The Benefits of Green Schools

In 2009, NJN Public Television and Radio produced a documentary, Green Builders, spotlighting four pioneering green building projects. One was a school--the Willow School in Gladstone, New Jersey. Built in 2003 according to sustainable practices, the school sits on a 34-acre site. It is an idyllic environment, with natural meadows, butterfly gardens, and hedgerows as well as a constructed wetlands that provides a natural filtration system for wastewater. The school building, which has a traditional but rustic quality, is filled with natural light. A sign in the bathroom reads, “Recycled Tile,” creating a split-second learning opportunity. In fact, the building and its environment serve as tools for teaching students about sustainable practices from wastewater management to recycling. “If you look back at when we built this first building, in 2002-2003, pretty much we were alone,” Mark Biedron, cofounder of the Willow School, says in the documentary. “And everyone looked at us like we had three heads. Now, you cannot go to an architectural firm that doesn’t have a LEED-accredited professional on their staff or who doesn’t have some idea what sustainable, green building design is.”

The Willow School is just the kind of place that comes to mind when you hear the words “green school”--a small, private school in an idyllic setting serving communities that can afford the luxury of sustainability. But, given what’s occurred over the past five years, such assumptions no longer apply. Since the Willow School was first built, the green schools movement has gone mainstream--extending well beyond a few leading-edge projects and deep into the nation’s public school system. As of March 2011, the number of public schools that are either LEED registered or LEED certified by the U.S. Green Building Council--the internationally recognized standard for green building certification--is on the rise. As of July 2010, there were just over 300 K-12 LEED-certified projects--and more than 1,700 K-12 school and school-related building projects registered for future certification.

“Nationally, I’d say, at first it was a gradual shift. Then, three or four years ago it just kind of exploded,” says Lisa Laney, green schools program director for the Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC). Laney should know. The state of Ohio has become a leader in green school construction, and today she travels around the country sharing the Ohio experience. As of January 2011, there were 281 LEED-registered projects in Ohio school districts--255 through the OSFC--and 22 LEED-registered schools in Cincinnati alone. That puts Cincinnati in a head-to-head race with Chicago and Albuquerque as the top cities for green public schools. “The catalyst for the LEED movement in Ohio was the securitization of tobacco funds,” says Laney. “We had $4.1 billion dropped in our laps in 2007 to invest in our schools. That was right around the time the U.S. Green Building Council was gearing up to focus on schools, and the movement was catching on.” In September 2007, Ohio’s School Facilities Commission passed a resolution that all new schools meet certain LEED standards, and building green has since become standard practice for Ohio public schools. “Communities are getting excited about the opportunities. These schools have better indoor air quality and create healthier environments,” says Laney. “There’s less sickness, lower absenteeism, and they retain staff better.”

A number of trends are driving the shift nationwide. For one thing, public awareness about the importance of conserving energy and the impact of climate change has risen substantially over the past five years. By 2009, surveys indicated that more than three-quarters of American consumers describe themselves as “green.” There has been an explosion in green products, corporate sustainability programs, and community-based recycling programs. “When you’re looking at building schools--to paraphrase Rick Fedrizzi of the U.S. Green Building Council--why not build green? It just makes sense for the children,” says Laney. Certainly, from a health and environmental standpoint, the benefits of building greener schools have been clear for some time. What was unclear to local governments and school districts back in 2002 or 2003 was how much money green initiatives could save school districts.

The Benefits to Kids and Communities

LEED schools--those built according to criteria established by the U.S. Green Building Council--and high-performance schools built according to the recommendations and standards of the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) program create healthier, more productive learning environments by incorporating the following key features.

Better Indoor Air Quality

“Do you know what a new car smells like?” asks Lisa Laney. “When you go into a LEED school, you don’t have any of those new building smells. They’ve taken steps to flush the building out. They’ve used low-emitting carpet, paints, and adhesive. The indoor air quality is a lot better.” This is no small issue. According to the Coalition for Healthier Schools, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that as many as half of U.S. schools face environmental problems--including polluted indoor air, toxic chemicals and pesticide use, growing molds, lead in paint and drinking water, and asbestos. Studies link poor indoor air quality to an increase in asthma rates, childhood cancer rates, and the incidence of learning disabilities in children. As an example, in January 2011, the National Association of School Nurses released a survey of 350 school nurses. Forty percent of those surveyed reported that they knew children or staff who were affected by pollutants in schools. To put the issue in perspective, asthma, which affects 5 million school-age children, is the number one cause of school absenteeism.

