Facilities (Learning Spaces)

Healthy Buildings

Healthy School Buildings


In February, SP&M’s 20th Annual School Construction Report noted that of the $14 billion in school construction during 2014, $6.3 billion of the total (45 percent) was spent to enlarge and upgrade existing buildings, roughly half of that for retrofitting and modernization. The report, which also announced a fourth consecutive year of school construction growth, followed the October release of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s first ever Energy Savings Plus Health guide, subtitled Indoor Air Quality Guidelines for School Building Upgrades.

Many districts beginning to address an estimated $271 billion in deferred maintenance nationwide are updating HVAC and other energy-consuming systems to realize savings that can carve out breathing spaces in their operating budgets.

Although EPA is pleased with district moves to shrink their carbon footprints, Energy Savings Plus Health urges them not to kick toxic dust into the lungs of students, teachers, staff and administrators in the process. Says the guide: “Energy management activities can disturb hazardous materials, such as asbestos, lead and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); create dust; introduce new contaminants and contaminant pathways; create or aggravate moisture problems; and result in inadequate ventilation in occupied spaces.”

Energy Savings Plus Health is, in one sense, a guide to avoiding construction-related air quality problems, both on energy savings and other projects. At the same time, it’s an effort to encourage schools to enter the wider world of IAQ by integrating IAQ improvements into their building upgrades with an eye toward establishing ongoing IAQ programs.

A practical tool

The publication’s practical bent makes it a solid primer to the hands-on world of IAQ. On page 6, the reader arrives at Table 1.1, an 11-page list of a wide range of typical school renovation or retooling projects, small and large. Projects addressed include lighting upgrades, building envelope work, HVAC improvements, materials selections and operation and maintenance. For each are, the 125-page guide discusses potential pitfalls, pluses and opportunities from an IAQ perspective.

IAQ management


Healthier, happier occupants. The elements of indoor pollution can contribute to the growth of mold in schools, and its presence in the air is one of the causes of student absences. Facilities like Annie Heads Rainwater Elementary School, in Carrollton, Texas, operates from the district’s approach that while it might be cheaper to cut systems back further in the summer, setting the ambient temperature in its buildings to keep humidity levels down will help protect student health, reduce absences and support the school’s ultimate mission.

An example, found on page 7, is for projects to repair and seal cracked concrete floors.

The table lists the projects’ potential IAQ/Health Risks, among them:

Disturbing hazardous materials once commonly used in construction (asbestos, lead paint and PCBs), along with naturally occurring mold.

That while sealing out some hazards, a tighter building envelope may also effectively seal in contaminants like radon, combustion fumes, moisture, mold and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from other building sources.

To counter these potential dangers, the guide recommends increasing the building’s overall ventilation to reduce concentrations of contaminants; reducing the improvement project’s potential for introducing new contaminants by using sealers and paints that don’t emit suspect chemicals; and perhaps even expanding envisioned projects to seal mold, pests, radon and other pollutants out of the total building envelope.

Table 1.1’s final column puts the sealing project in the larger context of IAQ by relating it with 15 of the 23 indoor-air-quality issues the guide explores.

Energy Savings Plus Health then addresses all 23 of those issues, offers administrators tips on how to assess building problems related to them, and recommends minimum and expanded actions that can be taken to address them. That section combines buyer-beware advice for schools drawing up bid specifications and flags EPA and other regulations that may apply.

After appendices, the guide also provides a master checklist corresponding with its recommendations, a more than helpful took for newcomers or veterans of IAQ projects.

The arguments for IAQ

The Centers for Disease Control reports that 47 percent of the nation’s schools have IAQ programs and that 82 percent of those were built with the help of the EPA’s IAQ Tools for Schools program.

Tools for Schools recommends that schools focus on six technical solutions: Quality HVAC; control of moisture and mold; Integrated Pest Management (IAP); effective cleaning and maintenance; smart materials selection; aggressive steps to manage the sources of indoor pollution when they’re discovered; and an integrated energy management program that takes IAQ as well as energy cost savings into account.

The program and related webinars were developed in conjunction with the School Health and Indoor Environments Leadership Development (SHIELD) Network, a coalition of school, health, environmental and green energy groups.

In a section titled “The Business Case for Integrating Energy Efficiency and IAQ,” Energy Savings Plus Health argues that, in
addition to advancing the priority of student and teacher health, which presumably would support better school attendance and with it student achievement, many districts have a financial incentive to improve air quality.

Because funding provided to local schools from state government and other sources often is based on attendance rates, taking steps like increasing school ventilation, which is tied to better health and achievement, “may increase school district income.”

In the webinar “Making the Case for Environmental Health, Academic Performance and High Performance Testing,” more tentative claims are made about the long-term detriments of exposure to common air contaminants targeted by IAQ programs.

