High Performance Schools Lead the Way

At Pioneer Middle School in DuPont, Wash., teacher Laura Lowe gets more “a-ha” moments explaining science to her students.

“We can physically point to elements in the building and relate that back to our lesson,” says Lowe. “If I want to explain about native plants and different shapes of leaves and how that works with photosynthesis, I can walk right out to the garden and show kids on the spot.”

Pioneer is a high-performance school, one of many where the building serves as an educational tool utilizing exposed systems, lesson plans and teaching aids.

“Students and teachers use this new building to inspire individuals to become sustainable citizens,” says Craig Mason, AIA, LEED-AP, designer and principal with DLR Group, designers of the school.

During the last 10 years, the modern high-performance schools movement has invited design elements focusing on energy conservation and occupant comfort. Multi-level lighting systems have allowed teachers to switch lights on only when needed, day lighting techniques have replaced electric light in corridors, windows in historic schools have been opened up and building management systems have provided centralized control of energy usage and monitoring.

“Teachers and staff working in schools built with high-performance standards like Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) or the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) tend to be more satisfied with certain aspects of these buildings than with other school buildings built during the last 10 years,” says Lindsay Baker, building science researcher at the Center for the Built Environment (CBE) at UC Berkeley. CBE has been studying buildings over the last 80 years.

“Surveys show that teachers and staff are more satisfied with air quality and lighting and tend to have more pride in their building,” explains Baker.

However, student performance in high-performance schools has been difficult to track “because there are a high number of variables, such as shifting populations and changes in personnel,” adds Mason.

As market demand grew for high-performance schools, rating systems like CHPS and LEED emerged. According to William "Bill" Orr, chief executive of CHPS, “We are all about making schools better places to learn, and there is a real opportunity for people working on different aspects of environment, health and other areas to work together and improve student performance.”

CHPS began with a network of high-performance demonstration schools in California in 1999. Today, 11 states use the CHPS criteria to build high-performance schools, the latest entrants being Texas and Colorado.

“An operations report card from CHPS will soon benchmark a school’s performance across different categories,” Orr says.

The U.S. Green Building Council launched its LEED certification and the Goodwillie Environmental School in Ada, Mich., became the first school to earn LEED certification within the LEED for New Construction (v2.0) rating system in November, 2002.

In 2008, the LEED for Schools rating system was launched. Bethke Elementary School in Poudre School District, Colo. became the first school project in this category earning Gold certification in October, 2008.
“An average of one to two schools are registering for LEED certification every day, and in January 2010 there were 1,692 LEED registered schools and 240 LEED certified schools,” says Emily Knupp, Education Sector associate at the U.S. Green Building Council.

A Shift in Conversation
With decline in new school construction, the conversation is shifting towards maintaining existing schools that have been in a state of disrepair for several decades.

“The era of new school construction is shifting, and the trend is to renovate existing schools so that they become more sustainable,’ Orr explains.

Baker agrees. “There is certainly a great focus now on improving existing schools and dealing with institutional barriers at the federal, state and local levels to truly incentivize sustainable, manageable and durable school buildings.

“More facilities planners are incorporating strategies to save energy and improve teacher and student comfort. The trick is to consider how to balance these goals,” Baker continues.

Here, states like Ohio have a clear lead over other states involved in the high-performance schools movement. There are 235 LEED registered schools in Ohio, very close to the number of LEED registered schools in California (128 schools) and Pennsylvania (109 schools) added together.

A September 2007 resolution passed by the Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC) mandated that all buildings built with state funds should have a minimum LEED Silver rating and strive for LEED Gold.
“There is a great deal of advocacy for green and sustainability, and it is irresponsible to not build sustainably,” says Franklin Brown, planning director, Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC).

Pleasant Ridge Montessori School, located in a Cincinnati, Ohio, suburb became the first school in Ohio to seek LEED certification. When the school opened on a seven-acre site in 2008, “parents were calling me to complement the good indoor air quality in the school,” says Charlie Jahnigen, AIA, LEED-AP, vice president of Sustainability for SHP Inc, designers of the school.

One parent called Jahnigen to thank him about her daughter’s reduced allergy symptoms. Low-emitting volatile organic compounds (VOC) used in construction have provided better indoor air quality.

Pleasant Ridge has seen a surge in enrollment and is at full capacity at 572 students, and the school utilizes 20 percent recycled content, 38 percent regional materials and has a 21 percent reduction in water usage and 36 percent reduction in utility costs.

“The desire to build this school came from the community,” Jahnigen states.

Future Trends: Net-Zero Schools and the 2030 Challenge
While LEED and CHPS are popular, several designers are focusing on building net-zero schools. Net-zero energy schools typically generate as much energy as they use over a year from wind, solar, geothermal or biomass usually located on site.

“I would leapfrog LEED and take on the 2030 challenge to design a net-zero energy school,” says Trung Le, lead designer for OWP/P | Cannon Design’s education group. The 2030 Challenge aims at reducing greenhouse gas produced by buildings.

Despite the growing talk of sustainability, school planners and designers like Mason of the DLR Group maintain that “a school’s primary purpose is to educate and engage students in learning.”

According to Le, a good school is community-focused, recognizes multiple learning styles among students and offers media-rich interdisciplinary learning spaces. “Learning through doing is important,” he explains, citing the Tinkering School in Montara, Calif., as an example of a school where kids ages eight to 17 learn how to build things.

A hands-on sustainable strategy is key to teaching about the environment to students. He cites the Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC) in Chicago where the school’s vegetable garden serves organic meals, students learn yoga and understand the connectedness and interdependence of life on the planet.

But there have been no policy decisions over the last five years both nationally or at the state level to incorporate the importance of learning styles in the classroom. “This is the reason why the fundamental concept of the school environment has not changed in the last 200 years. It was designed for the teacher in the front of the room to deliver knowledge to the perceived empty brain of the learners,” Le says.

High-Performance Schools Act as Influencers
High-performance schools are influencing the way normal schools are being built. In the coming decade, school designers will ask, “What else can we do to be more sustainable?”

“The feedback from building staff and occupants will be critical here,” Baker states.

Schools now use techniques like the Variable Refrigerant Flow Zoning Systems (VRFZ) that provide highly responsive cooling and heating performance and are incorporating chilled beam HVAC systems that use water to remove heat from a room. “These were prevalent in Europe five years ago and are now becoming standards and building envelopes are getting tighter and windows now have U values below 0.30,” OSFC’s Brown says.

Key Drivers in the Green School Movement
Who drives the high-performance school movement today? According to Orr, it is not dominated by a single entity.

Advocacy for high-performance schools begins at the grassroots level. “Once the layperson experiences a green school, their understanding of it improves considerably,” says Jahnigen. And, he believes students are the greatest influencers in moving this forward.

“Students want to talk about green schools now, and so many of them are attending green schools, there is a ripple effect.”

According to Mason, “Students are driving change and are challenging teachers to take a sustainable building design to the next level by encouraging environmental stewardship through the curriculum.”
However, it’s still difficult to find out who steers the ship. The “broad culture of designing and building high performance schools varies from state to state,” explains Orr.

For instance, in New Hampshire, the state pays for building the school, while in Texas the state does not have a similar role.

The Environmental Law Institute (ELI), a Washington, D.C-based think-tank tracks the number of schools with legislative policies establishing requirements for building high-performance schools. At least 12 states, including New Jersey, Hawaii, Washington, Rhode Island, Illinois, Colorado, Ohio, Florida, the District of Columbia, Connecticut and Maryland have requirements for building high performance schools.

At the grassroots level, both CHPS and the USGBC are making efforts to promote a culture of sustainable thinking among school districts.

The U.S. Green Building Council’s 79 local chapters have a Green Schools Committee, creating a network of more than 1,000 green schools volunteers nationwide. “Members work with school facility stakeholders across the board — teachers, parents, students, school boards and state-level officials — and are educating their communities and affecting policy and practices at the local and state level,” Knupp says.

Despite advocacy at the grassroots level, lifecycle costs still determine whether to build a green school or not. “Some schools are able to justify longer payback periods for more sustainable strategies and efficient equipment because their operating and capital budgets are inter-connected,” explains Baker.

In the long run, superintendents, school boards and lawmakers will hopefully help schools in making upfront investments towards ongoing energy efficiency.

According to Baker, high-performance schools will have to focus on three major areas in future:
  • renovate existing schools and make them sustainable,
  • undertake greater energy monitoring and occupant feedback on building performance and
  • create a report card for school buildings and reward schools that save energy while improving the indoor environment for teachers and staff.
Orr predicts that there is already a shift in thinking from “how many kilowatt hours have been saved, to the impact on the carbon footprint.”

“Leaders in the high-performance schools movement are being standard-setters, and they are moving on from their previous roles as advocates,” Baker concludes. “There are still issues to be worked out, but overall, it’s incredible to see how far we’ve come, and what a large movement it is.”

Sarat Pratapchandran is a writer specializing in education, environment and healthcare. His Website is www.lettersnatcher.com.