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Green Schools

Buildings That Conserve and Educate

Sustainable school buildings, says a green-schools architect, can be powerful teaching tools to help students monitor and change their own energy-consumption behavior.

Wendy Rogers is design principal at the architectural firm LPA in Irvine, CA, as well as a LEED AP (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional). Throughout her 24-year career she has advocated for sustainable design in schools. Rogers works closely with the US Green Building Council (USGBC), speaking with districts and civic organizations throughout California to help them plan for and design green schools. She spoke with us recently about the relationship between technology and sustainable school environments.

T.H.E. Journal: How do you define a "green school"?

Wendy Rogers: A green school provides an environment that is more conducive to learning, with better lighting and acoustics that will allow for better communication and more effective engagement with technology.

THE: What does "more effective engagement with technology" mean to you?

WR: Technology is important to a green school because it allows the building to educate us about how that building is being green. If you have more information about what your building is doing you may be able to change behavior.

THE: It's so interesting that in your definition of a green school you left out the features we would expect--like recycling bins or solar panels. You seem to define it as having an instructional function.

WR: Being green can't be just about what the building does, because there's a different way we need to think, whether it's as simple as [knowing] that when we open a window, the air conditioning goes into a different cycle.

Students Taking the LEED

One of the US Green Building Council's primary goals in its Green School Campaign is for students to understand how their school has been constructed or modified to be environmentally responsible. The LEED for Schools certification program even offers a credit for innovation in this regard. "In effect, the school itself becomes a wonderful teaching tool on the subject of sustainability," says Anisa Baldwin Metzger, manager of USGBC's LEED Green Schools fellowship program.

Adlai E. Stevenson High School, located in the village of Lincolnshire outside of Chicago, just recently filed for LEED-EB (existing building) certification. As a part of its LEED initiative, Stevenson has instituted an innovative educational program called Net Zero Classroom. The project, an advanced environmental sciences class for select students in their senior year, is designed to have students create and run an energy self-sufficient classroom.

Among its many sustainable features, the Net Zero project has a small array of solar panels that generate electricity and heat water for the classroom. Dave Wilms, the science teacher behind the project, as well as the school's sustainability coordinator, has made a special effort to get students involved with the district's green committee and to ensure that the school's science curriculum includes topics related to the environment and sustainability.

Currently, one student at Stevenson is carrying out a study on LED lighting to determine the impact of changing all the school's athletic-field lights to the new bulbs. Marya Graff, a sustainability consultant who advised Stevenson through the LEED certification process, explains: "They've installed a sample fixture and are going to monitor the energy usage and light output. The student will write a report about it--and based on the findings, the school may consider a widespread lighting retrofit."

Profile by Lenny Giteck, a freelance writer based in Las Vegas.

THE: So how can schools use technology to help students to think differently about their environment?

WR: Some schools have red lights and green lights on their windows--the students see them and know that something needs to be turned off. At the high school we just opened up in South Lake Tahoe, CA, they have wind odometers attached to the building. When a storm is coming in, that measurement is taken into a piece of software in the environmental sciences lab that they can then monitor and understand. [See "Students Taking the LEED" sidebar.]

THE: Do you find younger people enthusiastic about these kinds of efforts?

WR: Absolutely! It's been interesting working on projects in higher education--we know that students at college are demanding green buildings on their campuses. They want that healthier environment when going to school. What's really interesting is as those students graduate and start young families of their own--and we're beginning to see this--they want that same environment for their children. I can hardly go to a town hall meeting without a parent or a student raising their hand to say, "Are you going to go after LEED certification for this school? Are we going to be in a green environment?"

THE: Some time ago cost savings were the most important reason why school districts pursued energy-efficient practices. Is that still true?

WR: That's been a great help to sustainability and how we present it to our clients and how I communicate it through the USGBC. A sustainable school is going to use less energy and it is going to cost less in the long term, looking at what those life-cycle costs are going to be. There isn't a school district in the nation that isn't pressed in some fashion for its operating dollars. They aren't going to be funded in the regular way. Everybody's going to have to do business in a different paradigm now, and so if you're saving money in your operational costs, you therefore have more money to spend on teacher salaries, technology, and equipment in the school. We're definitely seeing superintendents and business officials in our school districts who are making these connections.

THE: Do you have the data to convince those decision-makers?

