Green Schools, High-Performing Schools, LEED Schools – Good Idea No Matter What You Call It

October 04, 2007

by Mark Bishop, HSC Deputy Director

One of the most promising, important ideas in school design is generating more and more discussion lately—even though many of us are not always sure what to call it.

Some people say “green schools,” some say “healthy, high-performing schools,” some just say “LEED schools,” but the meaning is essentially the same: building schools that use less energy, limit their environmental footprint, and provide a healthier learning environment through better lighting, better acoustics and better overall design.

Whatever language you choose to describe it, building better schools is all about providing a better education for students. We are proud that we worked in 2007 with the American Institute of Architects Illinois and supportive legislative leaders to pass a law that requires Illinois schools receiving construction money from the state to build to energy efficient standards. The specifics of the standards should be worked out by early 2008.

Design professionals are increasingly realizing the potential of green schools. Last month, the president of the American Institute of Architects, R. K. Stewart, published his vision for the need for better-built schools:

This country’s educational infrastructure desperately needs a modernized green school system. Green, high-performance schools are not a panacea. They will not solve all of the ills in the nation’s school system but they will provide a foundation for a better education, in which teachers will more easily be able to focus on what matters most — teaching — and students will focus on what matters most — learning.

Green schools present a direct benefit to students and faculty, while also providing important benefits to society at large. High-performance schools promote energy savings, effect positive environmental change, improve health and educational achievement, and provide hands-on learning experiences. And, improved schools provide natural light to occupants, enhanced indoor air quality and create a superior work/learning environment.

One common barrier to building green schools is an assumption that better, more energy-efficient design is inherently much more expensive than traditional, less efficient design. Stewart addresses this concern with information gathered in a report released in 2006 by Capital E and the AIA:

To those who say building green is too costly, consider this: The green schools cost premium is between 1.5 percent and 2.5 percent of the total cost of new projects. Greening America’s Schools Costs and Benefits pegs the total financial benefits of green schools at 10 to 20 times the initial cost. And school districts see direct benefits accrue at an approximate level of four times the cost due primarily to energy and water savings. Therefore, the initial investment is easily recuperated over time, reduced school operating costs and the students learning gains last a lifetime.

Stewart’s conclusion, which I couldn’t agree with more, is that “green schools are better for the students, the environment, teachers, the community and society in general.” The benefits are huge, the costs are minimal and, as Stewart puts it, “green schools’ time has come.”