Editor's Notebook: Being Financially Prudent

More than $20 billion worth of school construction was completed in 2006, with another $19.7 billion already projected to start in 2007. (You can read more about this in the School Planning & Management“2007 School Construction Report” found after page 58.) Most of money spent went towards the construction of new buildings, many of which have been designed to be healthy, high-performance schools. This is a departure from the past, where the focus was not on health or high performance, but on minimum requirements and lowest cost.

I am sure that many of you still think that the high-performance school movement is just another fad or another expense that you can’t afford. In reality, in a few more years the hype will die down — not because the movement has faded, but because it has become a way of life. As more data is collected and analyzed, we will all be better able to understand the benefits and justify the price.

The recent report“Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits,” documented the financial costs and benefits of green schools compared to conventional schools. In a national review of 30 green schools, they found the costs to be two percent (about $3 per sq. ft.) more than that of building a conventional school. They also found the financial savings to be $70 per sq. ft. — 20 times as high as the cost of going green. While some of these saving may be debatable, the savings seen in lower energy, emissions, water costs, improved retention, and lower health costs are not. Building healthy high-performance schools is the fiscally prudent way to go.

Current legislation is supporting the movement to build green. On Jan. 24, President George W. Bush released an executive order calling for each federal agency to reduce “energy intensity” (energy consumption per sq. ft. of building space) by three percent annually through the end of fiscal year 2015, or by 30 percent by the end of fiscal year 2015. The executive order also establishes goals for all new construction and major renovations of agency buildings, in accordance with green building strategies such as resource conservation, use of recycled materials, building site selection, and indoor environmental quality. New legislation just passed in Pennsylvania provides funding for green schools. The state of Washington requires that all public facilities (including schools) be built green, and similar legislation in other states is not far behind.

At CEFPI’s High Performance Schools Symposium held Jan. 26-27 in Scottsdale, AZ, Lindsey Baker, from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), released information on the new LEED for Schools. Encouraging an integrated design approach, LEED for Schools is designed to promote improved practices in site selection and development; water and energy use; environmentally preferred materials, finishes and furnishings; waste stream management; indoor air quality and comfort; and innovation in sustainable design and construction. It will also address issues such as classroom acoustics, master planning, mold prevention, and more. The LEED for Schools program is scheduled to officially launch in late March, but many districts are already integrating green into their school design.

Bethel Middle School in Bryant, AR, was sold on sustainable design practices. Their board made a commitment to pursue LEED certification and integrated design. (Integrated building design is a process of design in which multiple disciplines and seemingly unrelated aspects of design are integrated in a manner that allows synergistic benefits to be realized. The goal is to achieve high performance and multiple benefits at a lower cost than the total for all the components combined.) But like many other districts, the obstacle was money — working within a taxpayer-approved budget that was based on a minimum code compliant building.

Bethel’s solution was to supplement the budget with monies available through a New Construction Performance Contract. Working with an energy service company (ESCO), a performance contract was secured that provided the district an additional $8 per sq. ft. to bridge the gap between constructing a healthy, high-performance school, and one that was “built to code.” The facility improvements that Bethel was able to integrate into their plan have paid off in utility cost savings in excess of $50,000 per year, maintenance cost savings in excess of $38,000 per year, plus improved conditions that have led to lower absenteeism, increased attendance, and reduced liability for the district. The Bethel story is just one in a long line of successful projects proving obstacles, even financial ones, can be overcome.