Trends in Green

Sustainable Schools

Many standards and point systems exist to help designers facilitate a sustainable school facility or campus. Not all of them, however, define characteristics of lasting value, as viewed through the lens of the student or community member.

There are two sides to this issue: the first cost and the long-term value. First costs can be impacted through the designer’s specifications, but how can we impact the efficiency of the school building and health of its occupants to add long-term value? As sustainability becomes more closely tied with resiliency, we should consider methods to enhance the design process through collaboration and planning. Resiliency is the relative capacity of any facility to adapt to changing environmental conditions while maintaining functionality and vibrancy. In other words, can it adapt?

The impact of sustainable design strategies and school planning innovations, in particular, is evident. A recent qualitative study completed by DLR Group with the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University observed that 85 percent of teachers teaching in the sustainable schools studied reported a positive effect on productivity, 60 percent of the schools had one fewer student absence per year, 87 percent reported a positive impact on student health and 71 percent perceived a positive effect on achievement.

An educational facility master plan clarifies value

DLR Group recently collaborated with a large district in the upper midwest that serves approximately 28,000 students in almost 50 schools. The district recognized the need to upgrade its facilities. In order to know more about existing facility conditions, an observational assessment was completed by district staff.

Typical items were all within reasonable expectations with respect to their age. With those qualities and quantities known, the team developed costs and prioritized a first round of projects.

Some districts and consultants may stop the investigation there and risk leaving unanswered questions, only diagnosing what is visually apparent at the expense of long-term, community value.

Faced with limited financial resources and visionary ideas to change its educational approach, the district challenged DLR Group to balance requisite repairs and improved energy efficiency with its academic needs such as grade level formatting, cohort size and a growing 21st-century curriculum as part of a more holistic educational facilities master plan.

What about the learning environment?

DLR Group developed an innovative process to blend a physical condition assessment with indoor environmental quality and learning qualities embodied in educational facility readiness. Educational facility readiness is a proactive concept stemming from the ability of the environment to support a vision for teaching and learning. To help quantify the environments, we developed an integrated approach between engineers, planners, designers and students. By using survey instruments, interviews, workshops and trend logging equipment, we measured attributes of the indoor environment that otherwise would have been overlooked. Some of the data gathered included: lighting levels, acoustics, moisture/humidity and CO2. We also surveyed staff to ascertain thermal and visual comfort attributes with a specially tailored ASHRAE survey instrument.

In order to obtain the data, students and engineers developed a plan for how each logging instrument, or sensor system would be placed and for how long they would be operational. It wasn’t feasible to log every room, so specific classroom traits were selected to ensure the data was comparable. Orientation, the presence of natural light/windows and only one exterior wall were all considered prior to placement.

With the information in hand, energy modelers and building commissioning specialists analyzed and graphed the findings. Each facility was then given an overall “grade” based upon how it measured against its respective industry standard and was contrasted with sister schools. The findings pointed to several schools being outside acceptable norms. This intermediate step was critical in aiding the task force with defining their objectives and making difficult decisions under the master plan process.

The noted negative affect on the indoor environmental quality and learning environments likely manifested itself in previously untracked qualities like: increased absenteeism, classroom communication issues, reduced comfort, headaches and eye strain.

The district staff, our integrated design team and administration refined 96 options into a single plan. Without the data as our foundation, the difficult decisions surrounding each facility would have been far more challenging. In the end, the district discovered it could reduce the overall elementary school footprint, enhance academic services, while reducing energy and operational costs. After weighing the positives and negatives, the plan was widely supported by the district leadership and community. It was successful because we were able to meet the measure of sustainable, lasting value and develop a plan through meaningful collaboration.

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Jason Lembke, AIA, LEED-AP is a principal and K-12 designer with DLR Group. He is responsible for design, programming, planning, and project administration for K-12 clients in Illinois school districts and across the upper Midwest.

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