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Building Great K-12 Schools in Economically Challenging Times
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What's Small and Green?
If you said, "A less-crowded, more environmentally sustainable school building!" your answer would be correct.
by Charles Linn, FAIA


Mahlum Architects' Rosa Parks Elementary is a beautiful example of Redmond, Washington's commitment to small neighborhood schools.
Photo © Benjamin Benschneider


Rosa Parks Elementary's library shares light with the corridor. Each small learning community (plan) has four classrooms grouped around an activity area.
Photo © Benjamin Benschneider

Two of the most important design trends to gain traction recently are that where facility size is concerned, smaller is better, and the second is that "green" schools aren't just a fad–their advantages are so striking that the practices that make them green will become standard in the years ahead. Not only are the energy efficiencies inarguable, but also there is early evidence that some of the improvements inherent in these buildings can help test scores and reduce absenteeism.

Enrollment drives construction

As enrollments continue to climb the future will look bright for school construction. The National Center for Education Statistics says that 49.6 million students will be enrolled in 97,000 public primary and secondary schools in the 2007-08 school year. In addition, 6.1 million students are enrolled in private schools, and 1.1 million are being home schooled. The Center also says that K-12 enrollments will grow by 3 million between 2005 and 2015. While robust, this does not quite keep up with growth experienced in the 1990s. Educational construction starts peaked in 2001 at 273 million square feet, However, in 2008, only 222 million square feet are anticipated, according to the McGraw-Hill Construction 2008 Outlook report. The current slowdown is due to turmoil in the housing market and weakness in the economy. But, with 300,000 new students enrolling each year, about 12,000 classrooms need to come on line annually, and in 2008, 232 million square feet of new construction starts are anticipated. If the past is any indication, many of these classrooms will come from additions and alterations. McGraw-Hill Construction's figures say these typically outpace new construction by a ratio of 4 to 1.


First Floor
1) Classroom 2) Activity area 3) Kindergarten 4) Resource room 5) Commons 6) Gymnasium 7) Library

Small is Beautiful

The logic behind economies of scale, that it is cheaper to run one large institution than many small ones, seems unassailable. And yet, research indicates that the financial savings that were to come from consolidating small schools into large ones were often absorbed by the bureaucracies created to run them while leaving principals little decisionmaking authority. At the same time, the many benefits of small schools, such as the ability for students and teachers to work together closely, a sense of community that most children crave, and the active engagement of parents were lost in the shuffle. Unfortunately, it is still the case that even where school boards and administrators agree that building small from the ground up is the way to go, some states' policies hold back funding if proposed schools are too small. Florida and Vermont are two states that have reversed themselves and encourage small school buildings.

Where small schools are possible, the trend is to take the idea one step further. Long corridors are out, replaced by small learning communities within schools. Seattle-based Mahlum Architects used such an arrangement at Rosa Parks Elementary School in Redmond, Wash. Each small learning community comprises four small classrooms grouped around a shared activity area. Classes can chose to work together or not, depending on the project. Glass sliding doors provide a connection between both types of spaces so that teachers can supervise both simultaneously. The arrangement is intended to allow interdisciplinary teaching and learning teams.

Another form of the school-within-a-school movement has large student bodies being separated into smaller ones, in both new and existing buildings and campuses. Even the change-challenged New York City Department of Education has opened an Office of Small Learning Communities. Its reform strategy includes breaking 60 large high schools into smaller ones, and replacing the lowest performing large high schools with 200 new, small, "academically rigorous" high schools. When small schools are created within large school buildings, it is desirable that schools be physically separate from each other, and some remodeling may be required to accomplish this. Students from all of the schools must have equal access to specialized shared facilities such as labs, gyms, and cafeterias, but this can often be accomplished through creative scheduling.

It is worth noting that school districts with large schools are under pressure to break them up simply because they are now competing with charter schools, which boast their small size as a major selling point. Few charter schools can afford fabulous facilities, however, their student-to-teacher ratios are often lower than those in public schools.




The LEED-rated Thomas L. Wells School in Toronto uses daylighting, high-performance glazing, low-VOC finishes, high-efficiency boilers, and a heat recovery system to save energy. The diagram shows how the heating and ventilating system works.
Photos © Tom Arban Photography (top and middle)

Getting green

Our parents always said that fresh air and sunshine are good for us, and it seems as if folks are lining up around the block to reaffirm the notion. In fact, a 2005 market study of green building by McGraw-Hill Construction's Education Green Building SmartMarket report, released in January of 2007, found that educational buildings were the fastest growing sector for green building, and that school boards and administrators have the most influence in getting schools to go green. A second driver is the increasingly widespread adoption of policies that require public buildings to have green characteristics.

The most immediately measurable advantage to greening a school can be seen simply by scanning its generally lower-than-average utility bills. Special attention is paid to designing lighting and mechanical systems so that this can be done while improving occupant comfort. More research is needed to determine whether the health and productivity of students and faculty in green schools are improved over a control group. The advantages seem intuitively obvious: The use of non-toxic materials and better ventilation, for example, should improve air quality and reduce respiratory illnesses. If attendance improves, users will teach better and learn more.

Two recent developments are sure to stimulate interest in green schools. The first is the release in early 2007 of a version of the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Schools. LEED for Schools is not a means of evaluating schools that have already been built, but rather a method of guiding the design and construction of new buildings. All LEED-rated schools incorporate sustainable design and construction attributes from the earliest stages of their design. These include energy and water efficiency, daylighting, alternative transportation options, and recycling. All LEED projects have their environmental systems fine-tuned after construction in a step called commissioning. But, for a school to earn a LEED rating, issues of particular importance in schools, such as children's sensitivity to chemicals, classroom acoustics, joint use of facilities, and mold prevention must also be addressed. At the end of 2007, about 400 schools had sought LEED certification; around 60 had attained it.

You may use the Web sites listed below to find out more about many of the topics discussed in this article.
McGraw-Hill Construction Publications
construction.ecnext.com/coms2/analytics
National Center for Educational Statistics
nces.ed.gov
USGBC LEED for Green Schools
buildgreenschools.org
Dollars & Sense I and II
goodsmallschools.org
New York City Office of Small Learning Communities
www.nycslc.org
Charter Schools
uscharterschools.org

The Thomas L. Wells School in Toronto, completed before LEED for Schools was introduced, received a Silver LEED–Canada New Construction rating. It has high-efficency boilers, a heat recovery system, and high-performance glazing to cut energy use. Bart Sampson Neuert architects paid particular attention to air quality, and used low-VOC materials throughout the project. Finishes, such as porcelain tile flooring, that would not require stripping and waxing like standard vinyl composition tile, were chosen because cleaning chemicals are a major source of indoor air pollutants that can be harmful.

Yet another force that could have a profound influence on the greening of schools is that in early November of 2007, the Clinton Climate Initiative announced it was partnering with the USGBC and at least two dozen other organizations to start a green schools program, whose ambition is to make all American schools green within a generation. The program will help schools reduce energy consumption as well as educate a new generation of students about the effects that buildings have on the environment. Considering that the number of existing schools that need improvements to achieve such a goal likely exceeds 87,000, the challenge and the potential for positive change are both enormous.