Better Lighting and Better Acoustics

High performance schools use daylight as a major light source. Studies have linked classes that are well lit with natural light--and even classrooms with more window space--with measurably higher school performance. “Behavioral scientists say that daylight influences one’s ability to learn; it impacts test scores. Daylight is free and better than artificial light … the windows connect people to the outside through beautiful views,” says Heinz Rudolf, with Boora Architects of Portland, Oregon, which has designed schools using high performance principles. Says Lisa Laney of the Ohio Green Schools Program, “If the architects pursue day lighting, they may bounce the light off of light shelves, bringing natural light deeper into the room. A room may be fully lit, and the lights may not even be on.” So it’s a strategy that not only promotes learning but also produces energy savings. Effective learning also involves effective listening, so high performance and LEED schools are designed to minimize noise and maximize the learning experience for students.

A Better Learning Environment

The Middleton School District in Middleton, Idaho, embraced principles of high-performance schools back in the early 2000s. The Purple Sage Elementary School, which opened in the district in the fall of 2003, is one example of high performance principles at work. Built according to LEED standards, it incorporates numerous energy- and water-saving features. The lighting in the school’s restrooms, storage areas, and closets is controlled electronically by sensors--so the lights go on when someone comes in and go off automatically when they leave. Climate controls are electronic, delivering precisely comfortable temperatures. The school’s toilets have automatic flushers, and its sinks dispense water automatically. But, just as importantly, the building’s natural light, plentiful windows, and light colors create a cheerful interior environment that supports learning. “It is overwhelmingly important to have a good learning environment for students,” says Dr. Rich Bauscher, superintendent of the Middleton School District. “Parents tell us that their kids’ attitude and desire to learn are attributable to the aspects of high performance schools.” Lisa Laney of Ohio agrees, noting, “I think the kids and the staff just feel better in a LEED building.”

Teaching Sustainable Practices to the Next Generation

Like the pioneering architects who designed the Willow School, some architects of LEED schools are designing schools as a teaching tool, according to Lisa Laney. “For example, if they’re using a rainwater harvesting system, they may have a cistern outside with the rainwater,” she says. “Some of the schools have green roof gardens, where they use plantings on top of the roof to capture the rainwater, and that becomes a learning tool for the students.”

The Benefits to States, School Districts, and Communities

It’s clear that high performance and LEED schools are good for kids, but in recent years it’s become increasingly clear that they’re also good for states and municipalities. LEED schools are constructed with recycled materials and with building materials that use fewer resources in their manufacture and transport, so they minimize greenhouse gas emissions and waste. Greener schools not only save energy and conserve resources, they also help municipalities address whatever regional environmental problems they may be facing, such as water use, storm water management, air quality, recycling, or mold problems. Nonetheless, until recently, the cost-benefit equation just didn’t add up for school districts--the general perception being that sustainable building costs more and that the LEED-certification process adds a layer of bureaucracy. In 2004 and again in 2006, Davis Langdon, a global construction consulting company, published studies comparing the average costs of building similar commercial and government buildings using green versus nongreen practices. According to the 2007 report, The Cost of Green Revisited, “The 2006 study shows essentially the same results as 2004: there is no significant difference in average costs for green buildings as compared to non-green buildings. Many project teams are building green buildings with little or no added cost, and with budgets well within the cost range of non-green buildings with similar programs. We have also found that, in many areas of the country, the contracting community has embraced sustainable design, and no longer sees sustainable design requirements as additional burdens to be priced in their bids.” According to the report, for some types of buildings—such as schools—“improvements in energy efficiency can actually lead to reduced construction cost, since the improvements come from reducing dependence on mechanical systems and improving the passive design of the building.” Passive design involves using elements such as window placement and landscaping to maximize the benefits of the sun’s rays in winter and reduce their impact in summer.

A number of factors contribute to a growing recognition that green schools can be built cost effectively—and even add up to major savings for states and municipalities. For one thing, as energy costs continue to rise, the long-term economic benefits of energy efficiency become more compelling. For another, rising demand for green building materials has made them more available and more affordable. In addition, as more LEED schools come on line, cost analyses make a compelling case in favor of sustainable design. For example, when the Ohio School Facilities Commission looked at the economics of building LEED schools, they projected an average $6 million in energy savings over the 40-year life span of a single middle school. With 255 LEED schools planned for the state, that added up to enormous savings for Ohio school districts and taxpayers over the next 40 years.

