Overlapping Issues

As our school systems have begun to require green certification levels for new school buildings, our designers and educators need to understand the positive benefits of these “green” design decisions on our children with special needs. Further, in renovation projects associated with our existing special needs environments, we need to advocate for the implementation of green improvements for reasons that go beyond saving the planet. These improvements can aid these children with their abilities to learn, and provide better sustainability to our school buildings.

There are four ways that “going green” helps to further excel the eight design strategies that we should be implementing in our special schools. While designing any school environment for children with disabilities, we need to specifically understand the spectrum, and then affect the following areas — personal and social space; distraction inhibitors; durability of materials; time-out rooms; acoustics and other auditory issues; colors, patterns, and tactile issues; outdoors spaces, security, and independence issues; and technology and multimedia applications.

Further, when incorporating green design into these environments, we need to be cognizant of the fact that the following specific areas can have a direct affect on our children with special needs and their ability to focus and learn.
  1. Daylighting
  2. Acoustics
  3. Indoor Air Quality
  4. Durable Sustainable Product Selection

As defined by LEED, the USGBC green rating system, items one through three fall directly under the heading of Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ), and item four is considered part of the Materials and Resources category. So, how does each of these areas impact the learning of the disabled? Let’s explore each separately.


Daylighting, as defined by Wikipedia, is “the practice of placing windows or other transparent media and reflective surfaces so that during the day natural light provides effective internal illumination.” Further, biophilia, another term related to daylighting, literally means the “love of life or living things.” One of the most essential components of a biophiliatic environment is stated to be daylight. Daylighting is shown to help fulfill emotional needs through the visual connection to the environment. Further, daylighting enhances colors and provides sources of vitamin D, which is known to help strengthen our immune system. It has also been found that patients in daylit spaces suffer less depression and recover more quickly, and seasonal affective disorder has been found to be positively affected by the use of full-spectrum lamping — the equivalent of natural daylight.

The success of daylighting school environments has been specifically tested. In Capistrano, CA, a study was conducted that showed that students in daylighted classrooms had 20 percent higher test scores than students in rooms without daylighting. Students in Fort Collins, CO, also achieved similar benefits, but only in classrooms with windows instead of skylights. However, students in classrooms with improperly designed skylights showed little improvement, and poor quality daylight coming in through the skylight caused glare and thermal discomfort. In additional testing, a two-year study of six schools in Johnston County, NC, concluded that children attending schools with full-spectrum light (light that has been color corrected and simulates the intensity of natural light) were healthier in general and absent an average three to four days less than were students in conventionally lit classrooms.

Thus, if we as designers implement properly placed daylight into our classroom settings, our children with special needs will clearly benefit and our school building will come one step closer to “going green.”


A child’s ability to learn is compromised by ambient background noise. General sound levels, as well as white noise, can cause distraction to individuals with auditory issues. According to research, the ability to sort various sounds is not fully developed until the teenage years. The major sources of ambient noise levels in learning environments are heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems; lighting ballasts; and intercom systems. Further, the insufficient or poor use of sound-absorbing materials in these environments further compounds the likelihood of disruption.

The Heschong Mahone Group, a research company located in California, conducted an expansive study in 2003 to test earlier theories and study findings relating to classroom environments and their effect on student performance. Referred to as “the Fresno Study,” it evaluated 500 classrooms in 36 schools in the Fresno United School District. The study concluded that internal noise — a loud HVAC system or a loud ballast hum from the lighting system — was consistently associated with negative student performance. By increasing the amount of carpet in the classroom, which reduced the acoustic reverberation in the setting, better student performance was noted in reading. The summary of this study was that acoustic environments that compromise student focus on lessons at hand (i.e. reverberant spaces, annoying equipment sounds, excessive noise from outside the classroom) have measurable negative effects on learning rates.
Thus, if we as designers implement acoustic-baffling strategies, our special needs children with auditory issues will have a better opportunity to learn successfully and again, we will be one step closer to “going green.”

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)

It has been reported that an average student spends 14,000 hours inside a school building from age five through 18. It is also known that sick air affects children more than adults because of their smaller size and rate of respiration at their younger age. Major indoor triggers including irritants such as commercial products (paints, cleaning agents, pesticides, and perfumes), building components (sealants, plastics, adhesives, and insulation materials), animal and insect allergens, environmental tobacco smoke, and molds are specific to asthma attacks. In an effort to design tighter, more energy conscious buildings, indoor pollution levels have generally increased.

“Volatile organic compound” or VOC is the name given to a substance that contains carbon and that evaporates (becomes a vapor) or “off-gases” at room temperature. VOCs are often referred to as the “new car smell” in a building recently completed or renovated. VOCs are commonly found in carpet, paint, composite wood products (i.e. casework), adhesives, floor wax, cleaning products/chemicals, and air freshener sprays. The possible immediate effects of VOC exposure include eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches; allergic skin reaction like a rash; difficulty breathing; nausea and/or vomiting; nosebleeds; fatigue; dizziness; loss of coordination; and confusion. The possible long-term effects after repeated exposure may include damage to the heart, liver, kidneys, or the central nervous system and cancer.

Our children overall and, even more specifically, our children with special needs, are affected by the quality of the air they breath in their school settings. We, as design professionals, need to become aware that the materials we select and the systems we use have a direct impact on the inside air quality of our school buildings and the learning opportunities of our children.
Durable Sustainable Product Selection

In any educational setting, the durability of selected materials is a consideration for the life-cycle of the building. The greater the population use of the building, the greater the concern. Depending upon the students or clients served in a building for individuals with special needs, the need for durable materials can be drastically increased.

Durable and sustainable materials include the following:
  • carpet (tiles and broadloom) containing recycled content without VOCs;
  • wall protection panels which are PVC and VOC free;
  • paints without VOCs; and
  • linoleum, a naturally antimicrobial product made from rapidly renewable resources, does not contain VOCs, will not crack or break like VCT, has a long life, and has thru-color construction that hides dents and scratches.

By applying these types of materials to our special needs school settings, we solve two things — sustainability and improved indoor air quality.

How does it all add up for our children with special needs? Daylit spaces equal pleasant indoor environments, which equals happier staff and students, less turnover, less absenteeism, and increased productivity.

  • High quality/durable materials have a longer life cycle and less replacement costs.
  • Healthy indoor air quality gives us healthy and happy students and staff with increased productivity.
  • Reduced sound reverberation allows better student focus and better learning.
  • Sustainable design creates improved environments for our children with special needs.

School administrators and educators should always keep in mind that the physical characteristics of classrooms, though not included as part of public policy discussions, have a significant impact on student learning.

With these green design principles fully integrated into our school and renovation designs, we are many steps closer to providing the optimal environment for better learning for our children with special needs.

Cathy Purple Cherry, AIA, LEED-AP, is principal of Purple Cherry Architects, the mother of a 17-year-old on the autism spectrum, and the sister of a Down Syndrome brother. Through her lifelong interactions and observations of her brother and son, combined with her educational advocacy for her son, she has developed an acute awareness of relevant triggers and environmental issues that impact individuals with disabilities. For more information, visit www.purplecherry.com.