Transparency in the Green Building Process

Green schools are sprouting across the United States. They’re designed or renovated to save energy and operating costs while providing optimal, healthy learning environments for students.

Today, there are more than 600 green schools in 47 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, according to the Congressional Green Schools Caucus. That number is expected to surge by 2010 and account for more than a quarter of all green commercial buildings in the nation, according to federal officials. And it has largely been Individuals leading the “green schools” movement — a grassroots effort led by school district administrators.

These are often superintendents, principals and district building and grounds managers who not only appreciate the benefits, but have been able to make a business case for doing so.

These leaders have charted the course by educating decision makers and stakeholders about the educational, financial and taxpayer benefits of green schools. To save time and get your peers and colleagues on board before the next school year begins, it’s important to understand the course they’ve charted and how you can leverage it for your own green project.

Step #1: Organize Your Case
When you think about green, it’s typically about the softer benefits of a “friendly environment.” But there are real business, financial and taxpayer benefits — you just need to be able to quantify them.

Just as you’d expect teachers and others to bring you a proposal before initiating new curriculum, key stakeholders will expect you to tell your story in a more compelling way than just “there are environmental benefits.”

This is what would go into a business case:
  • Business and educational opportunity — What benefits do a green or high-performance school present to your school district’s financial position, as well as your educational goals?
  • Current situation — What problems will this project solve in your district?
  • Goals and objectives of project — How much do you want to save off your energy budget as a result of this project? Are measurable academic improvements an objective as well? Keep in mind that anything you specifically tie metrics to must be measured once the project in done.
  • Legislation — Are there any local, state or federal legislative requirements that should be taken into account? Does any of that legislation provide an argument for the project or offer any benefits to school districts engaging in these sorts of projects?
  • Process for financing, scope, secondary research and relevant examples from other schools that have accomplished the same thing — in your state and throughout the country.
Step #2: Don’t Go It Alone
No one can push a project of this magnitude through alone. Most successful projects are led by a team of advocates who have a stake in seeing the project completed. Some ways to build a coalition include the following.

Start with your building and grounds manager. He or she will be excited about the concept of investing in school buildings and linking the physical environment of the classroom to student and financial outcomes. Here’s how to get him or her involved:
  • Timing: Engage before creating the business case.
  • Role: Get this individual involved in developing your business case. He or she can be an excellent partner in the research process, and has access to the operating expenses and history you’ll need as background.
  • What to ask for: Whoever is in charge of district facilities can provide specific metrics about any issues the buildings in the districts may have, from temperature control problems to boiler efficiency to how much could be saved by upgrading lighting and HVAC systems. Getting these metrics and information about problem areas that could be addressed to improve efficiency and student and staff performance is imperative.
Step#3: Find a Champion
Use this information to find a school board champion. School board members’ primary concern is making sure the educational mission of the school is preserved while fiscal common-sense is maintained.

The trick to winning them over is to demonstrate how efforts to build or renovate a green school can accomplish both missions. This should be relatively unproblematic given the amount of material available on how much more efficiently green schools operate, and the growing body of research on how green schools offer high performance learning environments with higher indoor air quality (IAQ), improved acoustics and lighting and overall comfort.

Once you have an ally on the school board, they can help make the case for you in closed-door sessions, serving as an advocate for your plans. More importantly, they can help you correct misconceptions that school board members might have concerning the proposed green school — such as that it will cost significantly more than a school built with standard techniques and materials.

Especially in a down economy, it’s important that you and your supporters on the board place particular emphasis on the fiscal message: Payback is quick. The high-performance school’s lifecycle cost can help board members fully understand the upfront costs and near immediate payback of green schools. In turn, they can better understand how a bonding bill would follow and come out in full support of the proposal.

Depending on how the school is being funded, this can be either the end goal — as in a performance contracting situation — or the beginning of a campaign to secure public support for a bonding bill.

Step #4: Getting Public Support
In most states, a design concept is not required before a bonding bill vote; however, once the school board votes on a bonding bill, it’s important to show the public what they’d be getting for their money.

