Sustainable Projects

We have all heard some, if not all of these terms. I think it means that sustainable strategies and design have become mainstream in K-12 design. What can be more compelling than a facility that can be used as a teaching tool; someplace where the entire school is a critical learning environment.

So let’s talk design. There are two usual ways to approach green school design — application of voluntary strategies that the A/E team and owner agree to, or a certified approach where the project is registered, vetted by a third party and awarded certification at some level pending review of the required metrics. At the end of the day, any well-developed sustainable strategy provides proven long-term benefits through operating cost savings (district), better teaching environments (staff) better learning settings (students) and better public perception (parents).

The certified methods are definitely easier for the public to perceive. With little or no knowledge of which green practices were incorporated, one will know that a school is sustainable as evidenced by a LEED or CHIPS certification. Voluntary strategies can be just as effective and as overt as a certification. For instance, solar arrays and water cisterns are very identifiable features.

Today, there are multiple features that are very easy to embrace — the low hanging fruit. Examples include low-flow plumbing fixtures, energy-efficient light fixtures, efficient HVAC systems, low-VOC materials, regionally produced materials, building orientation, high-efficiency glazing and daylighting strategies. Most of these items can be incorporated without adding any cost to a project and most are as the industry moves more in this direction.

Another major consideration is the renovation and reuse of existing structures. The energy to produce, transport and install materials has already been spent. Applying sustainable features to existing facilities makes renovation a very viable choice. Often times, the creativity required to transform existing projects produces the best result. I really think that thoughtful renovation is the most sustainable project.

Moving from design, there are two basic factors that will dictate the long-term sustainability of a project — design of systems that consume or produce energy and how the building is used. I think we can all agree that energy costs will probably continue to rise. Obviously, anything that can be done to offset and reduce consumption is very sustainable. For a new project, orientation plays a huge role in both passive and active solar strategies. Renovations can be designed to minimize consumption. Onsite production such as solar PV is becoming more affordable and can provide a warrantied, 25-year stream of electricity to offset usage. A lot of municipalities are offering rebates, and along with tax credits, solar becomes even more attractive. Another key decision is the selection of mechanical systems. The HVAC needs to be selected based on life cycle costs rather than initial installation costs. Oftentimes, efficient systems are cut the first round of “value engineering.” Remember, this is something that operates year-round for the lifetime of the building, so annual reduction of consumption results in the savings that will always be there. Investigate thermal storage, geothermal, mag-bearing chillers and other innovative systems. I like to think of it this way; sustainable projects funded by bonds, approved by voters, show that the community has decided to fund a district via an energy-efficiency annuity. In other words, they have agreed to pay for efficiencies via taxes so a district can benefit from energy efficiencies over the lifetime of a project.

The second factor is usage, this is often more difficult than the design. Usage depends on each and every occupant, which is not always easy to control. Do people keep the water running continuously when soaping up hands? Are windows and doors left open when conditioning systems are operating? Are personal space heaters being used to offset air conditioning? There are a lot of examples, but one of the most compelling is the vampire load. For instance, leaving all equipment plugged in can double the usage when the building is unoccupied (we discovered this at our own office while quantifying our 21kW solar array). One client estimated that they could save about $100,000 annually (at a single high school campus) if they regularly unplugged equipment not in use. Pretty amazing that we all probably have access to this free funding just by changing some of our habits.

In conclusion, sustainable design in K-12 projects is definitely becoming more the norm rather than the exception. It’s really a two-pronged attack; design sustainably then educate the users to use it to maximize the design.

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Lowell Tacker, AIA LEED-AP, is a principal at LPA, Inc. an integrated design firm.

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