School Climate & Safety

Building Harmony

By Joetta L. Sack — November 06, 2002 11 min read
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Advocates of ‘sustainable schools’ argue that higher upfront costs lead to savings over the long haul.

To the upper-middle-class community it serves, Clackamas High School is simply a brand-new, aesthetically pleasing campus with open courtyards, expansive windows, and light-hued brick walls.

From an architect’s standpoint, the building is just short of revolutionary. It is a prime example of “sustainable” architecture—buildings that use natural resources to their advantage and have a minimal adverse impact on the environment.

And to district officials, it’s a potential fiscal lifesaver. The design is expected to save the Clackamas school district thousands of dollars in annual operating costs because it uses low-energy lighting systems, maintenance-free materials, and outside air to ventilate the building.

Students and sunlight pour through the two-story entryway of Clackamas High School.
—James W. Prichard

Architects, facility planners, and government agencies are promoting such sustainable schools nationwide. The potential savings in cost and environmental effects are enormous, they say. But schools such as Clackamas High are far from the norm in an industry that often turns to off-the-shelf plans for building new schools. On the other hand, Clackamas is not the most extreme example of the “sustainable” approach; schools elsewhere harness Mother Nature by using windmills, large solar panels, or systems to collect and reuse rainwater. Some are even built partially underground.

But what Clackamas High shows is that such a building can be constructed within normal budget constraints. The cost to build Clackamas was about $29 million, slightly less than the average cost of new high schools in the Northwest.

In the 15,400-student Clackamas district, just southeast of downtown Portland, Superintendent Ron Naso says he and his colleagues were fairly skeptical of the design and the whole concept of sustainability. But they had worked with Heinz K. Rudolf, the school’s architect and a principal with BOORA Architects Inc. in Portland, on other projects and trusted him. Today, they’re thrilled with the final product, which opened in April with 1,700 students.

“I wish I could say that a progressive administration and a gung-ho community came up with this plan, but it was the architect,” Naso says.

Nestled in a valley with impressive views of Mount Hood, Clackamas High was carefully situated to take advantage of sunlight and wind patterns. Rudolf and his team conducted extensive site tests to determine if there would be enough daylight to rely on natural sources for light and rather than electric bulbs. Even in the rainy months, there is, he says.

Inside the school’s spacious courtyard, small trees are strategically planted to someday provide a canopy of shade. The courtyard is the first sign that this school is different. Pass through the two sets of doors in the vestibule, and the two-story entryway is flooded with light from floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides.

The school, which looks out at Mount Hood, is designed to let in as much natural light as possible.
—James W. Prichard

The core of the design is its fundamental simplicity: Spaces lack much ornamentation or detail that needs maintenance, or that would detract from the natural beauty of the materials used to build the school.

The gleaming linoleum floors are expected to last up to 80 years and to need little maintenance, unlike the common vinyl flooring found in most schools. Carpet, which doesn’t last nearly as long and creates dust when vacuumed, is used only in offices and the library. The school’s main staircase boasts steps of terrazzo, which is a long-lasting combination of polished marble set in cement.

A large, curved brick wall leads visitors to the main office. The brick, too, was a deliberate decision because it lasts indefinitely and requires no paint or other maintenance. Brick and concrete block were used for walls in other parts of the building, such as the gyms and the theater, to avoid the need for painting and maintenance.

Justin Parcher, 14, prepares for his global science class at Clackamas High. In the back of the classroom, a shelf extends from the window to reflect more natural light into the room. Take a closer look at a Clackamas classroom.
—James W. Prichard

And the gym floor is made of lesser-grade wood that would have been discarded otherwise. The thick pieces of wood, however, are suited for long-term use because they can be sanded and refinished several times.

The second-floor hallway is flooded with light from overhead skylights. The light doesn’t stop at the hallway, though—there are windows above the lockers that allow the light to pass into classrooms. Round, mirrored solar tubes channel the light down to the first-floor halls. Lockers, hallways, and classrooms throughout the school are painted white to brighten the spaces.

In the classrooms, the ceilings slope downward to further reflect light from the hallway windows and the large windows looking outside, some of which have light shelves to further reflect the light. The classrooms have no fluorescent light bulbs, but have two rows of T-5 low-voltage bulbs that may or may not be needed throughout the day. The school’s lighting is controlled by a main computer, which monitors the activity and outside light in each classroom, and adjusts lighting accordingly.

But perhaps what’s most remarkable about the building is barely noticeable—underneath the windows are air vents that pull in outside air. Though the vents seem to contribute barely any air when they are open, they in fact circulate enough air to thoroughly ventilate the school and take the place of traditional heating and air-conditioning systems. The school also has a fan coil heating system in the ceiling to use when temperatures dip below 40 degrees. In the winter months, average temperatures in these parts range from a low of about 34 degrees up to a high of about 52 degrees.

Clackamas High’s design is expected to save the district about 44 percent, or $77,000 on its utility bills this school year. Naso says that’s a significant amount at a time when electricity costs in the West have been rapidly increasing.

“You can’t afford not to do it,” says Ronald A. Fanning, an architect who specializes in sustainable school design and is the chairman of the board of Fanning, Howey and Associates, a national architecture firm based in Celina, Ohio. “It will repay itself in a very short amount of time.”