That way, they’re not voting for or against an abstract bonding bill, they’re voting for a new school that will help educate the community’s children. Having a public design concept is a good practice and heightens voter awareness of green schools. Anything that helps paint a more detailed picture of how the school will help the community will go a long way toward convincing skeptics and those who might have concerns about increased property taxes.

The design concept should include and identify:
  • what the green school will include, or not include;
  • a concept or drawing of how the school will look upon completion;
  • how success is defined; and
  • what metrics will be used (LEED certification or state standards, for example).

Other tools and stakeholders can be engaged as well, depending on the community involved. The U.S. Green Building Council, including state chapters, CHIPS and the Alliance to Save Energy, are tremendous resources to tap into during concept development. For example, the USGBC has a LEED for Schools initiative and the Alliance to Save Energy has a Green Schools Program. These resources can help establish guidelines during development. Some points and best practices to keep in mind for the best results during project development include the following.
  • Establish a design team to identify how the district will meet and adhere to the initial high-performance school design concept. The team should include the superintendent (or assistant superintendent, depending on the district’s size), an architect and engineer, the district’s facility manager, an expert in green schools from a company familiar with the design challenges, members of the school board and, if there is a larger facility team, incorporating members from that group above and beyond the facility manager can be extremely effective as well.
  • With strategies and metrics identified for the concept, another potential supporter, the PTA, can be brought on board. The PTA’s key role is to help lobby the business community, which can petition voters as a credible, third-party voice. The PTA and business community become surrogates for the district’s design team to engage with voters and reiterate the capital investment benefits, as well as the benefits to students and educators. Other local school-related organizations, if available, should be approached at this time.
This also is the opportune time to fully understand and address green school misconceptions that may surface to be fully prepared before approaching voters with a bonding bill.
  • Involve internal stakeholders, such as teachers and students. Many administrators have formed “green teams” of teachers, staff and students to help identify environmental-improvement ideas. Ideas can be simple, but involving all stakeholders in the process can be the key to a successful campaign. Other districts have drafted environmental policy statements signed by teachers and students to define short- and long-term goals for achieving an environmentally friendly and sustainable building. Another idea is to identify incentives or recognition for teachers and students who take leadership roles in your school’s greening efforts.
  • Inform the voter. One of the most successful tactics to leverage high-performance schools with voters is to host town hall meetings. They are the perfect supplement to conventional methods of parent outreach — mail, e-newsletters, sending material home with students.
The most vital element to gaining the public trust, however, is providing ample amounts of information on the importance of this project. All the same elements that went into convincing the school board should be included in communications to the public. Keep in mind that many of these community members have their own concerns and that they’re every bit as strapped for cash as the school district, so communication should remain respectful, compassionate and understanding. But emphasis should be placed on the simple fact that this is an investment in the community’s future.

In Summary

Administrators interested in green building have a wide array of resources and research to help guide their green school effort. Remember, more than 630 LEED-certified schools dot the nation, with an additional school registering for LEED certification every day. This doesn’t even include the thousands of green schools that aren’t looking at LEED certification. Tap into them, and learn from their experiences.

To recap of how to involve stakeholders:
  • Conduct thorough research and understand the benefits of green schools.
  • Approach school board members; begin to flush out the green school concept.
  • Build a design team to outline how the district will achieve a high-performance school, and what metrics will be used.
  • Advocate the benefits of green schools with members of the PTA, which can be a great way to get the business community to align with the design team’s goals.
  • Start a “green team” of teachers, staff and students to help identify and brainstorm environmental-improvement ideas.
  • Bring the high-performance school to the voters through a bonding bill. Make sure to host town hall meetings first, so voters understand the benefits of high-performance schools.
The bottom line is, going green has proven fiscal benefits. It also has a direct impact on the health and performance of the students, faculty and staff — which account for one in five Americans, according to the Environmental Protection Agency — who occupy school facilities. The sooner administrators can help educate stakeholders, the sooner all stakeholders can reap the benefits.
Maureen Lally
is the Institutional Markets director for Trane. She can be reached at [email protected]