Natural Instinct

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Educators in sustainable school buildings say it's easy being green.

A slowly turning windmill, a quaint reminder of the working ranch that once occupied this land, is not merely a decorative feature at Roy Lee Walker Elementary School in McKinney, Texas. It's an integral part of an education complex designed to protect the environment and increase hands-on learning opportunities. The windmill powers an irrigation system that collects rain from the schoolhouse roof, stores it in cisterns, and then uses it to water the native plants and grasses that grow throughout the grounds.

A tour of Walker Elementary, a K-5 campus north of Dallas, provides an eye- opening lesson about how easily ecological design elements can be incorporated into schools. The site uses nontoxic, long-lasting, and environmentally friendly materials such as galvanized metal, recyclable carpeting, and formaldehyde-free woods. Solar panels heat the school's water, and sensors measure the level of natural light, increasing or dimming artificial illumination as needed. At every turn, there's evidence of creative design decisions. For example, sprinkler system controls and ventilation units are left exposed, both to cut back on materials and to let kids see how buildings work. Elements like a fish pond allow students to explore flora and fauna in their natural habitats.

When Walker Elementary opened in fall 2000, it was, in many experts' estimations, the most environmentally friendly campus in the world. "It basically cracked the ice" on ecological design, says Lorenz Schoff, a technical analyst with the U.S. Department of Energy's Rebuild America/EnergySmart Schools program. Since then, others have followed its lead: In just two and a half years, three other environmentally sensitive schools have sprung up in this fast-growing bedroom community of 67,000 people, and dozens more are being built around the country. In Oregon, a handful of what are also called sustainable or high-performance schools are in various states of completion; others have been built or are in the works in places like Washington, California, and Wisconsin. And in July, the governor of New Jersey signed an executive order requiring all new school construction in the state to follow green-building guidelines.

Interest in sustainable schools, which are designed to be sensitive to the environment in both construction and operation, has gradually gained momentum over the past 25 years. Schoff says the field saw a few well-financed energy conservation experiments in the 1970s and early '80s, with some districts building schools underground to use the earth as insulation; others reduced utility bills through solar and wind power. In the '90s, appropriate systems and materials became more readily available, but the costs were still prohibitive.

Designing and constructing an eco-school remains pricier than erecting a traditional one—Walker Elementary cost about $1 million more than other area schools—but industry experts say that the expense is dropping as the market expands. They also claim that an initial investment often can be recovered in savings during the 50-year life span of a school. The Department of Energy estimates that utility bills may be as much as 40 percent lower in an environmentally friendly building than in a traditional structure, reducing the average yearly energy expenditure per student from $120 to about $72. For schools with 600 students, this translates into savings of about $28,000 per year, or $1.44 million over the life of the facility.

It was such projections, plus the availability of grants for green design, that inspired McKinney officials to commission a sustainable school. Though Walker Elementary has yet to benefit from utility cost reductions, the district's assistant superintendent of plant management, Wyndol Fry, isn't worried. He figures this is because the windows that let in the daylight also let in the Texas heat and because staff members are still learning how to maximize the efficiency of the new systems. Fry says utility bills for the school run about 15 cents more per square foot than at the district's regular schools. He adds, however, that Walker Elementary is saving money in other areas. For instance, in the school's first year, the district reduced teacher absenteeism costs by $50,000, in part because fewer staff members called in sick. School officials also cut back on expenses by having the lawn mowed seven times instead of 37.

It's evident that staff and students relish their innovative campus. Art teacher Amanda Dalton appreciates that the science and art classrooms are connected to a nature area. "In art, you have to do a lot of direct observation, and here you can do that—even when the weather is bad," she says. Principal Deb Beasley praises the natural-light monitoring system. "The feature that teachers mention most often is the daylighting. The openness and light help to create an atmosphere of happiness and contentedness," she says. In addition, staff observe that students are calmer and better able to concentrate, have respect for the building and themselves, and feel a sense of pride and ownership in the project.

Green design has a "ripple effect," Fry notes. That's also the conclusion of an increasing number of researchers. Several studies show that daylight in classrooms leads to higher reading and math scores, better health and reduced absences for both students and staff, and improved attitudes and behavior. Although the reasons for these results are unknown, researchers suggest that natural light may improve classroom visibility and students' moods. Reports from Canada have even shown that kids grow faster and get fewer cavities when they attend classes in buildings with abundant natural light.

By continually educating the public on such positive effects, Schoff believes the trend will become a tradition. "I'm telling people it's important that we start now," he says. "Building high-performance schools today is essential for the future of our students."

—Kristine Hughes

Vol. 14, Issue 4, Pages 7-8

Published in Print: January 1, 2003, as Natural Instinct
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