Green Design and Construction

The benefits to utilizing sustainable planning, design and construction are numerous. The reduced impact on the environment is one tangible benefit, but initial and ongoing cost savings, a healthier atmosphere for employees and students and a greater connection with the community are just a few of the great results that come from choosing green practices and products.

A great example is found in River Crest Elementary, a school that opened to over 500 students on Sept. 2, 2008 in Hudson, Wis. Upon its origination, it unleashed a series of benefits that will be felt for many generations. The 93,450-square-foot facility is a model for educational efficiency. It provides an educational tool for eco-friendly behavior for the entire community, while simultaneously serving as an inspiration for students, families and staff. From the start, the Hudson School District had a vision to create a 21st century, hands-on learning environment for the entire area. Central to that emphasis was a positive impact on the health and education of the students, and providing an intensely green school that combined a smart, logical flow with a striking look and feel; but costs could not be ignored. The school district had passed a referendum with a fixed budget prior to deciding to go green!

Initial and Ongoing Cost Savings
River Crest Elementary was designed and built for $166 per square foot, which includes design, site work, construction, furnishings, fixtures and equipment. That total project cost is $57 per square foot below the average cost for public elementary schools built in Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2008 as reported in this publication’s “2009 Construction Report,” representing a savings of 29 percent. While area residents’ enthusiasm for the design of their new elementary school was understandably high, it was exceeded by the pleasure they found in the total cost to build the award-winning school.

In addition to the significant initial savings, River Crest will enjoy ongoing savings for the life of the school. The school achieved LEED Gold certification. As just the second public elementary school in the nation to receive Gold under the USGBC’s LEED for Schools Rating System, the designation demonstrates that a whole host of thoughts, and numerous features, were included to ensure lower expenses for the life of the building.

Examples include low-flow water-reducing bathroom fixtures, like dual-flush valves and waterless urinals, providing water savings in excess of 40 percent over a conventionally designed building. The site has been designed to retain storm water on site. The landscaping employs native species to reduce watering and maintenance. Photosensors used throughout the facility reduce demand for electricity by automatically shutting off light fixtures when daylight provides sufficient light levels. In addition, strategic placement of gray low-E windows adds daylight to classrooms and provides a connection to the outdoors while reducing energy demand.

Healthier for Students
But, the benefits of these features go beyond the bottom line. Improved lighting has been shown to improve student performance and attendance, as well as the morale of both students and faculty. Additionally, a significant focus was given to providing high indoor air quality.

Exceptional indoor air quality also comes from utilization of low- or no-VOC (volatile organic compounds) products for adhesives, paints, flooring systems, carpeting and furniture, and the ongoing monitoring of carbon dioxide levels. According to the USGBC, a Carnegie-Mellon study found that improved indoor air quality results in a 13.5 to 87 percent reduction in symptoms for ailments such as asthma, colds and flu. Healthy children have fewer distractions from their education — but students aren’t the only ones that benefit.

Retaining the best employees and maximizing productivity are factors that school administrators should constantly watch. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reported that building-related illnesses cost organizations tens of billions of dollars each year. Many schools have found that improvements in air quality, lighting and other high performance (green) features reduce absenteeism while increasing productivity and morale.

Moreover, when potential employees are considering their options, features like natural light and a comfortable, well-designed work environment are factors that are certain to be considered in the decision making process. A poll by Mortgage Lenders Network USA discovered that 94 percent of Americans prefer to work in a setting that is designed to be energy efficient and ecologically sound. These benefits have been noticed by more than just teachers and administrative staff.

Positive PR
While students, parents, teachers and administrators have taken notice of the new facility, so have many others. Since the USGBC has provided its third party validation of River Crest Elementary, it has been showcased by various media and received several awards. This has resulted in numerous occasions to give tours to other school district administrators and conduct media interviews. Each time the project is highlighted, it brings new opportunities to talk about the process and features, and the benefits that sustainability offers. This provides numerous instances to showcase staff and students, guide others to making their own sustainable choices, highlight activities and events that are going on at the school, recruit exemplary staff and connect with the community.

These connections in the community offer a platform for positive collaboration and support for other initiatives within the district. The design and construction of River Crest Elementary provided numerous opportunities to link with local resources in Western Wisconsin.

A great example of this connection to the community of Hudson was the partnership that occurred with Andersen Corporation. They worked with the school district and the total project manager to design a new wood window product that would maximize natural light, but reduce glare and provide energy savings. By working with a local company, the school district demonstrated support for the local business community. Ultimately, this contributed to even greater local enthusiasm for the project, which supported its own tax base while making a great environmental choice. But, connections to the community go beyond just the products that are chosen.

Environmental Impact
While the students, parents, teachers, administrative staff and the community reap the rewards of a sustainable school, we can’t forget the benefits that our natural environment gleans as well. In the example of River Crest, 94 percent of construction waste materials (measured by weight) were reused or recycled, thus avoiding landfills and the energy required to transport them. In addition, more than half (by cost) of the materials utilized were manufactured within 500 miles of the property. This reduced fuel consumption and pollution associated with transportation, while supporting the regional economy.

As well, the school continues to be active in making wise green choices — like recycling, monitoring utilities and choosing green curriculums. John Muller, a fifth-grade teacher at River Crest, says, “Sustainability… it’s something that we can’t really ignore anymore, even if we wanted to, which is a good thing for me in terms of what I want to achieve in education, and giving kids that knowledge and background.”

Ongoing Influence
But, it’s not just the kids who are learning. River Crest became a catalyst to educate and encourage district staff, teachers, students, parents and residents to amend their thinking, alter their behavior and challenge each other to bring about a positive change in their own community. River Crest's message of environmental conservation, preservation and respect resulted in a surge of pride, excitement and enthusiasm that permeated the district as the project progressed. Teacher Kathleen Mullvain says, “I’ve always been a pretty environmentally friendly person, but I think because of the information that’s been shared with us at school, and because of the information we’re sharing with our students, I think I just find myself more aware at home and more aware with my family.” This wave of knowledge and exuberance continues to flow today, and will continue for many years.

Reap the Benefits
As you deliberate on an upcoming new construction project, or even a renovation, take time to examine the benefits of sustainable design and construction. Hudson’s District Superintendent, Mary Bowen-Eggebraaten, perhaps summed it up best when she said, “Being green is the only way to construct a building at this point. It is what we need to do for ourselves, for our environment, for our children.”

The evidence warrants action so that you can save money now and later, have healthier students, enhance the experience for your staff, tell a more vibrant story, connect with your community, decrease your environmental footprint and spread your influence.

Miles Girouard is director of Architectural Services for Hoffman LLC, the firm chosen to design and manage construction of River Crest Elementary, and a member of the National Council of Architectural Review Boards (NCARB) and a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional.