In recent years the number of green or environmentally friendly schools has increased. This green design concept has been defined by architects as “an environmentally sensitive facility that minimizes energy use while ensuring that the needs of students are met….” The increased volume can be attributed to several factors. One, the deregulation of utilities in many states has forced school districts to look for unique designs to hold costs in check. Second, the increased focus by government on environmentally neutral designs has created a pool of grant money to help districts implement these concepts. And three, school boards have become more sensitive to the communities they serve and have sought out designs that make the least impact on the environment. This is especially true when new schools have to be built in already heavily congested areas or in pristine areas where large facilities have not yet been built.

Green designs can be all inclusive (from energy sources to building materials) or more subtle (with strong “green” policies and limited intrusion in design). The U.S. Green Building Council based in Washington, D.C., developed standards–known as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System–to define and promote environmentally friendly building practices.

The council outlined standards in several areas including water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. Projects can receive certification at various levels–including silver, gold and platinum–if they meet proper criteria.

Among dozens of possible measures, green building practices could include using low-emitting paints, carpet and adhesives. Waterless urinals might be found in the bathroom.

The Rocky Mountain Institute’s “Primer on Sustainable Building” suggests that green designs are “a “philosophy of building rather than a building style”. Such designs respect natural resources while minimizing the impact on the environment. A good example of a subtle design is the Manor School in Fairfax, CA. They won the Golden Apple Award from the Green Schools Program by using energy savings techniques to reduce the schools utility bills by sixteen percent. The extent of any program will depend on available resources, school board support, and community acceptance.

As school decision makers consider ‘going green,’ the question on the top of their minds is, of course, the cost. Cost-effectiveness is, in fact, one of the most compelling reasons for communities to choose to build high-performance schools. Because these schools are designed to be energy, water, and material efficient, they can dramatically reduce operating costs. The US Department of Energy estimates that the nation’s average school utility costs are approximately $125 per student per year, when one takes into account water, wastewater processing, and trash. The costs are likely even higher in many parts of the northeast where heating needs are great and energy is relatively expensive. A high-performance school can yield savings of up to $50 per student, per year.

In addition, high-performance schools are built to be durable and therefore require less maintenance. They have also been shown to lead to fewer student absences, which can mean more funding because state aid formulas are often linked to average daily attendance. Green design and building does not come cheap. The savings are cumulative over the years in reduced energy costs and less waste. Many of the technologies used in green schools are fairly new and thus expensive. As they become more widespread the costs will decrease. It is important however to research the new designs to avoid becoming a guinea pig for untested materials and designs.

Without the support of the school board, any green concept will fall by the wayside. Board members usually need to be educated in the designs and concepts so they understand and can appreciate the ultimate goal. Proposals for green designs need to contain cost estimates and, more importantly, a chart showing payback periods. While a geothermal heating/cooling system is initially more expensive, a detailed analysis showing cost savings over say a 10 or 20 year period will go a long way in overcoming cost objections. It is also important to present the technology in layman’s terms so those board members not familiar with such designs will easily understand the concept. Also before such a radical design such as geothermal energy is introduced, school construction officials need to have a comprehensive study done by a geothermal testing company showing that the site will support this technology and produce the needed ground temperatures that the geology of the area is not cost prohibitive for sinking the needed wells. A lot of homework in advance will pay dividends in convincing a board that green schools are affordable and attainable.

Without community support, green schools are ultimately doomed. It is important that school officials meet with community groups to present the concepts and answer questions concerning the technology. A supportive community will also help to “sell” the school board on the idea. It would be political suicide for a board to build a terra (earth covered) designed school without introducing the concept to the community first and presenting the supportive data. At the beginning design stage, district officials should assemble focus groups from the affected community and keep them informed throughout the design so the concepts are not foreign. Periodic reports to PTA’s and other community groups will further help to overcome objections early in the design phase.

Green schools can be successfully implemented in a district if the groundwork is completed first. By researching designs, documenting design feasibility, and developing board and community support green school designs can be successful. As more and more of these designs begin to dot the landscape, the need to sell the idea may become less important. However, the need to have the board and the community involved in the process and comfortable with the concept will always be present.

SchoolFacilities.com columnist Dr. Dunlap is Director of Support Services for Danville Public Schools in Danville, VA. To submit questions or topics of interest to him, e-mail editor@schoolfacilities.com

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