Building Great K-12 Schools in Economically Challenging Times
In these tough times making good school design decisions has never been more difficult or more important. To find out how some of the nation’s top architects and administrators are coping with these challenges attend Architectural Record’s Schools of the 21st Century Symposium. It will be held Friday, April 9th, at the Hyatt McCormick Place in Chicago, the day before the NSBA Conference. The event is free of charge and is being presented with the support of McGraw-Hill Education and the American Architectural Foundation.

Click here for more information.

Little Green Schoolhouses
The massive schools construction program currently underway provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create buildings that will influence the lives of students for decades to come
By Deane Evans, FAIA

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Does a high-performance school really make a difference—for students, teachers and the community? The answer is yes. SBIC and CHPS list the following key benefits for a high-performance school: better student performance; reduced operating costs; increased average daily attendance; better teacher satisfaction and retention, and reduced liability exposure. While all these benefits are important, the first two are worth special attention. A recent study commissioned by the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities concluded that, “School facilities affect learning. Spatial configurations, noise, heat, cold, light, and air quality obviously bear on students’ and teachers’ abilities to perform.” In addition, a 2006 report from the National Research Council found that, “there is a robust body of evidence indicating that the health of children and adults can be affected by air quality in a school” and that, “Sufficient evidence exists to conclude that there is an association between decreased noise levels in schools and improvement in student performance.”

The architecture firm Innovative Design has used skylights in large rooms, such as this gymnasium at Heritage Middle School. Baffles block direct sunlight. Photo © Mike Nicklas.

Taken together, these studies point to at least one clear conclusion: school buildings matter. They are not merely settings in which teaching and learning take place, but are active variables in the process and can have positive, or negative, impacts on student performance. High-performance schools, by definition, seek to optimize systems with the greatest observed impacts on student and teacher performance: lighting and daylighting, indoor air quality, moisture control, and acoustic, visual, and thermal comfort.

High-performance schools also make energy efficiency a high priority—and reduced energy use is one of the key ways to reduce a school’s operating costs. Whether through conservation or the use of renewable energy strategies such as daylighting, photovoltaics or solar hot water, a high performance facility seeks to drive energy use as low as possible while still maintaining a high-quality learning environment. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that, “New high-performance schools—designed to save energy and reduce environmental impact—can cost 50 percent less to operate than traditionally designed schools.” This can mean substantial savings to a school’s operating bottom line—and is another clear advantage of a high-performance facility.

The architecture firm Innovative Design has used skylights in large rooms, such as this gymnasium at Heritage Middle School. Baffles block direct sunlight. Photo © Robert A. Flynn.

Does It Cost More?
There are actually two short answers to this question: “yes, but…” and “no, but…”. The “yes, but” camp—reinforced by studies for the USGBC and the U.S. General Services Administration—holds that it does cost more to create a high performance “green” facility, but that these extra costs are quickly recouped by the benefits provided by the extra investment. According to a study by Greg Kats, et al. of Capital E, the school’s energy savings alone will pay back an investment in high performance, while other benefits can increase this payback many times. Although the increases in first cost are real, varying from 0.6 percent for the USGBC’s basic LEED certification to 6.5 percent for a LEED Platinum certification, it is clear that they pay for themselves quickly and provide lasting benefits for a facility over its lifetime.

The “no, but…” camp holds that once a design team knows how to do it, delivering a high-performance facility should not cost more, assuming that the budget is not artificially low to begin with. This opinion seems to be reinforced by a recent study by Davis Langdon, an international cost-estimating firm. Based on an analysis of the firm’s comprehensive database of school costs, it appears that schools seeking LEED certification can be found across a wide spectrum of per-square-foot costs—from low to high. Schools not seeking LEED can also be found across the same spectrum. That means LEED schools can be achieved for the same costs as other schools, whether the other schools are inexpensive or expensive. Wherever one is on the cost spectrum, a high-performance facility should be deliverable. Whichever camp you are in, there are some key things to remember about the cost issue.

+ First costs trend lower with experience. As the team gets more knowledgeable and comfortable with high performance, they also become more efficient.

+ Life cycle costs are always lower in a high performance facility, so there’s always (eventually) a net benefit for any additional investment that might be needed.

+ Mindset is critical. The more the team is committed to creating a high performance facility within an existing budget, the more likely they are to succeed.

Next Steps
Every school building is a critical component of a quality education, lasting longer and affecting more students than any book, computer or white board ever will. A huge amount of new knowledge that has developed over the last decade gives us the ability to make these buildings, that are so important to the education of our children, into truly outstanding, high performance facilities—even on limited budgets. A great deal of this information is available on the Web and easy for everyone to access. All that remains is for us to use these tools as we go forward to make sure that every “School of the 21st Century” is a high-performance facility.

Deane Evans, FAIA, currently directs the Center for Architecture and Building Science Research at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He also serves as vice-chair of the Sustainable Buildings Industry Council.

Kats, Greg et al. “National Review of Green Schools: Costs, Benefits, and Implications for Massachusetts,” Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, December 2005. Download at: www.cap-e.com/ewebeditpro/items/O59F7707.pdf

Davis Langdon, Lisa Fay Mattiessen, Peter Morris “Costing Green: A Comprehensive Cost Database and Budgeting Methodology,” July 2004. Download at: davislangdon-usa.com/Attachment%20Files/Research/costinggreen.pdf

Schneider, Mark. “Do School Facilities Affect Academic Outcomes?”National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities; 2002. Download at: www.edfacilities.org/pubs/outcomes.pdf

Review and Assessment of Health and Productivity Benefits of Green Schools: An Interim Report, National Research Council, published by the National Academies Press, Washington, DC

“Our Schools are Failing Energy 101,” U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy: www.eere.energy.gov/buildings/info/schools/index.html

For more information on high-performance schools and sustainable design see:

These organizations also offer resources to those who are interested in building high-performance schools: