Special Report
School Climate & Safety

Energy Efficiency Is Built Into the Mission at ‘Green Schools’

Designs aim to save money while boosting climate for students, staff
By Robin L. Flanigan — November 28, 2017 9 min read
Solar panels can be seen from classroom windows at Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, Va.
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While it was still in the design stage, plans for Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, Va., included making it the largest zero-energy elementary school in the country—meaning it produced as much energy as it used—and the first in the mid-Atlantic region.

The school not only accomplished those goals under budget, it generated more clean energy than it used in 2016, making it what’s known as a “net-positive” building that feeds electricity back into the local grid.

So-called “green schools” like Discovery can save money, protect the environment, and positively impact student performance and health, say advocates, educators, and architects with experience in school construction. But districts and schools must consider both design and long-term operation and maintenance of a building in order to create a truly sustainable facility.

“If you’re spending money on resources but aren’t being smart and strategic about how you’re using them, you wind up being wasteful,” said Anisa Heming, the director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, which developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system to evaluate a building’s environmental performance.

There are 1,883 LEED-certified K-12 schools in the U.S., including approximately 30 net-zero energy schools. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich last month recognized the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission for surpassing 300 LEED-certified K-12 schools in the state—well ahead of second-place California’s 148. The recognition followed a long process for the facilities commission, which first mandated the use of environmentally friendly design techniques in state-funded K-12 projects in 2007.

“There has been a great deal of natural interest in these concepts from our state’s architectural community, which has made our implementation of these design elements a lot easier than one might expect,” said Rick Savors, a spokesman for the commission.

Other states that have emerged as leaders in the green-school movement include Texas, despite its hot climate, and Kentucky, which has both bipartisan leadership around energy efficiency and a history of using federal stimulus money to incentivize schools to become more energy efficient.

Discovery Elementary embodies many of the factors that go into a green school. Toured by educators from as far away as South Korea and Uganda, the school is on track to earn LEED Platinum certification, the highest rating. It has already earned the 2017 American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment Top Ten Award.

The school, which serves 630 students in pre-K through 5th grade is built into a fairly steep incline on a site determined decades ago as unusable for school construction. The 97,588-square-foot building is terraced into a south-facing hill, orienting it for solar generation and a geothermal system. It also met its residential neighborhood’s goals for scale, and the community’s goals for preserving flat, open recreational space.

Discovery’s 1,706 photovoltaic rooftop solar panels are angled to maximize sunlight without overtaxing the HVAC system—a difficult balance to strike.

The amount of energy cost-savings the school saw in 2015-16 equaled the salaries of two full-time teachers.

Among the $33.5 million school’s other green features: Walls are constructed with 3,000 linear feet of insulated concrete forms, which combine insulation, energy efficiency, strength, and noise reduction. The cafeteria uses solar-heated water and serves some fruits and vegetables grown in the school’s garden, which uses graywater runoff from natural rainwater collected from roof surfaces.

In addition, motion detectors and occupancy sensors are linked to residential-sized heating, cooling, and lighting units throughout the building for maximum efficiency. For example, the units responded to 4th graders being out of their section of the school for a while—they were on a field trip—by shutting off the lights.

Construction began in March 2014—a year and a half before the school opened.

“The first thing you notice is that it’s bright because of all the natural lighting, so you can’t help but be happy and positive,” says Heather Blake, who worked at a traditional (or “non-green”) school for six years before becoming Discovery’s resource teacher for the gifted. “There’s just so much open space here, and it’s flexible enough for any subject area or activity.”

Justifying the Investment

Despite concerns that sustainable building costs are too expensive, the Center for Green Schools points to several examples that suggest otherwise: The last nine schools built in Virginia Beach, Va., all LEED-certified at various levels, cost the district up to 34 percent less than regional construction cost averages. River Crest Elementary School, in Hudson, Wis., a LEED Gold school, cost 29 percent less than regional construction costs to build. And Fossil Ridge High School, in Fort Collins, Colo., was built for $128 per square foot, among the least expensive schools the district built in 2004.

Regardless, any move to save money shouldn’t come at the expense of a job well done, say those who have experience with green schools.

Mirrors are used to reflect natural light throughout Discovery Elementary, one of the school's design elements.

“Make sure that the school and architects are paired with construction and contracting engineers that understand the needs of students and teachers,” warned Keith David Reeves, Discovery Elementary’s senior instructional technology coordinator. “We got to the point where we had to switch one contractor that wasn’t listening to us. Some things may look on paper like an efficiency, but a school has to be a school first.”

Efficiency should still be a top priority, however. Discovery Elementary’s highly integrated energy dashboard has broken down data on power consumption and power generation at a granular level—on an hourly basis—since the system went online in July 2016. Net total of kilowatts produced between then and October 2017: 182,167.

Some of the same approaches can pay off at existing schools.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” said Erik Lueders, the sustainability and purchasing director at the Parkway school district in suburban St. Louis.

That district benchmarks energy and water use in its schools against a national average, and about five years ago identified the 1,100-student Parkway North High School as problematic. Sustainability improvements to the school have resulted in a reduction of energy use by 25 percent between 2011 and 2016; between 2012 and 2016, it had reduced water consumption from plumbing, drinking fountains, and kitchen use by 37 percent, and irrigation water use by 45 percent.

Those improvements led to the U.S. Department of Education choosing Parkway North to be part of its 2017 Green Ribbon Schools program, which recognizes reduced environmental impact and costs, improved health and wellness, and effective environmental and sustainability education. Nationally, 340 schools and 56 districts have been recognized in the program, launched in 2011.

Aside from a new addition for the 2017-18 academic year, all other renovations—starting with LED lighting, which Lueders said was installed with in-house labor and paid for itself in less than a year—have consisted of retrofitting existing equipment. A master plan for additional renovations included swapping water-cooled chillers to air-cooled chillers as part of the air conditioning system, as well as a timeline for replacing old HVAC equipment and other inefficient features. The district uses a free, downloadable set of energy-saving guidelines provided through the Atlanta-based American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers to help guide equipment decisions.

Preparation Needed

Early-stage planning—whether building from the ground up or retrofitting an existing school—helps avoid a number of common pitfalls known to make state-of-the art sustainable schools fall down in their performance.

The systems being designed for these schools are fairly complex, yet districts, particularly rural ones, often lack someone on staff with the knowledge and expertise to operate and maintain them. That means breakdowns can result in having to redesign systems to make them easier to operate, hiring out for quarterly repairs, or simply accepting that the equipment won’t operate at optimum levels.

“We have to make sure that in our zeal to design super-efficient buildings, we don’t lose track of the abilities of our clients,” said Denver-based Paul C. Hutton, a member and past chair of the American Institute of Architects Committee on Architecture for Education.

As principal and chief sustainability officer at Cuningham Group, a firm that designs schools and other projects, Hutton has seen a recent rise in clients from Colorado, California, and the Upper Midwest using LEED standards as guidelines without pursuing certification.

“Maybe you could argue LEED is a victim of its own success,” he said. “It was expensive before, but it’s even more expensive now.”

Heming, of the Center for Green Schools, estimates that LEED certification for a 95,000-square-foot school, built at average construction costs for $24.3 million, would total about $8,000.

Buy-In Crucial

Getting buy-in from all key players—from school board members to janitors—can be a commitment in itself.

Before opening four new schools in fall 2017, Colorado’s Boulder Valley school district brought together architects, engineers, designers, project managers, and maintenance workers to talk about sustainable systems as a whole, and how individual features would impact each other.

Some sustainable features can have drawbacks. For instance, sun-absorbing artificial turf made with ground-up tires, which can be used for playing fields and other surfaces, can produce a “heat island” effect that increases temperatures and off-gassing of chemicals from the rubber.

“A lot of schools have gone way too far in adding it everywhere, and it’s creating a problem,” said Shea Cunningham, the chief sustainability officer and executive strategist with Los Angeles-based Balanced Approach, which helps school districts with sustainability planning. “There’s a coconut-based filter that’s nontoxic, which is an improvement, but it’s not widely used.”

Research shows that ambient air pollution and limited access to daylight have been associated with chronic absenteeism, poor performance, and medical issues. Districts that want to stay ahead of potential health problems can get Environmental Product Declarations, which disclose potential impacts of construction materials, and Health Product Declarations, which disclose potential impacts to people. Declarations can be found through voluntary and membership organizations such as the International EPD System and the Health Product Declaration Collaborative. Whatever the design and subsequent plan, districts need to be prepared for a prolonged commitment.

“This isn’t something that happens overnight, and it doesn’t happen with just one project,” said Lueders from Missouri’s Parkway district. “It’s a continual evolution. You celebrate your successes and keep on driving.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2017 edition of Education Week as Energy Efficiency Built Into Mission at ‘Green Schools’


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