Building Green and Healthy Places for Learning


Almost one in five Americans are housed in schools for the better part of each day, but many of these schools offer toxic environments with poor daylight and are sited in far-off places, which means they are both unhealthy learning environments and contribute to sprawl (or unhealthy communities). Creating green and healthy schools which are in walkable, bikeable neighborhoods is key to increasing test scores and graduating children who can be future stewards of the environment. But how do we build green schools? This question and others were asked during the National Building Museum’s latest “For the Greener Good” discussion on green schools.

Joanne Silberner, Health Correspondent, National Public Radio, moderated a panel featuring Dr. Howard Frumkin, Director, National Center for Environmental Health / Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Steve Turckes, Director of K-12 Educational Facilities Group, Perkins+Will, and Glenn Cummings, Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Education.  

Defining green schools

According to Steve Turckes, Perkins + Will, sustainability was best defined by the Brundtland Report: it means meeting the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. While sustainable design isn’t unique to schools, green schools must have lower energy and water usage, daylighting, and up-to-date mechanical systems. To be sustainable, these schools must also be sited in walkable environments.

Green schools should also teach sustainability and incorporate their green building features into the curriculum. “The school should be used as a tool to teach students these issues. A well-designed school can be an encyclopedia.”

Glenn Cummings, Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Education, concurred that the physical elements of a building are important, but, more importantly, green schools can help students “make the connections between the impact of their personal choices and the environment.” Green schools can create environments conducive to learning while also serving as an instructional tool. “For instance, through maximizing solar orientation, you can teach ecology, meteorology, climatology — students can learn about science.”

“Green + healthy is the real sweet spot,” said Dr. Howard Frumkin, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While many buildings are green, some may not be healthy — you want to have both. People need physical activity to be healthy. 

Using data to make the case

Frumkin said you can look at the rates of teacher and student absenteeism, asthma or other sicknesses, as well as test performance metrics and disciplinary problems at green and non-green schools. There’s positive “outcome data” out there, which can also be reviewed along with cost data. “Hopefully, once schools see this data, going green will just seem like good business sense.”

On cost, Turckes referred to Greg Katz’s data (see earlier post), which shows the cost premium of any green building at around two percent. “However, that data is now four years old. Right now, we think there is no extra cost to building green. With the extra energy savings and health benefits, the question is why wouldn’t you do it?”

Obstacles preventing their growth

It seems amazing, but according to Cummings, 14 million children go to school each day in “outright dangerous” schools. As you see in Washington, D.C. before the school term starts, schools scramble to “remedy buildings so they will be legal to occupy.” The U.S. has hundreds of thousands of school buildings, many of which were created up to 50 years ago. “The real challenge is retrofitting older buildings so they can be turned into green buildings.”

Turckes said the vast majority of those older buildings haven’t benefitted from newer technologies. “There have been huge advances in building technologies.” But still, many older buildings are mold-infested and feature outmoded air ventilation systems.

On the positive side, he said it’s possible to revamp an older school. “We just figured out how to integrate an energy-efficient system into a vintage 1960’s school.” 

The perception of the higher cost of green schools may present an obstacle. “There is no extra cost to sustainable design — it’s embedded, a form-driver. We use integrated interdisciplinary teams to do sustainable design up front, thereby removing inefficiences and saving costs.” However, with tight budgets, some schools still see commissioning agent and U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) accreditation costs as a burden. To fight this: Turckes says some schools use the sustainable design process, but go green without getting the certificate.

On top of these challenges, local governments sometimes make it difficult for themselves. “Budget structures can create obstacles to green buildings — maintenance and operations are often in two separate pots.”

Addressing critical health problems

If a school can’t afford to retrofit, Frumkin said, they can replace toxic cleaning supplies, ensure they are keeping HVAC maintenance up-to-date, and continually discard art / science lab chemicals. “With budget cuts, sloppiness can set in.” To prevent this sloppiness, Frumkin recommended the E.P.A.’s school audit tools. “Greeing a school doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Safer cleaning materials and doormats so students can wipe their feet at the entrances of school buildings can help keep toxins out.”

Frumkin also said educational workers — teachers, administrators, janitors — face enormous occupational hazards working in these older schools. On the positive side though, he said, there were some good studies looking at these workers and showing the positive effects of moving to green schools.”They are an easy population to study because they stay in buildings for a long time.”

Designing a healthy environment

In terms of student health, siting schools in walkable neighborhoods is key to fighting obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Sedentary lifestyles set a bad example. Frumkin added, “unfortunately, now a small minority of children walk or bike to school. This didn’t used to be the case.”

To remedy this, schools basically need Smart Growth neighborhoods, with high levels of connectivity, inter-connected grid-like networks of streets, careful intersection engineering, roads with traffic calming measures, and dedicated lanes for children to walk to school. “Sidewalks and paths need to be safe for children.”

Frumkin added changes are needed to the built environment, policy, and behavior. He cited Safe Routes to Schools, and No Child Left Inside, two major movements, as very positive.  He also called for high fructose-drinks and vending machines to be removed from schools.

The future of sustainability

Turckes said all buildings need to be carbon neutral or net-zero in the near future. “This is where we need to get.” He cited the Architecture 2030 campaign. The U.S. in particular needs to get its act together. “We have 5 percent of the world’s population, but use 25 percent of its resources. This needs to be dramatically improved.”

Cummings said sustainability curriculum needs to be further incorporated into schools so the U.S. can scale up for the green jobs of the future. (see earlier post). One audience member noted, however, that even if sustainability is on teachers’ radars, it’s often not included in “No Child Left Inside”-mandated tests, so it gets bumped.

In terms of the future of health and sustainability, “the recently passed health reform package will lead to a new focus on the prevention of illness,” Frumkin said. “Green buildings, sustainable neighborhoods, healthy lifestyles — my dream is to marry all these together.” In the future, he said, perhaps health specialists will also be involved in green building design from the beginning.

Image credit: 2010 Professional Honor Award, General Design. Nueva School, Hillsborough, CA U.S.A. Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, San Francisco, U.S.A.

One thought on “Building Green and Healthy Places for Learning

  1. Liz Stanley 05/05/2010 / 9:47 am

    Sustainability in the built environment is an extremely hot topic here in the UK, especially when trying to overcome the challenges being faced in developing non-domestic buildings, schools being the perfect example.

    UK Government targets show that by 2016 there will be 36 carbon neutral schools in the country, and others will be expected to go carbon neutral by improving energy efficiency through insulation, double glazing, using low energy equipment and encouraging children to turn off appliances.

    Schools will also be expected to generate their own heat and power where appropriate by installing solar panels, wood chip boilers and wind turbines.

    But we still have a long way to go until we see this as the norm rather than the exception in UK schools.

    Next week sees Sustainability Now take place, a free virtual event which examines the key issues around sustainability in the built environment. It’s fairly Europe focused but has some interesting sessions which will apply on both sides of the Atlantic. http://www.sustainabilitynowevent.com

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