As the U.S. Green Building Council says, green schools “cost less to operate, freeing up resources to truly improve students’ education.” Green schools featuring HVAC systems and building materials less toxic than traditional materials and equipment have been shown to reduce sick days. And the energy savings associated with installing solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and adding geothermal pumps can drastically diminish energy consumption.
This is why public and private schools and colleges across the country are launching green initiatives while pledging to reduce carbon footprints.
In New York, there are no state mandates to green schools, but education administrations are building energy-efficient facilities that feature passive solar designs, have solar PV panels, and are built using recycled and low-toxicity materials. And as budgets are increasingly constrained, many schools are putting new construction projects on hold while greening existing buildings by retrofitting lights, installing light motion sensors, and replacing drafty windows with high-performance ones.
Meanwhile, students in the classroom are expanding their knowledge of recycling, reusing, and reclaiming, and are active participants in turning off computers and other electrical equipment at the end of the day to save energy.
According to a spokesperson for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), over 800 schools in the state—K-12 public and private—have gone through the Energy Star program, which has resulted in an average energy savings of 22 percent. The Energy Star awards have gone to new construction as well as refurbishments of existing buildings.
Regarding LEED-certified projects, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) says there are 131 LEED-certified schools in the country and over 1,100 registered schools seeking certification (as of February 9).
In New York, there are more than 40 educational facility projects in the pipeline across the region registered for LEED certification. To date, there are two LEED-certified schools in the state: the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx and the Poly Prep Country Day School’s Lower School in Brooklyn. Both were awarded silver certificates. LEED-certified schools experience an average savings of 50 percent on energy bills.
Many current LEED constructions are “confidential,” but several are listed, including the Barnard Environmental Magnet School in Danbury, CT; new classroom construction at the Summit School in Upper Nyack; the math and science center at the Millbrook School; and an addition of the Liberty Elementary School.
Meanwhile, schools such as the Tuxedo Park School and the Berkshire School in Sheffield, MA, set benchmarks and win awards for their green initiatives, while facilities such as the district office of Rochester City Schools and West Seneca schools are cited in case studies by NYSERDA for its energy-efficient upgrades.
Patrice Courtney Strong, coordinator of Mid-Hudson Energy Smart Communities, says Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson is “a poster child for green campuses,” with geothermal heating and cooling for the dormitories and performing arts center.
“The greening of our schools is important because it’s been conclusively shown that schools that are environmentally sound create environments that are more conducive to learning,” Strong says. “One characteristic of a high performance school is excellent indoor air quality [IAQ], and studies have shown that IAQ improvements lead to decreased school absences for both teachers and students.”
Strong notes that NYSERDA has been “encouraging schools to embrace green technologies for more than 20 years,” and added that school projects brought to NYSERDA “can earn extra incentives for participating in the national LEED program.”
Regarding the national initiatives in place, school administrators have much to choose from. The USGBC has a “Build Green Schools” program in which schools can pledge to become more energy-efficient, learn from others who have built LEED facilities, and develop a “green learning environment.” The Green Schools Alliance is another resource that connects stakeholders in the green schools movement while NYSERDA offers a special Energy Smart program just for schools. There’s also the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, which seeks to “facilitate the design, construction and operation of high performance schools: environments that are not only energy- and resource-efficient, but also healthy, comfortable, well-lit, and containing the amenities for a quality education.”
Although there is much on the plates of institutions looking to build greener schools, many of the involved agencies are working together. And best practices are quickly shared. Carl Thurnau, director of facilities planning for the New York State Education Department, says the SED works extensively with NYSERDA “and other interested partners to develop New York’s version of the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, ‘NY-CHPS.’”
“The document is specifically tailored for New York public schools and has many unique features not present in other standards,” Thurnau says, adding that there are no current statewide mandates for greening schools. But that may change, and the state could follow New York City’s lead in reducing the carbon footprint of all of its municipal buildings, including schools.
“We encourage districts to consider NY-CHPS and other green design standards and to go as far as possible in achieving objectives, but we would prefer to gain more experience with our standard prior to making it mandatory,” Thurnau explains. “During this time of economic difficulty, districts are pressured to trim costs wherever possible, and while we fully support green buildings, each district must evaluate for themselves the appropriate course of action for their community.” While several pieces of legislation have been proposed to require New York schools and other public facilities to meet certain criteria, nothing has been signed into law.
Budgetary restraints are indeed preventing many schools from building new, green facilities. Even in flush economic times, schools refurbish more often than they do new construction. Thurnau says that it is easier to “develop a sustainable facility during new construction, when architects and engineers have significantly more design options and material selections available to them.” Even so, “We will be working with our partners to develop a guideline for the renovation of existing facilities to address this issue.”
On the operational side, Thurnau and others say sustainable construction reduces long-term operating costs. “Masonry walls, for example, will not rot or rust, and do not support mold growth,” Thurnau adds. “Interior glazed block in corridors do not need to be painted during summer cleaning and maintenance. This reduces the life cycle cost of a facility while improving indoor air quality through materials that will not support mold growth, even if they get wet.”
For existing structures, though, more careful planning is required. At the Tuxedo Park School, Headmaster James T. Burger says the school takes a “holistic approach to energy conservation.” Since portions of the school are housed in a historical building, the school has struck a balance between preservation and energy efficiency.
Burger says the historical building looks like an English country house. “The exterior is brick, the roof is slate, and the feel throughout is decidedly Old World,” he said in a statement detailing recent green initiatives. “…The school swapped [the building]’s formerly drafty windows, some of which were beyond repair, with energy-efficient replacements. Even so, the school proceeded with an eye for historical detail. From a distance, they’re difficult to distinguish from the originals.”
With the Tuxedo Park School’s later, more modern additions, the school is working on the installation of 50-kilowatt solar panels while rainwater retention systems are also in the works. Energy savings are expected to run about 30 percent as a result of the green renovations.
At the Berkshire School, Frank Barros, science teacher and Ritt Kellogg Mountain Program director, said greening initiatives are important because at its broadest, “we live in a world where matter cycles; but some parts of the cycle take much longer than others. For the longest time, we have not respected this fact and assumed a linear system with unlimited consumption.”
With educators such as Barros, it’s no surprise the school is a thought leader on green initiatives in the classroom as well as with its facilities. The school, for example, garners awards for its student work, and its high school dormitories were the first in the nation to win Energy Star designation from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Senior Clay Cohen says, “As far as schools in general go, these green technologies and innovations become an incredible source of education. The youth are the most important resource we have in the battle for our planet, and every opportunity should be taken to engage our generation.”