There’s no universal definition of sustainable schools, which are also known as “green” or “high performance” to those in the school design business. But just about everyone agrees such a facility must take significant energy-conservation measures and use recyclable, local, and environmentally friendly materials. And it has to be built to handle many years of wear and tear by students.

Recent reports on poor indoor-air quality in schools and rising energy costs have given sustainable schools more respect and attention. (“EPA Pushing Improved Air Quality in Schools,” May 1, 2002.)

Heinz K. Rudolf, a Portland, Ore., architect, overcame the skepticism of school officials to design Clackamas High, which opened in April.
—James W. Prichard

Still, many school administrators have never heard of or know little about the concept.

“There’s a growing interest in it, to be sure, but it’s still in its infancy,” says Thomas A. Kube, the executive director of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, based in Scottsdale, Ariz. “There aren’t a lot of models, but we’re certainly trying to change that.”

Merging facility needs with environmental assets is not a new idea, though. Strategies to use daylight and natural ventilation can be traced back to such landmarks as the Pantheon, Rudolf says. In recent decades, architects have built schools partially underground, or into earth berms to keep inside temperatures constant. The use of solar panels, skylights, and energy-saving fixtures in schools is widespread, though such features alone do not make a school sustainable.

Clackamas High could have been one of the earliest examples of a schoolwide sustainable design. The district’s original plans called for building the school in the mid-1990s, but the district had financial problems and had to shelve the plans. Construction problems also delayed its debut for several months last year. But when the 275,000-square-foot structure opened last spring, it remained a groundbreaking design.

In addition to the potential environmental and fiscal benefits, studies have shown that elements of sustainable buildings can have positive effects on students’ health and learning. For instance, classroom illumination by natural daylight, instead of the common fluorescent lighting, has been linked to improved academic achievement and health.

And using outside air to ventilate classrooms—rather than recirculating air—can significantly help the quality of indoor air, and in turn stave off asthma attacks and other respiratory problems in students and staff members.

The second-floor hallways are illuminated naturally and provide sunlight to the halls beneath through mirrored tubes above the lockers. See how the design lets sunlight in.
—James W. Prichard

The downside for districts—notwithstanding the moderate price tag for Clackamas High—is that planning and construction usually costs more, depending on the architectural features of the school and the regional construction costs.

Requisite site studies add about 2 percent to the cost of a project, and the architectural-design fees can run much higher. And at a time when most school districts are using cookie-cutter plans and face shrinking budgets, most school leaders would likely say an innovative facility simply is not affordable.

It will take better public relations, some proponents of sustainable design say, to change such attitudes and focus on the long-term savings. “With all the cost issues we are faced with now, [districts] are starting to get creative and open minds,” says Dennis Randolph, the president of the National School Plant Management Association in Lexington, Ky.

Some of the highest marks for sustainable schools don’t come from the accountants.

Most of the staff and students at Clackamas High are thrilled to have their new school, which is a stark contrast to their former site: a dark, crowded facility that was considered state-of-the-art when it was built in the late 1950s.

“Even on cloudy, rainy days, it’s much brighter than other schools,” says Nathan Stanley, a social studies teacher.

Sophomore Cam Milroy, 16, likes to watch rain from the large windows. “And the energy conservation is a nice addition,” he says.

Krit Petty, 17, collects data on the wetlands surrounding Clackamas High as part of his honors ecology class. The school has three years’ worth of student-collected information, which is used to better maintain the area.
—James W. Prichard

John Phan, a 14-year-old freshman, agrees. He believes the use of natural energy sources, particularly in the lighting, has helped instill those values into his peers. “This would be considered my dream school,” Phan says. “The building is just magnificent.”

But living day to day in a sustainable school takes some adjusting to, and can certainly have its trials. Some students and staff members complain that the lights are too dim, that the school was too cold in the spring, and that the computerized systems sometimes haven’t worked properly.

Most mishaps seemed to occur with the computerized lighting system, which is designed to sense when individuals are in rooms, and then turn off lights when they leave.

It worked a little too perfectly when the school held its first dance this fall— in a brightly lighted gym, because administrators didn’t know how to dim the lights.

“The kids didn’t believe me—they were driving me nuts,” says Principal Dean Winder.

Architect Rudolf, visiting the building on a sunny September day, found several hallway and classroom lights turned on unnecessarily. He says many teachers and students get used to bright fluorescent lights and have a hard time adjusting to the slightly dimmer lights used by sustainable schools.

Rudolf’s staff held training sessions with the school staff on the new facility. Overall, though, keeping school personnel aware of the elements of sustainable buildings—and their role in that environment—is difficult because of staff turnover.

Winder adds that he still hears some grumbling.

“We’ve never been in a high school that didn’t have windows to open or lights to turn off,” he says. “If you’re not used to that, you’re thinking, ‘There’s something messed up here.’ ”

And while the spaciousness of the school and the volume of its ceilings are welcome features, some teachers say they feel the school is rather sterile.

But the school is clearly drawing a lot of positive reactions, both from the Clackamas High community and the building’s many visitors. Dozens of administrators and architects from throughout the Northwest have called to tour the school. “Everyone we talk to is extremely complimentary of the building,” Superintendent Naso says.

Rudolf, meanwhile, suggests that the building could teach staff members and students to look at ways of incorporating “sustainability” into other areas of their lives.

“It’s a changing culture,” he says. “The ideas are there; the user just has to use them.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Building Harmony


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