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Sustainable Solutions

At a time when many districts are tightening their belts, the green schools movement is gaining steam. We check in with administrators and architects, along with nonprofit groups that are stepping up to help.

By Jenna M. McKnight

This article originally appeared in Architectural Record.

January 2012
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Photo © Jonathan Hillyer
In the United States, Perkins+Will is a leader in the green educational sector. Recent K-12 public-school projects by the firm include the LEED Gold-Certified Springdale Park Elementary School in Atlanta.

On an unseasonably warm December day, Phoebe Beierle is making the rounds at various facilities in the Boston public school system. The assiduous 29-year-old sustainability advocate has a mile-long list of aspirations, and today she's on a mission to spur recycling efforts. She meets with school administrators, peppering them with questions: What materials do they recycle? Do they use Styrofoam trays in the cafeteria? How much garbage do they generate each week?

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 “My role as sustainability director for the district is my dream job,” says Beierle, who holds a degree in environmental studies and worked on green building and renewable energy projects before joining the Boston school district. “Every day, I'm excited to have the opportunity to work toward improving schools and the education we provide for children.”

Beierle is on loan to the district through the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) new Green Schools Fellowship program, which places sustainability gurus in cash-strapped public school systems for three-year terms. The fellows are charged with boosting or creating green initiatives—from energy audits to edible gardens—depending on the district's needs and resources. In addition to Beierle, the center has hired a fellow to work in Sacramento, with hopes of expanding the program in the coming years. United Technologies Corporation is helping to fund the endeavor.

The fellowships are just one facet of the USGBC's burgeoning Center for Green Schools. Established in the fall of 2010, the center is an outgrowth of the organization's National Green Schools Campaign, which was launched in 2007 in conjunction with the LEED for Schools rating system. At its core, the center's raison d'être is to promote sustainability in the educational sector at all levels, from building design to facility management to classroom curriculum. The 12-member staff, bolstered by an army of volunteers, not only advises school districts, but also provides support to policymakers, USGBC chapters, student groups, and nonprofit organizations.

“We're like a campaign organizer,” says center director Rachel Gutter, who spends much of her time zipping around the country to spread the green schools gospel. “We're getting people the materials they need, linking them up with sponsors, providing training, offering a communication platform. We kind of function as a center of gravity for the movement.” The center also coordinates events; last fall, it teamed up with Robert Redford to host a green schools summit at his Sundance Resort in Utah, where dozens of civic and educational leaders converged to exchange ideas.

The center has arrived at an optimal moment. A bevy of advocacy groups, from local parent associations to national environmental organizations, are pushing for healthier, more eco-friendly learning spaces. In turn, 12 states, plus the District of Columbia, have enacted legislation requiring that public-school construction projects incorporate sustainable features. Then, last September, the U.S. Department of Education officially kicked off its Green Ribbon Schools awards program, which honors schools that reduce their carbon footprint while also promoting “environmental literacy” among students. The first winners will be announced on Earth Day in 2012.

The demand for building green schools is on the rise, according to studies conducted by McGraw-Hill Construction (MHC). [MHC is the publisher of record.] The 165 architecture and engineering firms that responded to a green buildings survey reported $508 million in school-design revenue in 2008; that amount grew to $641 million the following year (with 162 firms reporting), and to $690 million in 2010 (with 172 firms reporting). “Despite the education-construction market flattening out, there continues to be interest and growth in this market,” notes Gary Tulacz, MHC's manager of surveys.

Architects confirm that the slumped economy doesn't seem to be slowing the movement. “I haven't seen a decreased interest in green schools. If anything, it's going in the other direction,” says Steven Turckes, who leads Perkins+Will's K–12 practice, which has completed more than 2,500 school projects in the past seven decades. When Turckes began working in this sector in the mid-1990s, sustainability “just wasn't part of the lexicon,” he says. “Now, when clients are looking for architects to design schools, they want us to demonstrate that we know our way around sustainable design. Schools understand the benefits to them, both in terms of operational savings and the potential benefit to student performance.”

Still, misgivings persist about the price of going green. “We've come a long way as an industry in being able to address those concerns and do it with a straight face,” Turckes says. He generally tells clients that he can deliver a LEED-Silver facility with “very little, if any, additional costs.” While specific elements might come at a premium, savings are recouped in other areas. “Spend a little bit more on an exterior wall, and perhaps you don't need to spend as much on mechanical systems,” he says. Plus, eco-friendly features pay off over time, as schools are typically designed to last for 50 to 75 years.

Financial motivation is one reason Charles “Chuck” Saylors, vice president of South Carolina–based M.B. Kahn Construction, championed green schools while serving as president of the National PTA (his two-year volunteer term ended in June). His company, ranked among the top-50 Southeast green contractors by Engineering News-Record [ENR is a sister publication of record], has built more than 2,000 K–12 schools in the last four decades, and Saylors has seen firsthand the advantages of sustainable strategies. His local district, where Saylors is a school-board member, has trimmed about $2 million from its annual electric bill due largely to the installation of energy-efficient lighting and HVAC systems. “In the long-term,” he says, “these kinds of decisions help save taxpayer dollars.”

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