WR: We do. Some of it is anecdotal. One of the biggest things that USGBC is doing, as every project is certified, is seeking to do more measurements and metrics, because some people just have to see the proof. Everyone wants more data to prove these [projects] out. But the anecdotal evidence is unbelievably clear. There is a study from a number of years ago that says, on average, [green] schools save $100,000 a year in operating costs, which is enough to pay for at least one teacher, 200 computers, or 5,000 textbooks.

THE: That study also says that it costs about 2 percent more to retrofit green buildings versus nongreen buildings. Do you agree?

WR: I have not found [that] to be the case.

What Makes a School Green?

LEED--which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design--is the brainchild and handiwork of the US Green Building Council, a nonprofit entity founded in 1998. The LEED program offers a rigorous process to certify buildings--new or older retrofits--to meet high environmental standards in design, construction, operations, and maintenance.

The USGBC's Green Schools Campaign is working to get more K-12 schools to become LEED certified. (A Green Campus Campaign is working toward similar goals for higher education institutions.) According the USGBC website, as of July 2010, there were more than 300 LEED certified schools and another 1,700 registered LEED school projects.

"There are a few things unique to our schools initiative," notes Anisa Baldwin Metzger, who manages the LEED Green Schools fellowship program. "For example, some modifications have been made for transportation credits a school can earn with regards to busing. Also, there are prerequisite credits--meaning they're required on every school project--for the buildings' acoustics, which are essential for creating a quiet space conducive to learning. In terms of lighting credits, school lights need to be adjustable for regular classroom levels and when audiovisual equipment is being used."

The green schools program actively promotes the use of technology to heighten building inhabitants' environmental awareness. For example, installing an up-to-date building automation system (BAS) in a school enables administrative, operations, and maintenance personnel to closely monitor the energy use and performance of devices such as air conditioners, heating systems, fans, and lights. "You can either hook right into the system at the school," Baldwin Metzger explains, "or you can look at it remotely. These systems are capable of communicating alerts to whoever is monitoring the school building." Below are the USGBC's characteristics of green schools to consider whether you are building from scratch or retrofitting an existing edifice. For more information, go to usgbc.org.

A green school:

  • Conserves energy and natural resources
  • Saves taxpayer money
  • Improves indoor air quality
  • Removes toxic materials from places where children learn and play
  • Employs daylighting strategies and improves classroom acoustics
  • Employs sustainable purchasing and green cleaning practices
  • Improves environmental literacy in students
  • Decreases the burden on municipal water and wastewater treatment
  • Encourages waste management efforts to benefit the local community and region
  • Conserves fresh drinking water and helps manage storm water runoff
  • Encourages recycling
  • Promotes habitat protection
  • Reduces demand on local landfills

THE: Where do you think that 2-percent number came from?

WR: At the time when the study was done I don't think the [green products business] was as competitive as it is today. Everybody out there who's making anything understands that they need to be making a competitive green product that they can sell, so we've seen prices come down on things. It used to be that it was a big deal to get recycled content in your carpet or ceiling tiles, but now there's a lot more competition.

THE: Technology tends to use a lot of energy. How is that consistent with sustainable buildings?

WR: We're working with schools built in the '30s. They don't have air conditioning; they only have a couple of computers. We're going to be able to go in and transform that entire campus. All of those buildings will be air-conditioned. The students are going to have access to technology and recharging stations. We know that the amount of power generated in those spaces is going to be far more, because they're state-of-the-art, 21st century learning environments. That's what makes it even more of a moral imperative that we do things to offset the amount of energy we're using.

THE: What's a good way to offset that energy usage?

WR: The HVAC [heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning] system is one of the largest energy consumers in a school, so even modest improvements in that system's efficiency can represent a significant savings to a school's operating budget. There are sophisticated tools that should allow just about any HVAC system to meet a really high level of performance.

THE: Talking about buildings from the 1930s, is it better to just start from scratch or to go for a retrofit?

WR: Often when boards and policies are established they want everything to be green, "except for our existing stock," because they think it's going to be so costly to retrofit. In many ways it's almost the biggest imperative that we have the ability to restore a school that is an existing resource--so that we're not tearing down and then spending more when we have the ability to restore the schools in place. It's almost more critical that we address those schools than new schools.

THE: What can school IT leaders do to be more responsible green leaders?

WR: I think that every IT group that has the opportunity should provide software that allows feedback to the folks in the building--whether it's technical data about the performance of the building that their own staff has the ability to audit and measure, or whether it's data going into science classrooms so that a middle-school science teacher might use it to [help students] understand how their behavior in the building can affect the energy performance of the building. [Teachers can also] integrate that information into their general curriculum…and maybe make things more relevant to their students.

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