How Green are Your School Buildings?

Most new schools today are designed with “green” concepts that will save energy and cost less to run. That is all to the good. But the majority of school buildings in use are now 50 years old and they use a lot of energy. If school districts are going to go green, it’s important that they bring those existing buildings into compliance. That’s no simple job.

Recently, I had breakfast with Manfred (Fred) Moses, a professional engineer with whom I worked closely during the first Arab Oil Boycott in the 1970s. At that time, we helped districts to “button up buildings” insulating walls, installing double-paned glass in windows, adding vestibules and cutting unnecessary use of electricity.

Today, those buildings need new attention. The fixes of 30 years ago are not enough. Basic building systems need to be examined, reevaluated and, often, entirely replaced. “It is not enough to upgrade systems or replace them as they were,” Moses warns. “Those systems, for the most part, even if they were working properly, do not do all the things we want done in a building today. They need to be replaced.”

Ask yourself, if you were constructing that same building today, would you install the systems you installed 50 years ago? Could they run mechanical and electrical systems at the highest efficiency, recapture waste heat and at the same time provide year-round environmental control and indoor air quality? Of course not. They were never intended to do all that.

Moses is concerned that school districts, with leadership that is usually not technically oriented, will be tempted to spend money to upgrade existing systems — providing, in effect another quick fix — rather than replacing those systems with 21st-century HVAC systems and technology, often at the same or lower cost. He points to two recent proposals he examined.

Don’t Fix What Should Be Abandoned
In one, an architect suggested replacing 50-year-old steam boilers with new boilers and an upgrade to the system. It was a very expensive proposition (it had an estimated payback of 26 years) and would leave the school with the same system it had installed 50 years ago, including ventilation through open windows and exhaust through corridors.

Based on his experience, Moses suggests that it would be far less expensive to abandon the existing system altogether, install year-round rooftop environmental control units and bring air into the building through ducts over the ceiling. The work would be less disruptive to the school and a modern system would provide ventilation and allow climate control, not just heating.
“That building had been improved with double glazed windows and new insulated roofs and walls 30 years ago,” Moses points out. “In a building like that, it’s not necessary to continually bring in heat; classrooms need ventilation much more than they need heat during most of the school day. Under the circumstances, it does not make sense to fix up and retrofit an old system designed for a different era.

“Of course, if a school’s windows are still single-pane, and roofs and walls have not been insulated, getting those jobs done should be the first order of business no matter what heating and ventilating system you use. Hopefully, by now, not many of those buildings are still in use.”

Replace Obsolete Technology
In another school, the proposal made was to repair and replace old unit ventilators. Again, Moses questions reestablishing the 50-year old system just because it’s there. “Pull out the unit ventilators,” he says. “The cost of replacing and cleaning coils and corroded components is prohibitive — replace the units with bookshelves and substitute a 21st-century system with environmental control units that have the capability of providing natural and mechanical cooling, that will heat and ventilate and keep the building at a comfortable temperature all day long and that will allow our expensive school facilities to be used year-round, not just for 180 days.”

Moses is not suggesting any one system or single solution, “each building must be analyzed on its own and solutions will differ depending on climate, building condition, building size and configuration and other factors,” he says. “But the key is to look at the existing systems and ask whether you would install those from scratch today. If you would not, don’t “fix” what you have. Rather, replace with modern systems and equipment that won’t be outmoded even before they are installed.” Done correctly, you’ll not only have a better building, you’ll probably spend less doing the work.

Fixing up an old school building is worthwhile. But it is not enough for it to work as well as it did 50 years ago. You need to make sure that the resulting school is one that fits the needs of students and faculty now and tomorrow, not in 1960.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."