The New Three R's

School designers used to design to accommodate the three R’s: 
Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. Today, they have to create effective learning spaces to accommodate the three Rs, while also creating spaces that are energy efficient and fiscally and environmentally responsible. They’re designing to the original three R’s, plus three more: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Upon close investigation, the line between reduce, reuse and recycle starts to blur as it applies to the many elements that must be considered when designing a school. It seems easier to lump the three under the single label “sustainability” and break out the many elements from that. Easier isn’t always better, as you’ll see in these ideas and applications of the new three R's.

Reducing school size maximizes operational 
efficiency. Todd Thackery, AIA, LEED-AP, NCARB, a vice president of architecture at SHP Leading Design, a multidisciplinary, national practice headquartered in Cincinnati, recommends starting with the future of education, asking how will it be delivered, who will deliver it, how will buildings and the district be operated? “A school district’s largest expenditure is staffing,” he says. “If you want to operate efficiently, start with staffing and how you deliver education, and then design lean buildings to support the program and delivery.”

Jason Lembke, AIA, LEED, BD+C, director of K-12 Education for Waukegan, Ill.-based Legat Architects Inc., agrees, observing: “We’ve developed a spreadsheet model that reflects courses students will be enrolled in to forecast needs based on course offerings.”

Both experts recommend that the next step is to look for flexible spaces that serve more than one purpose, both for educational use and community use. This reduces the building footprint, which subsequently reduces electrical, mechanical and site impacts. “It’s about getting more out of what you spend,” Thackery says succinctly.

“Building less is reducing,” Thackery continues. “The idea is that you don’t build schools larger than you need to deliver education because you have to maintain them through their lives and there’s a cost to heating, cooling and electrical.”

To help administrators understand this point, Vuk Vujovic, LEED-AP, BD+C, director of Sustainable Design for Legat, recommends thinking about the building as something not just to be designed, but also to be operated and maintained for 100 years. He says some administrators may find themselves in a jam later where, in some cases, they have to close their new schools because they can’t afford to operate them. “We like to stress that it doesn’t cost more to think,” he says. “As attractive as it is, there’s no point in designing large if you don’t have the money to maintain it.”

Take, for example, Mariano Azuela Elementary School in Chicago, a pre-K-8 prototype that allows Chicago Public Schools administrators, which have more than 680 schools to maintain, to keep improving the design as new schools are built. “We looked at how things were designed and positioned,” says Vujovic, “and, on a $20-million project, saved $500,000 because we were able to compact the mechanical space located on the third floor. Compacting is possible.”

Once the school is planned and “lean,” Thackery and his team designs holistically. “We start with a high-performance exterior envelope and optimize daylighting to reduce the need for artificial lighting and its heat,” he says. We use energy-efficient heating/cooling systems with demand ventilation, having the technology to monitor that and bring air in only when the system says it’s necessary rather than bringing fresh air in all the time. And we choose products with low life-cycle costs to reduce the cost of future maintenance.”

One example of a holistically designed school is the 122,000-square-foot Colin Powell Middle School in Matteson, Ill. It was designed in 2005 as a series of V-shaped wings — one for each grade — that connect to a core that includes a band/choir room, learning resource center, cafetorium, practice gym and competition-size gym. Vujovic says that this design allows administrators to reduce energy costs by not cooling the entire school when just a fraction of it is used during the summer. Taking time to think through the design also resulted in the layout responding to solar patterns for additional energy savings.

Colin Powell has a multifunctional space in the cafetorium, which serves as a cafeteria, performance venue and interdisciplinary space for co-curricular activities. “If there’s a community meeting or business event in the school,” says Lembke, “the space can be rented to generate revenue.

From a mechanical perspective, segmenting the school so that evening activities are controlled separately from the classrooms results in great energy savings. Sometimes this comes with an additional first-time cost, but it’s worth comparing that cost to the cost of heating and conditioning the entire school through its lifetime.”

Both Thackery and Lembke highly recommend commissioning a new school to ensure it operates as designed from the outset. The benefit here is that it provides a base for operating and monitoring the facility throughout its life. “If costs go up and they’re not due to a rate increase,” says Thackery, “you can check to see what is malfunctioning and get it repaired. This is about reducing utility consumption.”

Reducing isn’t limited to new construction. To reduce energy consumption in existing schools, begin with analyzing how the facility works. Niles Township High School District 219, which serves more than 4,800 students from four Illinois communities, did some reducing at Niles West High School. “They delamped overlit corridors and added dimming to the corridor lights during class periods to reduce costs,” says Vujovic.

Another way to reduce is to purchase furnishings that boast long life cycles. This is reducing in that fewer products will be sent to the landfill through the school’s lifetime. “We design for extended use,” says Angela Nahikian, director of Sustainability for Steelcase Education Solutions, a global leader in furniture. “We’re designing with a lot of forward thinking in terms of how education is happening, but also with the intent to support the life of the furniture.” To that end, many of the company’s products have pieces and parts that can be changed out through time as opposed to replacing an entire product.

looking at the big picture, the term reuse can be applied to both renovating older schools and converting non-school facilities into places of learning (adaptive reuse). Who can argue with the sustainability to be garnered from such an endeavor?

Sometimes, however, a building has reached the end of its life cycle and it simply isn’t financially feasible to renovate. When this happens, some reuse can still occur, as Thackery explains: “One school has been vacant for many years, and it needs to come down. We have identified many components to be salvaged and turned over to the owner for the future.” Not only does this allow specific components to be reused, it also preserves school history and pride.

On a smaller scale, there are many creative ways to use materials designed for one application in other applications. For example, glass can be used as a dry erase surface. “Materials can be used in nontraditional ways to maximize the educational adequacy of a space,” says Lembke. “I have increasingly gained an appreciation for the role furnishings play, to the point where I can design a classroom 250 square feet smaller if administrators are willing to examine furniture that’s different from what they’re used to buying.” If this is the case, he recommends that, rather than buying according to budget or durability, you buy for flexibility, choosing furniture that is quickly changeable for collaboration and teacher circulation.

Natural elements, too, can be reused. For example, Franklin Monroe Middle/High School in Arcanum, Ohio, was designed by SHP to capture both rain and gray water, which is stored and used for the fire suppression system and toilet/urinal flushing.

the market for using recycled materials has changed in the last 10 years. “It used to be that you paid a premium for products made with recycled content or that are recyclable,” says Vujovic. “But prices have trickled down, so there’s no excuse not to specify more recyclable, regional and healthier materials right off the shelf. It’s simply a matter of understanding the specifications, educating the team and getting everyone on board with it.”

The experts at Steelcase agree, offering their Node chair as an example of a product that contains 16-percent recycled content and is 75-percent recyclable. “We are always looking to optimize a design to have the least amount of material and still provide a high-quality, robust product,” says General Manager Sean Corcorran. “I use the term intelligent design.”

At the construction site, many architects are employing LEED principles for recycling of demolition materials and new construction waste. “Contractors are finding it more effective to recycle than pay dump fees,” Thackery observes. “With a little encouragement, recycling has taken off in recent years.”

“The truth is, it’s local money that is spent to build and operate schools,” Thackery says. “And the community wants that money to be responsibly used.” There’s no better way to accomplish that than to employ the new three R’s — Reduce, Reuse and Recycle — in conjunction with the old three Rs — Reading, Writing and Arithmetic — in your next project.