Sustainable Schools

Think Differently

sustainable school operations


Making the most of existing resources is a central tenet of sustainability. For school facility managers across the country, stretching resources to their limit is also an absolute necessity. According to a 2016 study by The 21st Century School Fund, our nation’s public schools face an $8-billion funding shortfall for annual operations and maintenance. In this environment, how do you position your buildings and staff for long-term success? The answer starts with making smart decisions during capital improvement projects.

Think Differently

In many states, capital improvement projects have a different funding source than maintenance and operating budgets. So it is important to leverage capital project funds to reduce operating expenses down the road. This starts by taking a holistic approach to evaluating return on investment.

For example, replacing fluorescent lights with LED lights yields a poor payback when looking at simple energy costs. But once you add in the savings from reduced maintenance activities, including lift rental or contractor costs, the investment becomes more appealing. Now look at the efficiencies gained by avoiding the long lead times for fluorescent bulbs (now up to six months), and you begin to uncover a compelling case for LEDs.

To think differently, you must take a collaborative approach to planning and design. Make sure to involve maintenance and operations staff in design conversations during capital improvement projects. Discuss current maintenance activities and identify activities you would like to reduce or eliminate in the future. These conversations often lead to a focus on the upkeep of flooring systems. Carpet tile is especially popular right now because it is virtually maintenance free, except for regular vacuuming.

Expanding the number of stakeholders leads to many creative solutions. At one new middle school, the client requested a large format (24 inches x 48 inches) porcelain tile to reduce the time and expense of regrouting in future years. Many districts are moving to epoxy paint in all spaces. The durable paint allows staff to simply wipe down wall surfaces. The time spent repainting is eliminated, and the result is lower operating costs without a sacrifice in environmental quality.

Look Ahead

When designing for long-term value, don’t just look at the project in front of you. Talk about how your operations and maintenance staff will be evolving. Also discuss your district’s vision for education. Then target your capital project investments where they will make the biggest impact in the future.

For example, many schools do not think about the additional maintenance costs associated with 21st-century learning environments. Mobile furniture costs more over the long term. Casters on desks, tables and chairs are the first things to break down, and must be fixed or replaced. The same goes for cylinders on adjustable-height furniture. To reduce long-term costs, many schools are careful about where they invest in mobility. Which items need to be instantly reconfigurable? Which can be more fixed, thereby reducing future maintenance expenses? The answers to these questions should play a role in guiding your capital project decisions.

Because capital projects are the primary driver of building improvements, make sure to be opportunistic when funds are available. A singleclassroom LED retrofit costs between $5,000 and $6,000. This is well beyond the capacity of most maintenance and operations budgets. So when you have the opportunity, pull the trigger on lighting upgrades. Energy code changes are quickly making all fluorescent lights obsolete. If capital project funds provide the opportunity, make the leap to LEDs and eliminate the cost of multiple lighting system retrofits.

Identify Opportunities

Opportunity cost is an often-overlooked aspect of design. Imagine for a moment that you make the decision to move from fluorescent lights to LEDs. You not only reduce energy and maintenance expenses, you also eliminate the need to store a multitude of lamps and ballasts. What could you do with this extra space? What could it become, and what is the value of that opportunity?

The analysis of opportunity costs is just one aspect of a future-ready and sustainable operations plan. The ability to do more with less begins during the design of capital projects. Make the right choices, and you can stretch your dollars for years to come.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Authors

Brandon Biniker is an interior designer in the Dublin, Ohio office of Fanning Howey, a national leader in the planning and design of learning environments.

Dillon Mitchell, PE, LEED-GA, [email protected], is Electrical Engineering Discipline director for Fanning Howey.