Living Up to the Expectation?

When schools are designed and constructed according to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, and achieve Gold certification, there is an expectation they will produce energy savings in the future. The data from two Wisconsin schools that were built in 2006 and 2008 shows that reality can match expectations.

Beyond the prospect for energy savings, many school boards assume there will be additional costs associated with green buildings, including the LEED certification effort and the associated building materials and mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. They typically expect these items will add to the cost of planning, design and construction. The reality is that you can design and build a highly sustainable school at a lower cost than schools built using traditional design and construction methods.

Green reality #1: Lower construction costs

Northland Pines High School (NPHS) in Eagle River, Wisc., was completed in 2006 and was the first LEED Gold-certified public high school in the United States. The 250,000-square-foot facility was completed at a total project cost of $116 per square foot (all costs except land). The average regional construction cost in 2006 was $154 per square foot.

In 2008, River Crest Elementary in the Hudson School District became the first elementary school in Wisconsin, and the second public elementary school in the nation, to receive Gold under the LEED for Schools rating system. The 93,000-square-foot elementary school was completed at a total project cost of $166 per square foot (all costs except land). The average regional construction cost in 2008 was $223 per square foot.

Both schools were able to realize their vision for sustainability at noticeably lower first costs than typical for even conventional, non-LEED certified school projects. They are enjoying the benefits of having built with a smaller environmental footprint; having a healthier environment for teachers, students and staff; lower constructions costs; a greater connection to the community; and a facility that meets functional needs and is inspiring. But what about those expectations for lower energy bills?

Green reality #2: Lower energy expenses

At both NPHS and River Crest Elementary, the expectations were great that a high-performance, sustainable design would lead to energy cost savings. In reality, the results have met, and somewhat exceeded, expectations. Here’s what happened.

The Northland Pines School District, led by Dr. Mike Ritchie (2012 Superintendent of the Year – National Association of School Superintendents), aspired for high environmental standards. During the design phase, the “end goal” of their sustainable project became a goal of earning Silver certification. That aim was achieved and then the bar moved even higher — to Gold certification. “Our vision was to create a building that set a positive example of responsible sustainable design and construction,” Richie states. “We wanted solutions that provided a tangible learning tool to enhance our curriculum.”

NPHS’s energy modeling during the design stage anticipated electricity expenses of $165,773 per year. Actual expenses have averaged $117,710. And although natural gas expenses have proven to run roughly $25,000 more than modeled, the actual total energy expenses have been running approximately $23,000 less than anticipated. Additional evidence of its high performance comes in the way of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Energy Star rating estimate from the Energy Star Portfolio Manager. The Energy Star performance scale, which provides a useful benchmark for comparing schools to a national database, ranges from 1 to 100. A rating of 50 means average energy performance, while a rating of 75 and above means the facility is a top performer. Although the Northland Pines School District hasn’t submitted paperwork for formal designation, using the most recent data available, the Energy Star Portfolio Manager estimates an Energy Star rating of 81 for the high school.

River Crest Elementary School is a prime example of the power of combining vision, collaboration, sustainability, value to the taxpayers and a commitment to learning. Hudson School District Superintendent, Mary Bowen-Eggebraaten, encapsulates it well when she says, “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 model estimated more electricity usage and less natural gas use than actual performance. However, the total energy cost per year for the school has averaged $100,479, which is nearly $20,000 less than anticipated. Like Northland Pines, the Hudson School District has not submitted paperwork for formal designation for River Crest. However, using the most recent data, the Energy Star Portfolio Manager estimates an Energy Star rating of 92 for the elementary school.

The understanding gained and the process used by these two schools is fully transferable to your next design and construction project. Total Project Management: Vision Taken to the Power of Green (TPMg) is a form of integrated project delivery that offers cost-effective and efficient building solutions that are mindful of the environment while decreasing capital and long-term facility costs.

