Education and Technology:
Microsoft Learning Tools is software that helps improve reading skills by reducing visual crowding, highlighting words, and reading text aloud, so students can engage with words in a whole new way.
Learn More
Education by Design Education by Design

Education by Design

by Eva Steele-Saccio

August 16, 2007

Affordable and community-driven, the green-school movement stands to change the world in which children learn. So what's the holdup? 

Ten years ago, if an architect said he was designing a green school, most people would have assumed he had decided to paint the façade a pleasant shade of sage. But now it's 2007, and "green schools" are part of a growing movement that is changing the environments in which students learn-and has parents clamoring to get their children on waiting lists. This is the business of sustainable school design; building high-performance facilities that are both better for the planet and for the children who learn in them.Since the beginning of the century, architects, environmental groups, and educators have launched a convincing, if somewhat disjointed, campaign to get new school building and renovation projects to adopt the tenets of high-performance design. And it's been quite successful. School districts across the country have jumped on the bandwagon, hiring some of the best architects in the business to construct sustainable facilities across the country, from Hawaii to Texas to New Jersey.At their core, green schools are about helping the environment. They are built from recycled materials and use renewable energy systems that maximize efficiency in electricity, water usage, heating, and cooling. On average, they use 30 percent less energy and 30 to 50 percent less water than conventional school buildings, and they reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent. But beyond the obvious environmental concerns, green schools are about saving money. The lower energy use results in savings of more than $100,000 annually per school. That's enough to hire two new teachers, buy 150 new computers, or purchase 5,000 new textbooks. Even more eye-opening: If all new school and renovation construction starting in 2007 followed these guidelines, the energy savings would amount to $20 billion over the next 10 years.

Beyond their sustainability, green schools are better learning environments.

Then there is the most important factor in designing a school: education. Green schools create a healthy atmosphere for learning that has measurable results. The combination of natural light, fresh air, open plans, and multi-use facilities that encourage community involvement has helped student test scores rise by 20 percent and reduced asthma rates by 39 percent. In green schools, teacher retention increases and missed school days decrease. The bottom line is that beyond their sustainability, green schools are simply better learning environments: Students and teachers are happier and get a lot more done in the classroom.Still, the green-school movement faces some formidable obstacles. "The irony here is that the greatest barrier is education," says Bob Kobet, a sustainable-architecture consultant. "There is still the misconception that green buildings cost more, that they are too complicated and take too long to build." In a 2005 survey of executives working in the construction business, three-quarters of those polled said that higher cost was a major obstacle to sustainable building. School districts' small budgets exacerbate the problem; it's difficult to justify the extra up-front cost when you barely have enough money to replace textbooks and hire new teachers.But the reality is that green schools cost only 2 percent more to build and the potential long-term savings are in the billions of dollars nationally. This becomes an even more meaningful statistic when you consider the lifespan of schools. "If you blow it, you blow it for 35 years," says Kobet. If you consider that school buildings make up the largest sector of nonresidential construction projects in the U.S.-a projected $80 billion from 2006 to 2008-and that each of the country's more than 55 million students attends school for an average of 1,300 hours annually, the small investment makes a lot of sense. Add in all the potential savings, both monetary and physical, and it quickly becomes clear how crucial and timely the green-school movement is.

Interdistrict used local, renewable wheat board in the furnishings, water-based paints and finishes, and recycled tile in the bathrooms.


In 1998, the U.S. Green Building Council established the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System, which certifies and grades new building projects according to their level of sustainability. Last spring, the USGBC officially launched LEED for Schools, which was tailored to meet the specific needs of K through 12 classrooms and to provide a barometer for better building performance. Right now, 300 schools are on the waiting list for certification-a telling measure of the movement's rapid growth.The movement began on a small scale, with only a few schools willing to take a chance on a new vision: investing in education by paying attention to its physical infrastructure. Drawing on a tradition of sustainable design that dates back to the 1980s, architecture firms started reshaping school planning, one campus at a time.

Clackamas also has an energy-monitoring-and-control system that measures outdoor and indoor temperatures and CO2 levels to determine which rooms to heat and cool.

On the West Coast, Boora Architects, which is based in Portland, Oregon, paved the way with the first LEED-certified, K through 12 project, a high school in the Portland suburb of Clackamas. It rigged an innovative lighting system to provide natural daylight to 90 percent of the school. To control the distribution of light, the principal architect, Heinz Rudolf, explains, "We used light scoops to collect sunlight through translucent windows and skylights in upper areas of classroom wings. The daylight is then transferred to adjacent spaces via clerestory windows" and to lower floors via mirrored tubes that move light down from the roof. This substantially reduced the need for artificial lighting. "In turn," Rudolf says, "it decreases the heat load and energy costs of electric lights." Clackamas also has an energy-monitoring-and-control system that measures outdoor and indoor temperatures and CO2 levels to determine which rooms to heat or cool. In all, the planning has saved the school an average of $70,000 per year in energy costs.Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Cuningham Group was making impressive breakthroughs with the city's Interdistrict Downtown School. The architects used local, renewable wheat board in the furnishings, water-based paints and finishes, and recycled tile in the bathrooms, then integrated a solar heating "wall" that warms fresh air as it enters the school, reducing the energy needed to heat the building during the brutal Minnesota winters. Cuningham also capitalized on existing community resources-an important tenet of high-performance design. "Creating great schools is about creating great places to learn, places rooted in the culture of the people they serve," explains Cuningham's president, Tim Dufault. "For a school to truly be sustainable, it has to grow from its community." And this school certainly did grow. Cuningham used the district's steam system as the primary heat source for the facility, eliminating the need for an additional boiler. The firm also helped the school establish partnerships with downtown organizations, including the YMCA (which provided gym space), the main public library (books), local theaters (performance space), and a private music school (band and orchestra programs). "By creating these partnerships," says Dufault, "we didn't need to invest resources in facilities that were already available." The school positioned itself firmly within the community, and the community embraced the energy students gave back.Kobet, who chaired the committee that drafted LEED, agrees: "Schools used to be the fabric of community. We can't avoid returning to that." High-performance schools will reconnect us to that idea, Kobet says. "They are a catalyst for bringing back the concept of lifelong learning-sharing the swimming pool, getting adults back onto campus." That means building facilities that not only depend on their community's resources but also create new ones. Kobet recently advised the Olympic planning committee in Beijing on a mixed-use building that will serve athletes during the 2008 summer games; afterward, it will become a community center that houses a school. "It will be central to the community," says Kobet, "an essential part of the entirely green village."

Interdistrict integrates into the community and takes advantage of local resources by partnering with the YMCA (gym space), the main public library (books), local theaters (performance space), and a private music school (band and orchestra programs).

Boora Architects sees a similar future for the United States. "The buildings we are planning will serve students well into the next century," says Rudolf. "They will be flexible and change, staying open 24 hours a day. Schools will serve as community centers with overlapping functions: they'll have teleconferencing centers where the elderly can also learn to check their email."

The logic is that understanding one's place in the larger community-learning how to both provide and use local resources in a responsible way-helps students see that their individual actions have a far-reaching impact. This is further enforced by fostering an awareness of one's immediate surroundings through a curriculum tied directly to school buildings. "Environmental education has always been about the natural world," says Kobet. When you learn about the environment, you learn about the outdoors-wildlife, weather, the life cycle of a tree. But, oddly, little connection is made to the man-made world, which often affects the environment in much more lasting ways than the changing seasons. In a country where buildings alone account for 48 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, human influence becomes a crucial factor to integrate into an understanding of the "natural" world. The issue becomes how to best teach about this overlap.

Schools used to be the fabric of community. We can't avoid returning to that.

Luckily, explains Kobet, "Modern education is gesturing toward an effective environmental curriculum in which we can use our educational facilities to much more effectively teach children what they need to know to be more competent citizens." Students interact directly with the facilities they use; they take real-time data (energy use, humidity level, temperature changes) from central servers and incorporate it into daily math and science assignments. For example, a high school junior can calculate energy consumption by pulling up numbers on how much light the football team used at night practice versus how much artificial light was used during the school day. They might then compare these numbers to energy use at a conventional facility and calculate the percent change, gaining a more immediate awareness of how sustainable architecture affects use of resources. "They learn from everything they've done within their ecological footprint," says Kobet.In a particularly potent example of synergy, at Clackamas, the students themselves were enlisted to develop the plan for the new high school. The shop class built a full-scale plywood mock-up of a classroom on the building site, helping the firm test the natural ventilation and lighting systems.When the school was finished, the same students experienced the effects of their labor firsthand; they now learn in classrooms filled with fresh air and sunlight instead of in stuffy, dark spaces. Says Rudolf, "We wanted to make the building teacher in itself." Consider this the mark of a quintessential green school.

Recently on GOOD
Sign up to receive the best of GOOD delivered to your inbox each and every weekday
Education by Design