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Cover Story - March 2006

Green Schools

K-12 Schools Learn the Ropes of Sustainable Design

by Diane Greer

The education sector in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut is turning the corner on the use of green design and construction methods.

The shift comes at a time when a growing body of evidence is finding that green schools provide healthier learning environments and enhance student performance while also saving energy and reducing operating costs for school districts.

Examples include a state-run initiative in Washington called the Washington Sustainable Schools Pilot Program that found green schools correlated with a 5 percent increase in student test scores, a 5 percent reduction in teacher turnover, a 15 percent reduction in absenteeism, a 25 percent reduction in energy use on average, and a 38 percent drop in potable water usage.

Similarly, the 2005 Market Barometer Survey conducted by Turner Construction of New York found that senior administrators of K-12 school facilities rated green schools higher for their ability to improve student performance, reduce absenteeism, and attract and retain teachers [see Studies below].


Experience in the field is showing that these benefits can be realized for about the same cost as conventional schools if design teams employ integrated design practices early in the planning process, said Bob Maddox, president of the Connecticut Green Building Council, an organization based in Rocky Hill, Conn., that promotes green construction but is not a direct affiliate of the U.S. Green Building Council. Still, construction and renovation of schools to high-performance standards has not become the norm.

The major factors holding back a bigger shift to green methods are a lack of understanding about the design concepts and the potential for higher upfront costs, Maddox said. But as the number of green school projects grows, some districts and contractors are finding ways to achieve smaller cost differentials.

For example, the $22 million Carlstadt Public School in Carlstadt, N.J., which is being built to serve a K-8 enrollment in Bergen County, achieved sustainable goals with no increase in costs, said Patrick LaCorte, principal at DMR Architects of Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., the architect on the project.

Similarly, green features at the new $48 million Hamden Middle School being built in Hamden, Conn., are adding $333,000 to the budget, or 0.7 percent of the total project cost, said Ryszard Sczcypek, a partner at Tai Soo Kim Partners of Hartford, Conn., an architectural firm that designed the school. That's much less than the 5 to 10 percent typically cited as the premium for green construction in the building industry.

One factor holding down costs is the effort to introduce integrated design practices - which view all building elements as a single system of interacting components - early in the planning process.

"Clearly utilizing an integrated design approach upfront is the way you achieve high-performance schools on a budget," Maddox said.

Integrated design calls for project teams to strategize early in the process to maximize building performance within the stated budget. Architects for a $22 million renovation of Roxboro Road Middle School in Syracuse, N.Y., got the owner, consultants, and design team to brainstorm about systems before starting schematic designs.

"We wanted a wholly integrated sustainable building on all fronts," said Krista Hannacker, an architect with Ashley McGraw Architects of Syracuse, which designed the Roxboro project.

At the $29 million, 203,000-sq.-ft. Calkins Road Middle School being built in Pittsford, N.Y., "integrated design and simulation tools identified the components of the project significantly contributing to energy performance and then steered project funding toward those components," said Christopher Balbach, HVAC engineer at Thomas Associates of Ithaca, N.Y., the project's architect.

Another factor keeping down high-performance school budgets is a maturing market for green building goods and materials, which has allowed product costs to drop and availability to increase.

And some school districts are saving money by opting out of the expense for the green building council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification.

"Paying the fees for certification or preparing the paperwork is something very few clients are willing to do," said Christian Nielsen-Palacios, associate principal at Thomas Associates. He declined to cite the specific costs, however.

Either way, greater familiarity with green building methods, aided in part by the LEED standards, has made approaching these projects less daunting, said Jim Culkin, project executive for Konover Construction of Farmington, Conn., who also credited teamwork and coordination for facilitating the construction of the Hamden project.

"We spent a lot of time on preconstruction on this job, working closely with Tai Soo Kim Partners and the client," Culkin said. "You hear people talk about how difficult it is to build a LEED building, but frankly I do not really think it was a factor here."

Tools and Systems Gain Prominence

At the $30.6 million, 149,000-sq.-ft. Neptune Community School under construction in Neptune Township, N.J., several systems build toward a goal of reduced energy consumption and lower operating costs. One is a geothermal heating and cooling system tied to heat pumps that feed an under-floor air-delivery system, while other features include triple-pane windows and insulation levels beyond code requirements, both to improve energy efficiency.

The project, for which the Neptune public school district is seeking gold-level LEED certification, added $125,000 to the budget for energy-efficient features. But these features helped to reduce heating and cooling loads by 40 percent, which in turn allowed for the downsizing of mechanical systems by approximately 50 percent, saving $295,000, said Marcus Rosenau, an associate with SSP Architectural Group of Somerville, N.J.

"We also reduced operating costs by $80,000 per year," he added.

At the Calkins school in Pittsford, energy recovery systems and additional insulation improved energy efficiency by 30 percent over a standard code-compliant building. Energy recovery ventilators allowed a 30 percent reduction in the size of a geothermal well field and heat pumps servicing the classrooms. The project team also installed a unique refrigerant-free dehumidification system for the new school's indoor swimming pool that utilizes outside air to dehumidify the space and provide ventilation.