The EPA and IAQ advocates also provide a reminder that children and many women teachers and staff generally are acknowledged to be more vulnerable a wide range of chemical and biological health risks.

IAQ and asthma

As research continues, asthma is the condition most likely to advance the cause of IAQ. Students and staff with asthma are those most obviously at risk to IAQ problems that can lead to absences and put them at risk for achievement problems and districts at risk for losing funding from sources that use attendance as a criteria.

In one of the EPA’s 10 free Master Class IAQ webinars, Diane Rhodes, director of environmental health, Northeast Independent School District, Ga., estimated that the eight average days lost by the more than 8,000 students with asthma, who represent nearly 12 percent of the district population, represented a potential $2 million potential revenue loss to the district.

She says that if the district were able to reduce by one day those average absences, it could realize nearly $258,000 in additional state funding.

To track the connection between asthma students and school air quality, the district had nurses keep track of unscheduled uses of inhalers, which require them to report to the school nurse.

The approach the district took was to concentrate on essentially the same elements suggested in the IAQ’s Technical Solutions framework, and the results during the same six-week period in August to September year to year were a nearly 50-percent drop in the number of student trips to the school nurse for the unplanned use of inhalers.

Breaking the mold

Although Rhodes said each of the elements of indoor pollution contribute to reaching the threshold level for symptoms, humidity control, which most in the field equate with controlling the growth of mold in schools and its presence in the air, is considered one of the major players.

Many in the field connect air quality problems and absences at the beginning of the school year and after school breaks to schools shutting down or significantly cutting back their HVAC systems, a practice that typically allows building humidity to rise. This, in turn, fosters the growth of mold, which then is blown through the buildings when HVAC systems come back on line.

Victor Melton, environmental and energy manager of the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District, Texas, says that while it might be cheaper to cut systems back further in the summer, his district sets the ambient temperature in its buildings enough that it can continue to keep humidity levels down “so we that we don’t have to pay for it later when school starts up.”

IAQ proponents argue that the need to protect student health, reduce absences and support the school’s ultimate mission requires the approach Melton advocates.

Two-sided coins

On the other hand, the potential of efficient HVAC systems to save energy and money and provide relief to tight school budgets is also clearly a part of a balancing act.

Rob Martin, associate category manager for Kimberly Clark Filtration Products says air filtration has come a long way since the time it was devoted “entirely to protect the building” and “had nothing to do with protecting the people inside of them.”

Denser filters (some with special treatments designed to attract particulates) are now capable of trapping larger mold spores and pollens and other irritants, he says. However, blowing air through denser filters needed to pick up finer particles requires more energy and leads to higher operating costs.

Another issue in the IAQ equation in the era of greater energy efficiency is the tighter building envelope. On the plus side, a tighter more air-tight envelope more clearly defines the HVAC needs, allowing designers to size the system to meet those needs with the greatest efficiency. As noted in the earlier reference to building sealing projects, tighter building envelopes also can help keep mold, pests, radon and other threats out of the building.

IAQ management


On the other hand, should radon infiltrate, pests appear, or bacteria grow, the contaminants they produce are more likely to remain inside the envelope and circulate through the air. And the same is true of any harmful chemicals that might be used inn furnishing or maintaining the school.

Fighting intruders

That dynamic is the reason EPA’s Technical Solutions recommend that schools gear up to respond immediately to pest, moisture and other issues that arise and ban cleaning materials, caulking, furniture or any other substances that emit contaminants from the building.

In EPA webinars, personnel from IAQ model programs mention many specific policies and practices to act quickly to remove unwanted intruders from the school environment.

Polices include preventing buses from idling near fresh air intake points; using vacuums with HEPA filters so dust is trapped rather than redistributed in the air; and barring harmful chemicals by using independently certified green products.

Practices include immediately reporting and responding to problems; continual training and recognition to promote vigilance among staff; and underscoring changing the culture of schools both so that those who care for the physical plant also clearly connect what they do with the school’s ultimate mission of boosting student achievement.

To address the behavioral aspect of IAQ, the EPA has designed framework with six “key drivers” it identifies as “essential elements” of IAQ management: Organize for success; Communicate with everyone, all the time; Assess your environments continuously; Plan your short-and long-term activities; Act to address structural, institutional and behavioral issues; and Evaluate your result for continuous improvement.

To sustain the kind of drive the drivers aspire to clearly requires administrative time and energy.

In describing his experience at the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District, Melton succinctly spelled out the kind of administrative challenge a robust IAQ program presents.

“It’s not been difficult or even costly,” he said, “but it requires constant attention.

“Energy Savings Plus Health” can be downloaded at www.epa.gov/iaq/schools/energy_savings_plus_health.html.

The following links provide additional EPA information about IAQ


This article originally appeared in the issue of .