Sustainable Schools Inspire a Green Generation

“How does the energy from the sun help our school?” “How can we heat the building with the ground source heat pump?” In Sue Mock’s Alder Creek Middle School classroom in Truckee, Calif., students raise these questions and more during a presentation on their school’s high performance building features. With the increasing disconnection between natural and built environments, students in high performance schools experience how healthy, green building can create a more symbiotic relationship between the natural world and constructed spaces.

Alder Creek is one of a number of high performance educational facilities throughout the United States that also function as teaching tools. Alder Creek was one of the first schools in the United States to meet the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) green building criteria. CHPS, a national program that provides high performance school best practices and certification, encourages using high performance buildings as a means for educating students on environmentally responsible practices in design, construction, operation and maintenance.

Now, many schools and universities are extending their environmental education efforts into the curriculum. A high performance school building can be instructive for students on many levels. Students participate in hands-on solar energy investigations and learn about the electricity produced by the school’s photovoltaic system.

In order to educate students on the energy savings and health benefits provided by their building, facilities managers often give presentations on the building’s features followed by explanatory tours of the campuses. “To have a building that teaches, some mechanical piping, masonry and structural steel are exposed on the interior of the building,” says Alder’s Facilities Manager Rob Koster. Students can see the actual machinery of the building and what it takes to save energy and reduce carbon footprint.

What do the students think about their healthy, green school? Ms. Mock says, “Students are interested in the ‘behind the scenes’ aspects of our school… we talk about the uniqueness of our middle school building and they think that is ‘cool’.” The sustainable concepts used in the construction of their high performance school have increased interest for many Alder Creek students in related areas. They have started several environmentally oriented projects including a school-wide recycling program, racing solar model cars, as well as the design and implementation of a school garden.

Building energy efficiency, one of the keys of high performance building, is often a popular topic for students and staff. The renewable energy field is developing despite the recession and will become increasingly important for students to learn about these technologies. In addition to the renewable energy curriculum, schools have drawn upon local experts to illustrate the practical lessons the high performance school can provide to students. Andrea Ranger, a green building consultant who worked on the design review of one such facility, discussed how sustainable building features, such as a renewable energy system, can be incorporated into the curriculum. “Studying thermodynamics equations is not very engaging until you realize that you need the equations in order to size a solar hot water system,” Ms. Ranger said. “Understanding thermodynamics becomes a matter of practicality rather than an abstraction.”

Designers and practitioners must remember that decisions made early in design can be the key to creating an environment where students to learn from and connect with their building. One of the best ways to involve students in sustainable practices is to have key members of the administration and faculty working hand-in-hand with the design team to ensure that educational opportunities are optimized during the design and construction of the building.

Kimberly Goodrich is a communications assistant for the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, Inc. (CHPS). The mission of CHPS is to make schools better places to learn by facilitating the design, construction and operation of a new generation of high performance places of learning that are environmentally sustainable, healthy and comfortable. For more information, visit