Five Smart Steps to Integrate Sustainable Design into the Curriculum – That Work Over the Long Haul

Every school construction or renovation project is an opportunity to make the world a better place. While this potential applies to all architectural endeavors, it is an especially critical opportunity for school design, because the students - our ultimate clients – may carry the impacts of a vibrant, educationally effective and sustainable school environment into the future in an essentially meaningful way. Sometimes, though, despite the architect's best intentions for sustainability, including the creation of opportunities for the building and grounds to serve as teaching tools, the potential is not met. Once the ribbon has been cut and the designers and contractors have left, the best intentions may only marginally meet their targets.

Here are five ways to push the design and curriculum toward greater sustainability, and to ensure that the innovations and best intentions bear fruit over the long haul:

1. Map, and then exploit, resources: Prior to the first planning meeting for a school project, take stock of (or map out) the "givens," starting at the top: look at state standards; then look up school board policy to see what framework (if any) has been set for environmental awareness and sustainability in the curriculum. If there is a clear, strong message in support of sustainability, build on it, starting with discussions during the development of the educational specifications, and continue that topic as a theme as the design moves forward.

  • Look at the site for outdoor classroom opportunities. Look at the existing school for programs or features you can build upon.
  • Look for important site features to preserve and emphasize them in the design.
  • If resources are lacking, link school district staff to some of the many external resources for educators, such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Center for Green Schools or the Global Oneness Project to name just three.

If your project is to be LEED-certified, the link to curriculum is required – but a truly integrated program is essential to its sustainability.

2. Find champions: As the school planning committee is assembled, look for champions for environmental awareness and curricular linkages. Ideally, there is a principal in place and a solid team of educators who understand and advocate for sustainable design and its integration into the curriculum. Often a science specialist, or a particularly committed and inspired teacher may rise to move the program forward. Sometimes champions appear where you least expect them. At one school, the custodian was a champion for sustainable design, helping the school to get grants and maintaining the sustainable features after occupancy with great care and aplomb. This leadership provided a double-bonus, because having the maintenance and operations staff on board is essential to the success of any innovative building features.

3. Get the students involved: Invite a class to take part in the design. At one school, students in an art class held a competition to design a medallion for their school, with an environmental theme. The winner was selected by staff at the school system, and the design was laser-cut into the floor. Student engagement builds stewardship for the learning environment.

4. Make it Local: From the onset, it is critical to tie the design concepts to the locality. Design concepts and design features that are multi-valent, holding layers of meaning and reinforcing a sense of place, will have greater relevance and better stand the test of time. At one school, major hallways and their adjacent resource areas were named for and designed to reflect different area habitats. This reinforced local geography, wildlife, climate, and other aspects of the curriculum and fostered project-based learning.

5. Tell a story: Work with the school's stakeholder team to find the 'big ideas' that will add meaning to the design concepts. Build a coherent narrative that connects the educational goals for the school to the design in ways that are both explicit and subtle, aiming towards a unified approach. Allow the stakeholders to help shape the narrative so that, when all is said and done, it is their story.

All five methods share in common the linking of the creative design phase to the dynamic occupancy phase, creating a continuous thread through the project and into the operations of the school. This creates a virtual framework – embedding the commitment to sustainability not just into the bricks and mortar, but within the community as well.

About the Author

Sarah Woodhead, AIA, NCARB, is a Principal with the DLR Group