by defining the educational needs, and then make the adjustments to meet the LEED requirements.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."