Process that produced these realities

Only in recent years has the construction industry begun to see the value of using an integrated process like what was used with these two schools. This process is beneficial for ensuring coordination and teamwork in the planning, design and construction activities. It takes advantage of the insights of all the team members, ensuring effective and efficient operation and cooperation. This methodology emphasizes brainstorming, communication, collaboration, planning and consensus building. With any construction or renovation project, it is vital to incorporate sustainability from concept through completion to ensure that a building’s owner receives a highly green solution that is affordable. In these two projects, LEED guidelines from the U.S. Green Building Council provided another layer of accountability and insight.

Begin with the end in mind

Critical decisions that will have a bearing for the life of the building start in the early planning phase. For example, how the building is positioned on the site will immediately impact environmental issues like storm water runoff, but also influence many upcoming decisions such as access, daylighting and landscaping. These resultant strategic decisions impact such key aspects as comfort, safety and energy consumption.

Energy modeling – informing design

The use of energy modeling has been growing, providing a very useful design tool. Energy modeling allows the team, including the school district, to grasp how energy will be used — and how it can be saved — in a proposed building. Computer simulations are used to estimate the operation of a school over the course of a year. This modeling guides design decisions for both new construction and renovations. The project team must contemplate, from early in the design process, the numerous variables that impact energy use, including daylighting, the selection of building orientation, form, insulation, wall and roof types, windows, lighting, HVAC systems and more.

The model can also be beneficial in evaluating subsequent energy performance using monitored data. When discrepancies are observed, the task of discovering the issues and corresponding corrections can begin. At times, simple items, such as controlling outside air supply during unoccupied periods or failing to manage lighting or IT loads, can have a remarkable influence on energy usage and accompanying expenses. Other culprits may involve energy gobblers, such as vending machines. If you do allow the use of vending machines in your school, be sure to require energy-efficient models.

An added benefit of simulations is to project future energy costs based on estimated energy use along with information on projected utility rates. This provides facility directors and district personnel with helpful information to present to key stakeholders and to influence their budgeting for the future.

Value trading for maximum benefit

Another vital aspect of the design process is to make the most of value trading. Value trading is the exercise of making design choices that add value and then “paying” for those items by altering or eliminating design elements that provide less benefit. This process improves the design and performance of the building while staying within budget.

An example of value trading existed with the HVAC system at NPHS. Modeling suggested that the chiller might be larger than required. After further simulations and conversations with the school district, the decision was reached that the larger chiller would be necessary only in extremely rare and unlikely circumstances. Furthermore, it was determined that the temperature might drift up a scant two degrees above an optimum temperature of 75 degrees in those situations. The choice was made to use a smaller chiller that would save initially and limit future demand charges from the utility provider. In seven years, the capacity of even the smaller chiller has yet to be tested. The school district used the savings for additional items of significant value that they could not have otherwise afforded.

Commissioning – receiving what you paid for

Commissioning is another tool in your toolbox to make sure you reap maximum benefits. Commissioning ensures that the design integrates all of the school district’s requirements that were established in the planning stages and that the construction of the school and operation of its electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems are consistent with the design. In effect, a third-party commissioning agent helps to ensure that a school district receives the greatest benefit for its investment.

Fine tuning – tweaking for full performance

With insightful commissioning and quality communication, project teams can collaborate with school districts to improve the performance of a facility, whether for a new or remodeled school, or even for existing buildings. An important aspect of bringing facilities to their upmost performance potential is the training and empowerment of facility managers and their staff. It is not surprising to see utility savings modestly increase over the first year or two of operation. This occurs as a facility’s staff — supported by their project
team — increases their understanding of the operation of their custom building and develops ways to save energy costs. NPHS developed an innovative approach to save in hallway lighting, and River Crest Elementary developed new guidelines for IT that saved power and was adopted throughout the district.

When it comes to your next design and construction or renovation project, set your expectations on saving money with lower first costs and lower ongoing utility expenses. Then, utilize this process to make it a reality, enjoying the many benefits for years to come!   

Todd Bushmaker, LEED-AP, is a Project Architect at Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction, Inc., in Appleton, Wisc. Bushmaker is a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Wisconsin Green Building Alliance (WGBA) Green Schools Committee.