Green Design Pays Off

By Jim French and Rod Oathout

The difficult decisions facing school districts, from budget cuts to improving test scores to personnel issues, are significantly multiplied when districts choose to design and construct new facilities.

One of the first questions school leaders ask us as designers is: “Should we design a green school?” The green school debate has been active for years, with proponents making claims that green schools improve the health and performance of students, result in lower operating costs, and do not increase construction costs.

However, the extent to which green design affects occupants, operations, and construction costs is often difficult to quantify, which can make green school design sometimes hard to justify to school communities.

We recognized the need for a research study to better inform us and our district clients about green school design. We wanted to have data for districts debating the merits of green school design.

We developed the study with the Institute for the Built Environment (IBE) at Colorado State University. We wanted to look at performance, both building operational performance, and the effectiveness of education delivery. We asked the question: “What effect does green school design have on occupants and long-term building performance?” We used the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Center for Green Schools’ definition of a green school: a school that creates a healthy environment that is conducive to learning while saving energy, resources, and money.

We identified 12 schools in eight states offering preschool through eighth-grade instruction, including Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, and Washington. We opted to evaluate PK-8 schools because these facilities offer a more controlled and consistent operational environment for study. We also selected schools that were third-party certified or align with criteria for certification as sustainable buildings, and were in operation for at least 12 months.

The findings show that the green schools we studied are more energy efficient, provide more space per student, and are constructed for less cost when compared to regional averages for schools constructed during the same time frame. The overwhelming perception of school staff is that the learning environments within these schools have a positive impact on health, achievement, and behavior. 

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