Green Schools Building Boom

Originally published in the March/April 2011 issue of Sustainable Industries magazine.

When students rush into the new Finn Hill Junior High in Kirkland, Wash., on the first day of school this fall, they will be greeted by the “Finn Hill Family,” a collection of glass figurines designed by a local artist. LEDs inside each sculpture will be wired to controls that measure the electricity, heat and water use of a particular classroom cluster. The more energy and water students conserve, the brighter their figurines will shine.

As they compete to be the best and brightest, the students gain a visual symbol for the energy literacy the school wants to teach. And the Lake Washington School District enlists several hundred allies in managing the energy costs of its 120,000-­square-­foot building.

This spring, builders are installing a ventilation system that recaptures waste heat as well as tightly sealed walls of insulated panels and a rooftop photovoltaic array. Architects at the Seattle firm Mahlum  designed the project to be 65 percent more energy efficient than typical schools in the area, making the case to taxpayers that investments made now will save in operating costs over the building’s 40-­to-50-­year lifetime. “It’s a great approach,” says Principal Victor Scarpelli, who has become a green-­building enthusiast as construction has proceeded. “If we can spend money today and save in the future, we can invest in teachers and resources and giving our children the best education possible.”

Finn Hill Junior High sits at the vanguard of a green schools building boom driven by federal stimulus spending, local school bonds and education leaders looking to slash energy costs. As the recession-­racked construction industry continues to suffer the burst of the housing bubble, green school projects offer a bright spot for builders and designers. Data research company McGraw­Hill Construction estimates that such projects totaled $16 billion last year – up from $9 billion in 2008. That’s more than a third of all school construction activity.

“This opportunity is big in California, and it’s virtually untapped in the rest of the U.S.,” says Bill Kelly, California managing director for SunPower, the Silicon Valley photovoltaic module maker and developer. He estimates that schools in the Golden State alone have the potential to host more than a gigawatt of solar power. “School facilities are some of the biggest public facilities in any state or city.”

The ways education administrators are making their buildings more environmentally friendly are as varied as schools themselves. The Mount Diablo Unified School District in the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, inked a $60 million deal with SunPower to install its high-tech solar panels at 51 schools and facilities this year.

Manassas City Public Schools in Virginia plans to spend $24 million upgrading schools with high­-efficiency roofs and heating and cooling systems. The private Epiphany School in Seattle opened last fall with a garden for students to grow food and an off-­the­-grid ventilation system. When the sun shines, solar­powered rooftop fans suck hot air out of classrooms through a set of chimneys, cooling the building without external power.

For the construction industry, environmentally sound school projects offer rare opportunities during the economic downturn. But planners and builders will have to make the case that their projects serve both students who use them and school district budgets.

Despite the green building boom, education construction fell 36 percent in square footage over the past two years, according to Kim Kennedy, manager of forecasting for McGraw­Hill Construction. That’s less dramatic than the 57 percent drop for commercial and industrial projects in 2009, but it’s far from rosy.

Kennedy expects the educational market to decline for at least one more year. “The institutional side is hit with a lag because it’s more tied to government expenditures,” she says. “We’re probably going to see another decline in 2011 for education, whereas the commercial market will already have started to recover in 2011.”

While money for green building projects has been flowing, other hurdles will remain beyond this year. Tax bonds approved before the recession fund many current projects, and gaining community approval for future projects will be more difficult during a slow economic recovery. States confronting multi-billion-­dollar budget deficits will offer limited support. And a key source of capital over the last two years – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – has already begun drying up.

Stimulating Retrofits

Two years ago, Judy Marks, director of the non­-profit National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, took on the task of helping school districts figure out which parts of the stimulus were available for construction and renovation. She says the bulk of funds came through two low-­interest lending programs.

In December, Congress extended one of those sources, Qualified School Construction Bonds, in its 11th­-hour tax bill. The other main source – Build America Bonds, which provided $179 billion for various public projects – expired at the end of 2010.

Marks has watched stimulus funds make the education market increasingly attractive to builders and designers. “There was no stimulus for hotels or office buildings,” she says. “But many school districts made the decision to go forward because of the availability of this money.”

With stimulus funds already tapering off, new school construction will depend on the health of the economy. Repair and renovation work, however, should remain steady. Roofs and heating and cooling systems wear out on their own schedules, after all.

And data shows retrofits are taking up an increasing share of the schools market: While school construction declined 18 percent in square footage last year, it dropped only eight percent in total spending. Those figures tell McGraw­-Hill Construction that more projects are focusing on improving existing schools.

“The renovation market has held up much better than the new construction market,” says McGraw­-Hill Construction economist Lindsay Hogan.

That’s driven in part by incentives for improving the energy performance of schools. For instance, California’s Energy Efficiency Financing program makes loans of up to $3 million available for schools to cut their energy footprints.

And the state superintendent, Tom Torlakson, directed $848 million in stimulus tax credits to construction projects that emphasize renewable energy and efficiency. “It makes no sense to teach the next generation of California’s students in facilities that are relics of the past, powered by energy sources that are out of touch with our state’s renewable future,” he said in a statement.

