Sustainable Schools

Learning from Design

Sustainable design has had a dramatic impact on the design of educational environments. Communities, districts and associations across the country are actively engaged and committed to enhancing the performance of our school buildings. Impressive rigor, resources and effort are being leveraged to achieve ambitious targets like Net Zero Energy (NZE).

We now have the opportunity to leverage enthusiasm, new resources and tools associated with NZE to achieve an even broader set of goals that specifically target our clients’ core missions: education. What if, in conjunction with resource conservation, we focused the same intensity and rigor on demonstrably enhancing educational outcomes through environmental design? This more expansive, ambitious goal could be called Net Positive Education™.

How would we begin? Like NZE you would define desired outcomes and determine the design strategies that could have the greatest impact on achieving these outcomes. Once the new facilities are open and in use, you could then confirm the results.

For outcomes, we could begin by looking at data that schools already collect, like test scores, enrollment, absenteeism, retention, graduation rates, and incident reports. We could then look to identify research that establishes linkages to performance metrics. For example, the literature on daylight is well established. There are also new insights from the Harvard School of Public Health into the relationship between carbon dioxide and cognitive function and air pollution and chronic absenteeism and the body of directly relevant research is growing. Building from criteria established by the Center for the Built Environment, we can define Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ).

In addition to IEQ, high-performance school design addresses other factors including support for teaching and learning, community, and safety and security. While IEQ factors tend to be universal, the latter are more significantly influenced by cultural factors. These are defined best for each project during the programming phase and information can be gathered through observation, focus groups and pre-occupancy surveys of the staff and students.

Let’s look at a few examples of how this has worked in practice. At Dunbar Senior High School, in Washington, D.C., we were commissioned to replace an existing Brutalist school building with a new facility that ultimately was certified LEED for Schools Platinum. From the very beginning, the focus was on leveraging design to create high-performance learning environments. Orientation, acoustics, daylight, visual comfort, views, thermal comfort, indoor air quality, community building adjacencies, place-making and subtle security measures were all prioritized in design.

Qualitative data on existing performance against the high-performance criteria was collected through a pre-occupancy evaluation (PreOE) of the faculty and students. These surveys were complemented by post-occupancy evaluation (POE) after a year of occupancy. Finally, we reviewed performance data provided by the school.

The findings reinforced many of the design priorities. Quantitatively, after moving into the new building, the school returned the highest test score gains of any high school in the city. Enrollment increased by 20 percent and graduation rates increased by 10 percent. As with NZE, NPE results depend on the actual use and activities occurring within the building. The surveys provide insights into changes in activity and use influencing these results. For example, students reported a significantly greater sense of community — 70 percent greater in the new building than the old — and faculty and staff reported a significantly enhanced sense of safety and security.

The lessons learned at Dunbar were used to refine our NPE evaluation process and also to inform the design of our next major school replacement project, the Martin Luther King Jr. School in Cambridge, Mass. Refined PreOE and POE surveys were complemented by a new array of tools that would allow us to complement the qualitative information gathered from the users with hard data on Indoor Environmental Quality of both the existing and the new buildings.

Preliminary data from this process are also showing positive indicators that the emphasis on the creation of a high-performance learning environment will lead to enhanced educational outcomes. For example, 100 percent of survey respondents agree that the design of a school building creates a pleasant place to work and learn, and 76 percent of the respondents report that new gathering spaces successfully support a sense of community in new building. Within the new classrooms, teachers reported a 66 percent greater degree of satisfaction with visual comfort. These conclusions were reinforced by the data collected on glare in the pre- and postoccupancy analyses.

The next steps in the process are to dig into the school’s performance data and evaluate whether these positive indicators are having a net positive impact on education. As we continue to pursue Net Zero Energy, let’s broaden the conversation beyond its notable conservation goals to also realize an even greater potential — to contribute to Net Positive Education™.

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Sean O'Donnell AIA, LEED-AP, is a principal and practice area leader of primary and secondary education with Perkins Eastman in New York.

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