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Trend: Designing to minimize local and global environmental impacts

Trend: Designing to exploit the confluence between sustainable environments and effective learning environments

The 2007 and 2008 award submissions suggest we have reached a tipping point: sustainability now appears to be on everyone’s radar. Interest in sustainable school design has gained momentum over the last two years, driven by state green-building programs, a better understanding of the educational benefits and a growing community of committed architects—as well as an expanding public awareness of global warming.

To some it may seem like baby steps, and late ones too, given the scale of the problem and how long it has been looming—but it is forward movement. And it signifies seismic shifts. For Americans it means moving beyond the frontier sense of wide-open spaces and limitless abundance that is so fundamental to our sense of who we are.

For our educational clients, it means a shift in priorities, a reassessment in the face of increasing stakeholder demands, emerging data about health and learning benefits and an evolving cost formula.

Financial Benefits

Decision makers may be more receptive to sustainable design, but architects must nevertheless be prepared to make the case for the life-cycle savings that justify higher initial costs. That has never been easier: the cost differential is decreasing, the payback period is shrinking—and the database is expanding.

In his foreword to “Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits,” Henry Kelly, President of the Federation of American Scientists, concluded that “failure to invest in green technologies is not financially responsible for school systems…” The 2006 study determined that the average “green premium” of $3 per square foot was more than offset by savings in energy and water costs, improved teacher retention and lowered health costs, calculated at $12 per square foot —four times the initial investment.

Architects who practice sustainable design have developed strategies to help clients understand and appreciate the costs and benefits of building green. A Total Cost of Ownership Analysis of operational, maintenance and replacement costs over the life of the building helps owners understand—and communicate—the rationale for building green. When the school opens, these architects collaborate with clients to collect and analyze data to demonstrate—and reinforce—the value of sustainability.

Educational and Health Benefits

There is increasing evidence that the quality of the environment contributes to the quality of learning—that there is a confluence between the characteristics of a sustainable environment and those of an effective learning environment. Emerging research validates what many architects and educators have known intuitively to be true.

Architects can now show clients their investment in sustainability will generate critical outcomes. Studies have linked green qualities such as daylighting, acoustics, natural ventilation and indoor air quality to student outcomes, including better attendance, greater attentiveness and higher achievement.

A healthier environment for students means a healthier environment for staff as well, and the data suggest a relationship between green design and staff satisfaction and teacher retention.

Recent CAE design award submissions suggest commonalities between strategies for creating sustainability and strategies for creating effective learning environments. They share key traits, and school designers have begun to merge them.

Fundamentals of Sustainable Design

There are now effective measuring sticks for sustainable design, including LEED, recently adapted to school construction. These cover a broad range of construction processes and products, as well as design features, ranging from the native and drought-resistant landscaping out front to the recycled building materials inside.

Underlying the specific features that accrue points—and ultimately implement the vision—there are just a few fundamental concepts.

One important aspect of sustainable design is designing for the building’s context. Sustainable design means understanding things like sun and mass to use building devices that complement the environment, rather than mechanical systems that block it out. It means reusing materials from the site and achieving a sense of balance between the building and its context.

Another is understanding the building and its site as a system, linked to other systems, in the immediate environment and ultimately global. This often involves water: capturing, cleansing and reusing it—and restoring natural water systems.

Another fundamental concept is recycling—not just construction waste but buildings and sites. It has been said that the greenest building is the one we already have. This means reclaiming buildings, perhaps old schools but more often a variety of other buildings, to create new and exciting learning environments—and to avoid adding a building. And the greenest site may be a brown field, if using it reclaims it and protects open land. Innovative strategies, such as adaptive reuse and the use of nontraditional sites, are undertaken for a variety of reasons, but they are also part of a broader perspective on sustainability.

Extended use, usually through community partnerships, is another sustainable concept. Shared buildings mean fewer buildings, and buildings that operate longer are more energy-efficient because they make use of embedded heat.

The most enduring aspect of sustainable school design—its greatest impact on the environment and on society—is that it will help to create sustainable human beings. It will be green students—not green buildings—who ultimately make the difference. Sustainable buildings can be exciting teaching buildings, real-world labs that help to make education matter to students and that help to create generations of human beings who expect to live in a green world.

Looking Ahead

Sustainability is a moving target. Standing on top of this hill gives you a vista on the next. Reduced carbon footprints are already giving way to net-zero buildings, and there is talk of living buildings.

Several states have adopted sustainable construction requirements that impact schools and universities, and others are likely to follow. Stakeholders are more interested and more vocal. More studies of the educational, health, environmental and financial benefits of sustainable construction are in the pipeline. The momentum will continue.

Examples of Sustainable Design

The Nueva Hillside Learning Complex illustrates several facets of sustainable design, among them the use of materials found on the site (felled Cypress trees, used for shading); orientation, to control light and heat gain; and green roofs for natural insulation and storm water management. Nueva Hillside generates 21 percent of its energy with photovoltaic panels and recycled 80 percent of its construction waste.

The Rosa Parks School at New Columbia Community Campus illustrates extended use and shared facilities through community partnerships, as well as sustainable features.

At the Sidwell Friends Middle School, one of the goals was to reconnect the site to the local geology, watershed, habitat and natural history. Stored and filtered on the green roof, rainwater moves via chain, trough and spillway to a biology pond. Constructed wetlands recycle wastewater, and terraced rice paddies reflect the topography of the landscape. Each side of the building is adapted to its orientation: no shading on the north for diffuse light; full horizontal shading on the south; and angled louvers to maximize shading on the east and west.

Seminar II, The Evergreen State College comprises five clusters, organized vertically to reinforce cluster identity, break down the scale of the building and encourage interaction among users. An open organizing space serves as a social connector—and also a natural ventilation chimney and daylighting tube. Other sustainable features include waterless urinals, green roofs, energy efficiency and the absence of volatile organic compounds (VOC) materials.

Resources for Architects

The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Schools Rating System

Green design competitions, including the AIA’s Committee on the Environment (COTE) Awards

AIA’s 50to50 initiative

“Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits,” Gregory Kats, A Capital E Report, October 2006

National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities “Impact of Green Schools on Learning” resource list


The AIA and the Committee on Architecture for Education would like to thank the following individuals for contributing their time and expertise to developing these papers through the interview and review process: Jeanne Jackson, AIA, LEED (Partner, VCBO Architecture); Gerald (Butch) Reifert, AIA (Partner, Mahlum Architects); Ronald E. Bogle, Hon. AIA (President & CEO, American Architectural Foundation); John Weekes, AIA (Partner, Dull Olson Weekes Architects); Amy Yurko, AIA (BrainSpaces); Dr. W. Bryan Bowles (Superintendent, Davis School District, UT.


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