Ushering in a New Era

The Collaborative for High Performance Schools was a first mover on the green school front. Originally established in 1999 to address the issue of energy efficiency in California’s schools in collaboration with the state’s utility companies, it soon grew into an important resource for schools and school districts around the country who were interested in building healthier, more energy-efficient schools based on Smart Growth objectives. Since 1999, 41 school districts around the country have used CHPS as a resource to build or refurbish schools. Eleven states have worked with the collaborative to develop high performance school building criteria. Overall, some 86 CHPS-recognized high performance schools have been completed since 1999, and another 300 are in various stages of development. The momentum has continued to build. In 2004, parents and environmentalists formed the Green Schools Initiative in California. In 2007, the Green Schools Alliance, based in New York, was created in response to Mayor Bloomberg’s challenge to New York City institutions to reduce their carbon footprint 30 percent by 2030. And in 2010, when the first annual Green Schools National Conference was held in Minneapolis, more than 1,000 participants attended--including 100 high schools--from 40 states.

A major turning point came in 2009 with the establishment of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, the nonprofit organization that originally developed and now administers the LEED building rating system. The center helps cut through the red tape generally associated with LEED certification and is becoming a hub of activity for promoting the construction and refurbishment of schools based on sustainable practices. In addition to providing resources to support LEED-certification efforts, the Center for Green Schools has put a staff in place that’s equipped to travel to local school districts and work directly with local administrators and designers, and has launched a series of initiatives--the Mayors’ Alliance, 50 for 50 Green Schools Caucus, and the Congressional Green Schools Caucus--to build momentum for green school initiatives at the local, state, and federal legislative levels. A number of states already have green building regulations, incentives, or guidelines in place. As of March 2011, according to the Environmental Law Institute’s website, 20 states have implemented policies that require or promote CHPS or LEED green building standards for school construction.
But it’s not just school administrators, environmental advocates, and policymakers who make green schools a reality. Parents, community leaders--and REALTORS®--can play a role in pushing for schools with energy-efficient features, sustainable materials, day lighting, and better indoor air quality. In the end, the results of these efforts--including better schools, cost savings, healthier children, higher test scores, and stronger communities--may be immeasurable.


NAR Tools

NAR’s Green Designation1
The National Association of REALTORS® has created a green designation and benefits program tailored for real estate agents that provides advanced training in green building and sustainable business practices.

Web Resources

The Center for Green Schools2
The U.S. Green Building Council provides guidance, programming, and resources on green schools, including a set of useful planning, project-management, and policy-making guides, as well as links to the Coalition for Green Schools. Other valuable links at the center’s site include

Green School Buildings3
Useful K-12 building resources at the Center for Green Schools, including the Green Existing Schools Toolkit;

LEED-Certified and -Registered Schools4
To download a list of LEED-certified and LEED-registered schools, follow this link.

CEFPI’s Moving Sustainability Forward Symposium5
Council of Education Facility Planners International members, individuals, institutions, and corporations are actively involved in planning, designing, building, equipping, and maintaining schools and colleges. This sustainability symposium offers panel discussions, roundtables, and plenty of opportunities to talk about green innovations and ideas.

Collaborative for High Performing Schools6
Resources, guidance, and insights on high performance schools and how to work with CHPS to build or refurbish a school according to high performance criteria.

Green Schools Initiative7
Tools and research from this advocacy organization founded by parents and environmentalists to create environmentally healthy schools--including a blueprint for organizing to pass a school board initiative.8

IAQ Tools for Schools Program9
Guidance on how to implement a practical plan for improving indoor air quality at schools, including how to implement a districtwide IAQ Tools for Schools Program.

State Policies10
The Environmental Law Institute provides up-to-date information on state policies, guidelines, and incentives for building CHPS and LEED schools, with links to specific state requirements.

EPA Educational Resources11
The EPA provides links to programs for teaching sustainability in America’s classrooms--resources that you can share with your local schools.


See related article in REALTORS® Making a Difference, “Participate in the School of the Future Design Competition.”

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