Green 2.0

Kermit the Frog famously observed, “It’s not easy being green.” Yet a body of evidence is mounting regarding the considerable economic, environmental, and educational advantages of green schools. If “being green” isn’t necessarily easy to achieve, sustainable design is tremendously worthwhile to pursue based on a variety of measures. For starters, green schools cost less to operate and they’re healthier places for children to learn.

The evidence comes in forms that are both anecdotal and scientific: for example, “Greening America’s Schools,” a national report released in October of 2008 by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the American Federation of Teachers, concludes that building energy-efficient schools results in lower operating costs, improved test scores, and even enhanced student health. Other studies, some referenced here, elicit equally encouraging findings.

It’s instructive to begin with a working definition of sustainable design: also referred to as green design or eco-design, sustainable design generally refers to the art of designing physical objects — such as schools — to comply with principles of economic, social, and ecological sustainability. Among the desired end-results of such design are: reducing the use of non-renewable resources, minimizing environmental impact, and enhancing how people relate to (and perform in) their physical environment. A green school, in turn, as defined by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) is a school building or facility that creates a healthy environment that is conducive to learning while saving energy, resources, and money.

Let’s begin with an overview of the measurable financial advantages of green schools, always of concern to school systems, and particularly so in today’s challenging economic environment.
Since the relatively recent inception of the green phenomenon, a primary concern for many has involved the cost of building green in comparison to conventional construction. Conventional wisdom has held that the societal goals behind such constructions are admirable but that harsh financial realities, mainly in the form of upfront construction costs, make pursuing these builds untenable.
Yet, in just a brief period of time, the mood has shifted significantly, as even the strongest proponents of this conventional (and clearly flawed) wisdom are now becoming among the most surprised by the mounting evidence to the contrary.
First, the nature of the conversation around cost has shifted away from a sole focus on initial costs to a more sophisticated dialogue around life-cycle savings, which more accurately gauges the “true” costs of building green schools. When viewed from this perspective, the findings are clear: green schools pay for themselves… and then some.

A new report from the USGBC, for example, finds that building green can save an average American school between $75,000 and $150,000 every year, due to far superior energy efficiency. The aforementioned AIA pegs the estimated annual savings at $100,000.

Viewed from a longer-term perspective, the U.S. Green Building Council points out that if all new school construction and school renovations went green starting today, energy savings alone would total $20B over the next 10 years. Individual schools, which typically last for 42 years, can save millions.

Where do these efficiency advantages come from? Among other benefits, green schools use 30 percent less energy and 30 percent less water. They also reduce infrastructure costs by reducing stormwater runoff, delaying the need for new sewer systems. Further, the introduction of geothermal technology, which entails the continuous circulation of water between wells and schools, creates a basically free energy source for heating and cooling schools — as well as an energy source that will typically last for 50 years, compared to 15 years for a conventional system.

This is especially relevant when one considers that even the initial construction cost gap between environmentally friendly and more traditional school builds is closing rapidly. All of which means that regardless of how one assesses the economics, we’re quickly approaching a day when the economic advantages of green schools will clearly outweigh those of more traditional schools. When school systems take the longer-term perspective and consider life-cycle costs, it is equally clear that day has already come.

What does this mean from a practical perspective? Certainly, the benefits of cost savings are obvious. Beyond that, the economic savings of green schools create opportunities to hire more teachers and purchase a variety of other educational materials and resources to benefit the student population, ranging from books and computers to music and art supplies. By one measure, greening all schools would open up sufficient funds to add 2,000 new teaching jobs every year. One school saving $100,000 per year in operational costs could add two new teachers, 200 new computers, or 5,000 new textbooks.

For many communities, these economic advantages would be cause enough to pursue green builds. Yet, there remain numerous other compelling benefits of green schools including the fact that schools built on the principle of sustainable design are demonstrably healthier places for students and faculty alike.

Overall green school performance is rated quite thoroughly by the USBGC’s LEED school rating system. Even a cursory glance at uncovers significant, “real world” advantages of green schools.

•    Fossil Ridge High School, in Fort Collins, CO, is 60 percent more energy efficient than the school’s prior building, and achieving $11,500 in annual water savings. Other cost savings are reinvested in the classroom.

•    Sidwell Friends Middle School, in Washington, DC, has reduced its municipal water use by 90 percent a year, and its energy demand is 60 percent less than that of a conventional school. The school’s design also enabled it to plant 80 native species of plants where parking spaces used to be.

•    Clearview Elementary School, in Hanover, PA, is achieving annual energy savings of $18,000, and reducing its water use by 30 percent. The school is actively incorporating its innovative design into its teaching methods. For instance, the school’s curved sunscreen in front of its glass corridor not only offers shade from the hot sun and provides appealing acoustics for assemblies, it also functions as a sundial, providing an opportunity for hands-on learning.

Ultimately, the evidence is clear: by promoting the design and construction of green schools, we will do a tremendous service to our students, our teachers, our environment, our economy, and our collective futures. Given the fact that 20 percent of our population goes to school every weekday, it makes considerable sense for us to pursue these advantages as open-mindedly as possible.

Marc Spector is principal of Spector Group, in New York, and is a member of the American Institute of Architects, the Society of American Registered Architects, and the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. For more information, visit