Utilities such as Puget Sound Energy offer grants for schools that make efficiency a priority and commit to ensuring buildings perform as they’re designed to do. Finn Hill’s district received $60,000 for such work.

The Health Factor

But the push for greener schools is about more than finance. The Environmental Protection Agency finds that children are more affected than adults by poor indoor air quality, and studies have linked mold levels and other airborne aggravators to lower student attendance rates and test scores.

Other researchers discovered that excessively hot or cold rooms harm student performance. Still others concluded that excessive background noise, from such things as noisy radiators, cause measurable distraction. Noise affects teachers too: A fifth of teachers reported missing work because of voice strain, according to a 1998 study by University of Iowa speech researchers.

Four years ago these findings prompted the U.S. Green Building Council to introduce a LEED for Schools program that places a greater emphasis on indoor air quality and thermal and acoustical comfort. Last fall, USGBC launched a Center for Green Schools to promote the advantages of green schools – healthier students, savings on energy costs and learning opportunities like the Finn Hill sculptures.

“We want green schools to become the norm, not the exception,” says Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools

That means expanding the USGBC’s audience of architects and building consultants and reaching janitors, facilities directors, school board members and lawmakers who can improve state standards for school buildings, Gutter says. She’s helped create the Center’s Green Schools Fellows program that puts 11 full­-time sustainability officers in school districts. They spend three years examining ongoing operations, finding ways to promote carpooling, for example, or comparing sources for paper or cleaning products.

There are more than 130,000 public and private schools in the U.S., Gutter notes, so it’s not enough just to build the new buildings better.

Still, new construction offers the greatest potential to showcase what’s possible.

At Finn Hill in Kirkland, architect Anjali Grant stood in the school’s cavernous future computer lab on a January afternoon and motioned to the metal roof – expensive but long-lasting. Soon it will support a 400-­kilowatt solar array that the school may expand in the future to make the building a net­-zero consumer of electricity.

But Grant considers other features more important, such as a heat pump and a ventilation system that captures and reuses heat from inside air. Her firm learned on an earlier project – Benjamin Franklin Elementary, also in Kirkland – that venting out warm air can blow the energy savings of an otherwise efficient building.

Here, structural insulated panels and triple-glazed windows seal the warmth inside. They were surprisingly good at keeping out the winter chill, even with temporary plywood doors.

The five classroom pods stretch out in southern­-oriented rows to catch the most of the area’s limited sunlight. In the muddy courtyards outside each pod, landscapers will build rain gardens – shallow depressions of native plants – that will attract birds and wildlife, reduce rain runoff and give teachers an outdoor laboratory.

Polished cement floors (with carpet in some places) will avoid the need for waxing and materials that emit fumes. A red light/green light system in classrooms will tell teachers when the central heat is off and windows may be opened (green) and when to keep them shut (red).

Grant acknowledged that not all school districts can afford features like solar arrays and the long-­lasting metal roof, but she says the most important green features carry no extra cost.

“It doesn’t cost extra to design for daylight,” she says, standing at a long bank of southern windows. “It doesn’t cost extra to use non­toxic materials.”

And the elements that do cost more pay for themselves over time. A 2006 study by Greg Kats of Capital E, a national green building firm, found that a two percent increase in initial costs – about $3 per square foot – paid back $10 per square foot in energy and water savings over a building’s lifespan.

Location Matters

But that’s all about the interior workings of a school. Advocates of smart growth and walkable neighborhoods argue that the most important issues for sustainable schools are location and how they connect to the surrounding community.

School sites that are woven into compact urban neighborhoods can encourage students to walk – which gives them exercise along with all the environmental advantages of driving less.

Architects and builders typically have less say in a school’s location, since districts already have sites in mind. “There’s only so much we can do for a suburban neighborhood like this,” Grant says of the Finn Hill site. “That’s a function of local zoning.”

Designers can still make improvements. Grant’s plan adds sidewalks to the site and lets pedestrians reach the main entrance without crossing parking lots – something not all school designs have accomplished in the past. The plan also preserves walk-­through routes that let neighbors reach the adjacent Finn Hill Park. Safety remains a major priority for school administrators, but school sites shouldn’t be fortresses that seal themselves off from their surrounding communities, Grant says.

In fact, it’s difficult to imagine communities becoming carbon­-free without the leadership of schools. Every day one­-fifth of Americans go to a school to study or work, giving enormous influence to those institutions and the people who build their facilities. More importantly, many of those students are eager to learn about the world around them – both how it is and how it could be.

The Center for Green Schools sensed this opportunity and began offering curriculum guides and classroom project ideas for teachers. The Finn Hill Family environmental sculpture is unusual, but other schools are adding touch-­screen monitors that let students learn about the electricity and water coursing through their buildings.

The Alliance to Save Energy, an efficiency advocacy group born out of the 1970s oil embargoes, launched its own Green Schools Program that trains students to measure their school’s energy footprint with light meters and infrared temperature guns and lets them work with teachers to make improvements.

“It’s a lot easier to make a difference working with children,” program manager Megan Campion says. “I think most 12­ year­-olds are sort of environmentalists.”