Beyond the cost- and energy-saving features, the green construction movement is also resulting in improved indoor air quality in schools, based on the research and field evidence suggesting that better air quality corresponds to a lower level of student absences. Both the Neptune and Roxboro Road projects utilize a displacement ventilation system to provide fresh air.

At the 148,200-sq.-ft. Roxboro facility, low-velocity clean air that is slightly cooler than room temperature funnels in at floor level. As the body heat of pupils and teachers warms the clean air and causes it to rise, it captures germs and other indoor contaminants and exhausts them via units at the top of the room, Hannacker said.

Another integral feature of the high-performance school construction wave is the maximization of daylight exposure, which also saves energy and is tied to improved student performance. The architects of the Neptune facility decided to rotate the structure from its original footprint to maximize daylight "harvesting." Meanwhile, light shelves and sunscreens on the building's exterior bounce the light deeper into classrooms.

At Roxboro, 90 percent of the occupied spaces have exposure to daylight. In both facilities, daylight sensors reduce or eliminate artificial light requirements.

Site improvements also reveal green thinking. Small water retention areas built around the site of the new Hamden school in Connecticut, set to open this fall, helped to reduce stormwater runoff.

"Water captured by the system is infiltrated through native planting and soils and then back into the groundwater," said Tai Soo Kim's Sczcypek.

Similarly, the Carlstadt school installed water-efficient fixtures and eliminated the need for irrigation by landscaping with drought-resistant plants. Overall water use is 20 percent lower than with a standard building, said Pradeep Kapoor, project manager for DMR.

While the current slate of green projects is not a large percentage of the hefty volume of school construction in the region, the pace of sustainable design is gaining momentum.

For instance, New Jersey enacted Executive Order 24 last year, which requires all schools to meet LEED guidelines, though not necessarily to get LEED certification, said Dean Evan, director of the New Jersey Institute for Technology's Center for Architecture and Building Science Research. Meanwhile, a bill is pending in Connecticut's state legislature that would require all schools to meet similar standards, Maddox said.

In addition, New York City recently enacted a law calling for green construction for municipal buildings, including schools, by 2007.

And New York State is developing a set of school construction guidelines that would be based on standards set by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, a nonprofit organization founded in California that has developed voluntary sustainable design standards tailored to schools. According to Matthew Brown, associate project manager at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the New York guidelines would likely be voluntary as well.

Quick Stats
Calkins Road Middle School
Location: Pittsford, N.Y.
Cost: $29 million
Specifications: New, 203,000-sq.-ft., two-story building
LEED goal: Not pursuing
Architect: Thomas Associates Architects, Ithaca, N.Y.
Expected completion: Spring 2006

Roxboro Road Middle School
Location: Syracuse, N.Y.
Cost: $22 million
Specifications: Renovation and additions, 148,200-sq.-ft., two-story building
LEED goal: Certified level
Architect: Ashley McGraw Architects, Syracuse, N.Y.
Expected completion: December 2006

Neptune Township Midtown Community Elementary School
Location: Neptune, N.J.
Cost: $30.6 million
Specifications: New, 149,700-sq.-ft., three-story building
LEED goal: Gold level
Architect: SSP Architectural Group, Somerville, N.J.
Expected completion: December 2006

Carlstadt Public School K-8
Location: Carlstadt, N.J.
Cost: $22 million
Specifications: New, 111,097-sq.-ft., three-story building
LEED goal: Silver level
Architect: DMR Architects, Hasbrouck Heights, N.J.
Expected completion: August 2006

Hamden Middle School
Location: Hamden, Conn.
Cost: $48 million
Specifications: New, 197,000-sq.-ft., two-story building
LEED goal: Certified level
Architect: Tai Soo Kim Partners,
Hartford, Conn.
Expected completion: September 2006

Studies and Stats on Green Schools

Washington Sustainable Schools Pilot Project: www.k12.wa.us/schfacilities
A recent study of high-performance schools under the Washington Sustainable Schools Pilot Program found correlation with a 5 percent increase in student test scores, a 5 percent reduction in teacher turnover, and a 15 percent reduction in absenteeism. It also found a reduction in energy use on average of 25 percent and potable water usage of 38 percent.

Turner Construction 2005 Market Barometer Survey Results for K-12 Schools: www.turnerconstruction.com/corporate/content.asp?d=4919&p=4008
The study found that senior executives and administrators of K-12 facilities rated green K-12 schools higher in their ability to improve student performance (71 percent), reduce absenteeism (72 percent), and attract and retain teachers (74 percent). The survey also found 49 percent of respondents citing improved indoor air quality, and 37 percent citing an increase in natural lighting, as the most important factors contributing to the improved health and well-being of school occupants.

Heschong Mahone Group Daylighting and Productivity Study:
A study quantifying benefits of high-performance schools, with a particular focus on the effects of maximizing daylight exposure. Among the findings were that sunlight glare negatively affected student learning while an ample and pleasant view outside of windows corresponded with better student achievement. The study also found that poor ventilation and indoor air quality appeared to have a negative effect on student performance.

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