Crunching the Numbers for LEED K-12 Schools

In 2007, the US Green Building Council issued a new LEED for Schools rating system. This development, and the current interest in high-performance and sustainable school design, led many school administrators to ask questions: What is the cost of building a LEED certified school? How will a LEED school support or affect our educational modalities and curriculum? Can we afford a LEED certified School in our very tight budget? Will a LEED certified building save us money over time? These are important questions for any school district to ask at the earliest stage of design.

A system has recently been developed by MHTN Architects Inc. to conceptually estimate the costs and potential savings associated with designing, building, and operating a LEED certified school. This system is called EarlyEco. The system estimates and models construction costs, energy savings, payback periods, alternative design schemes, LEED submittal costs, and most importantly, the estimated cost for each LEED certification level (Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum). Once the data is entered into the software program, the system completes the calculations in less than two seconds. Modifications to sustainable design criteria can be easily entered into the system and thoughtfully analyzed throughout the development process.

About the System
EarlyEco is a conceptual estimating tool based on the programmer’s experience of estimating over $2.15B in the K-12 market and on many sustainable projects. It conducts thousands of internal calculations. It estimates the difference between standard school construction and individual sustainable design strategies. As a conceptual tool, this program is holistic in that building systems and sustainable design strategies that affect each other’s costs are tracked and adjusted automatically.

Design Process
The following process was used in the development of the Browning Park Environmental Magnet School for the Ogden School District. The district identified LEED certified “sustainable design” early on as an important element of the environmental magnet concept, and EarlyEco outputs were used to full advantage to enhance the District’s LEED credit and option selections for the ultimate goal of LEED certification. It is particularly important to note that the design team included representatives of the school district, key consultants, and the MHTN architectural team. The process outline is as follows:
•    Develop the client’s sustainable goals and define the process for success.
•    Define the 20 key building attributes and input them into system.
•    Perform a computer run for project model.
•    The chief cost estimator, a LEED-accredited professional, and other key team members review credits and customize data to unique site and project conditions.
•    Working together with the client/design team, review and refine information and agree to LEED credits and strategies.
•    Continually update cost and benefit information as the design develops and more information becomes available.

Throughout the design process, additional computer modeling to project energy use was performed to provide data to the design team regarding alternative design schemes, building envelope design, and mechanical system.

Refining Design and Cost Estimate
The design process continues through schematic design, design development, and construction documents. During the process, LEED cost information is developed into a refined statement of probable cost. A contingency of at least two extra LEED credits is recommended to insure that the desired LEED certification level can be achieved. It is also prudent to provide the proper design, bid, and construction contingency factors in the statement of probable cost.

Philip E. Powley, director of estimating for Hogan & Associates Construction, worked closely with the design team throughout the process. Mr. Powley stated, "Working with the design team, I was able to evaluate each item in the system's checklists and was able to work on individual item pricing and tracked each item throughout the design process. The process allowed the construction team to clearly understand the intentions and assumptions of the design team, which then allowed us to accurately provide supporting cost detail to the client. I was excited when the cost of the project came in under budget and was impressed by the design team’s organization and efforts to make this a successful project."

Lessons Learned on the Sustainable School
Designing holistically, design teams are able to break through typical barriers and provide sustainable and LEED certified buildings at minimal or no additional cost by getting creative with orientation, layouts, sustainable materials, and mechanical and electrical systems. While many building types allow flexibility in design, layout, and construction, school facilities present a particular challenge. For example, many school districts favor organizational concepts which support their on-going curricula, i.e. they have preferred-plan components. Districts also have preferred maintenance and operational methodologies using preferred low-maintenance materials with proven life-cycle costs – districts are not interested in experimentation in these areas which is an understandable reaction to limited funding. Because school districts have limited construction budgets, administrators in charge of facilities are expected to provide the most program area for the least first-cost budget. These challenges demand accurate cost estimates, even at a conceptual level.

Focus: It is essential to keep the design team focused on the sustainable strategies that support the agreed-upon LEED credit solution and client’s sustainable goals. Like any aspect of design, some project team members will attempt to include as many strategies as possible, regardless of cost implications. Consequently, all members of the project team need to be familiar with the project’s sustainable design goals and agreed-upon strategies. Glen Beckstead, MHTN’s building conceptual estimator for the project stated, “The process was instrumental in keeping the efforts of the design team focused on developing sustainable design solutions which provided maximum benefit to protect the district from scope and cost inflation.”

Acoustics: The acoustic prerequisites and requirements in LEED for Schools are significant enough to require the consultation of an acoustical consultant. The exterior-interior sound transmission, interior reverberation, room-to-room sound transmission, and mechanical sound attenuation are just a few of the acoustical issues to be considered. While many of these requirements can be performed by architects using manufacturer’s material data and simple calculations, unique construction assemblies and mechanical sound levels need the attention of an expert.

Synergies: With the demanding requirements of school design, (cost, program, etc.) it is important to look for strategies that complement each other in order to tunnel through perceived cost barriers. An example of this strategy would be the combination of habitat restoration (SSc5.1) and water-efficient landscaping (WEc1). Taken separately, these might be considered cost prohibitive, but together they might be an effective solution for site design while providing biodiversity and native habitat.

Phased Sustainable Development: Oftentimes, LEED credits involve multiple strategies and implementation measures. While many LEED credits might be eliminated due to cost control, individual strategies within the points should be considered. For example, on-site renewable energy (EAc2) may not be affordable at this time, but arrangements for future systems (placement of PV panels, conduit runs and space in electrical room) could be provided at minimal cost. As with all design and sustainable measures, the cost for these individual strategies should be estimated and included in the client’s sustainable design goals.

Education: School environments are particularly suited to use the building as a “learning tool.” The project design architect, Margareta Hjorth-Vlasic stated, “The school budgets were very tight, but the use of EarlyEco allowed us to develop teaching demonstrations of sustainable concepts... these demonstrations didn’t gain any LEED points, but were useful as a learning tool for the students.” In addition, the architectural staff made suggestions for the future curriculum of the school’s sustainable teaching program.

In this case, the client’s sustainable design goals were to stay within the original budget, while attaining a LEED-certified building.

Reed Spencer, Executive Director of Ogden City School District, observed, “In a state where funding for public education is 51st in the nation, it was a real eyebrow-raiser to the board of education when we proposed to spend more than we had to on the new school so that we could make it LEED certified. Usually, we work at cutting as many costs as possible, and here we were asking to add costs! However, when MHTN provided the detailed and specific added costs side by side with the equally detailed and specific projected savings and number of years it would take to recoup those costs, it was a much safer and easier decision for the board. It gave the board a win-win: to provide to the community a cutting-edge facility as environmental and energy responsive as possible and to maintain effective stewardship of public money.”

Myron Willson, AIA, LEED, director of Sustainable Design, is a senior associate of MHTN Architects, Inc. Reach him at

Bruce Haxton is a LEED-accredited architect based in Rhinelander, Wis. He can be reached at 801/633-3532.

Glen Beckstead, ASPE, (American Society of Professional Estimators), is the chief staff estimator with MHTN Architects, Inc., and member of MHTN’s EarlyEco development team. Reach him at

Margareta Hjorth-Vlasic is a senior project manager and design architect with MHTN Architects, Inc. Reach her at