Sustaining a Sustainable Building: The Keys to Operational Success

Best practices in sustainability have an effect that goes beyond energy savings and can even help measurably improve outcomes for students.


Rendering credit: HMFH Architects

Sustainable design is increasingly integral to every successful school design. Spurred on by environmentally conscious communities, adoption of “stretch” building codes and the rapid evolution of building technology, opportunities to achieve sustainability’s full potential increase on every project.

While resources and experts on sustainability planning are abundant, the challenge for school administrators is how to advance well intentioned goals into measurable results. Fortunately, a set of emerging best practices offer administrators the practical, operational guidance needed to turn projections to tangible results.

In applying these practices, we know that our efforts are making a difference because we can measure reduced energy and operational costs, see lower absenteeism rates and even measure positive impacts on student performance.


For this process to be successful, there are many important steps that need to happen. From the beginning of conceptual design and visioning and continuing through the design evolution, input from district administrators, teachers and facility staff forms the foundation for success.

Typically, the crucial time for owner involvement in operations is at the completion of the project. Yet too little attention is given to the process of planning for and turning over a new high-performance school to the administrators, facilities staff and occupants. Without a clear and user-integrated process, owners are left with more questions than answers. How do these complex control systems work? Can we override the scheduled systems when there is a community event in the evening? Successful planning, as well as operation, is critical to ensuring that a high-performance building actually meets the highperformance goals to which it was designed.


To assure operational success, it is critical to establish, early on, the project qualities that will meet client and occupant needs and expectations. This begins with visioning, goal setting and sustainability charrettes which establish guidelines to inform decisions made for the entirety of the design process.

Workshops with the engineers, architects, teachers, parents, students, members of the school building committee, building managers and community stakeholders inform decisions about both the unique character of the learning environment and site and help define the community’s vision for the new school. Participants consider the qualities of a space that will optimize natural light and views, thermal comfort, good acoustics and indoor air quality and promote physical activity. In addition, options for achieving water conservation, energy efficiency and climate resiliency are discussed at the building and site level.

During this early phase, it is critical to engage the facilities staff to understand how occupants intend to use the school, both during regular school hours and off-hours. Will community events be held regularly? What about before or after school programs? Summer use? It is only with this crucial knowledge that the design team can accurately model the design to ensure its high performance.


Photo credit: Ed Wonsek

A training manual created by HMFH Architects for teachers at the Carver Elementary School outlines how the controls and systems in each classroom and in the building work.


Once the sustainability goals have been established, it is important to make the critical early design decisions that can reduce energy requirements and simplify operational requirements. Passive strategies — the massing and orientation of a building, for example — can reduce the required size and complexity of building systems. Orienting the building with north- and south-facing windows and employing appropriate strategies to optimize good daylighting and control glare can help minimize heating/cooling loads as well as energy consumption from artificial lighting.

Another decision that has substantial impact on the needed size and complexity of MEP systems is the design of the building envelope. Simplifying the massing of a building can reduce the number of mechanical system zones required and reduce operational complexity. When glazing is used strategically to have the greatest design impact and provide high levels of insulation, and when high-performance windows and exterior shading are employed, the design can minimize the required energy needed to heat and cool the building.

For the design of the Fales Elementary School in Westborough, MA, a project targeting net positive energy design, early iterative analyses allowed the design team to understand the implications of changes in the building’s positioning and exterior geometry. Adjustments to the orientation, slope and angles of the “sawtooth” roof design optimized both the predicted generation from rooftop PV cells and daylighting through skylights. When building design supports simplicity and repetition within systems, it reduces complexity and the size of MEP systems. These improvements then allow the budget to go further, giving the community the greatest impact on their investment.


Simulation tools allow the team to further test system designs to help ensure that they will perform as expected and as designed. Whether the energy modeling is done by the architect or a third-party consultant, the crucial consideration is that a thorough use of these simulation tools happens early in the design process. Energy modeling will inform big-picture decisions like the orientation of the building or focus in on details like the effect of adding an extra inch of roof insulation on the heating load of the mechanical system. In addition to energy modeling, we frequently use DIVA, a software tool that allows us to look at daylight autonomy, which is the percent of the time a space hits a determined natural light level.


Photo credit: Ed Wonsek

Carver Elementary School library.


Keeping the building manager and staff informed of the process, and of key design decisions as they are made, builds both understanding and buy-in from the individuals who will ultimately operate the systems. Helping to set and adjust expectations of these users can have just as large an impact on the efficiency of the systems as designing a tight building envelope. Establishing whether specific and limited spaces need to be air-conditioned instead of the whole building, or whether a central kitchenette will meet staff needs instead of individual setups in each classroom are examples of decisions that have rippling effects on the plug loads, and mechanical system sizing.

In addition, each high-performance building system needs to be commissioned upon completion to assure that all the building’s systems and controls are fully installed and functional as designed. Commissioning will also help “tune” the building to its actual use patterns. Once the building is operating as intended to meet the energy design goals, the benefits for the building owner and facilities managers will be reduced energy costs and maintenance, longer life cycles for systems, and comfortable environments for staff and student. Together, these benefits translate into higher performance for the building and its young learners.

Some municipalities are opting for extended commissioning of their new facilities to ensure systems continue to operate as designed and continue to be as efficient as possible. This can lead to sequential reduction in energy usage year after year in the initial time of operation for a new facility as systems are tuned to the highest levels possible.


One of the most significant factors in achieving operational success is ensuring that the occupants and users of the building know how the building works. Training for facilities staff and occupants is essential to take full advantage of the technological tools and create synergies between systems. After the school opened last September, each teacher at the Carver Elementary School, which will be certified by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools as a NE-CHPS Verified school, was given a manual outlining how the building works. The user-friendly manual covers every aspect from automatic daylight dimming and occupancy sensors within their classroom to the building’s mechanical ventilation system, which brings in dehumidified fresh air from outside.

“The Teachers Training Manual developed by HMFH Architects provided our teachers with key understandings on the operation of the systems in the entire school and their classrooms. Armed with this information, teachers can make the environmental systems support good teaching and learning practices,” said Scott Knief, Carver Public Schools Superintendent. He noted that teachers are particularly pleased with the lighting and dehumidification systems.


After the school is built and occupied, employing post-occupancy tools is a good way to engage students in understanding the operations and systems of their school building and to encourage stewardship of the environment. We have recently used the USGBC’s sustainability performance platform, ARC, to develop curricular opportunities with schools under the LEED certification program. “ARC is an online platform that helps schools track and benchmark their water use, energy use, waste, occupant experience and transportation to their building,” noted Anisa Heming from the Center for Green Schools at USGBC who is working to bring this tool to more municipalities.

Online tools such as ARC, or built-in displays in a school’s communal areas, empower students to be cognizant of their impact on the world around them. At the Coolidge Corner School in Brookline, a sustainability dashboard at the school’s main entry displays energy and water use data and other facts about the school’s sustainable design. These types of tools offer real-time access to building data and allow students and facilities staff to quantify how changes in systems operations impact actual performance. When they can see metrics and understand their impact, students and teachers become active participants in the optimization of a building’s performance.

Occupants and managers of the building must be empowered with the right tools after architects “hand over the keys.” Only then does it become possible to sustain the levels of sustainability to which the building was designed.

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management September 2019 issue of Spaces4Learning.