Schools Green

In the late 1990s, researchers in California conducted a classic study of the benefits of daylighting. Analyzing the test scores of more than 21,000 school children in the Seattle area, Fort Collins, Colorado, area and southern California and correlating the scores with the amount of window area, daylighting and views to the outdoors, their study showed conclusively that test scores went up 7% to 21% when kids had more windows, daylight-ing and views outside.136 This study put to rest probably the worst idea in school design, the advent of windowless classrooms in the 1970s to save energy and keep kids focused on their boring lessons. A follow-up study of 8,000 children in 450 in elementary classrooms in central California showed similar results. However, classroom design was critical to obtaining these results: daylighting and windows need to have measures to reduce glare and direct sun penetration, to have photosensor controls for daylighting and to have good thermal comfort controls, especially in a warmer climate.

Many people greeted this study with incredulity that such a simple measure could have such dramatic results. I'll lay odds that the majority of so-called educators, school superintendents and school boards still don't know it exists. Beyond the effect on kids' health and performance, you'd probably find that more daylighting and views to the outdoors is also healthier for teachers and other staff.

I've wondered why this result should be surprising. The last thing most kids want is to be cooped up for hours each day in poorly lit classrooms with few windows. Why do we consign our most vulnerable population, on which we Boomers are depending for Social Security benefits and support in our old age, to such poor conditions? I'd like to think the reason is ignorance, not incompetence on the part of architects and school administrators. They've got a lot on their plate, after all, just to get schools built. But I'm not so sure daylighting is a high enough priority for most architects.

My friend Heinz Rudolf is a well-seasoned and very talented architect in Portland. He's been designing beautiful schools with abundant day-lighting for at least the past decade. He believes so strongly in the necessity of daylighting that he will fight with his clients to get it included in each school. The figure below shows one of his projects in the suburban town of Clackamas, Oregon. His designs are energy-conserving as well, and — guess what? — he gets them built at the average cost of similar schools in the area. If green schools don't cost more to design and build, why isn't everyone creating them as a matter of professional best practice?

Earlier this year, I got a call from a self-described "activist mom" in Pennsylvania. Her local school board was getting ready to build a new middle school and wanted to recycle a set of plans from the last school built, in 1990, to save a pittance on architectural fees (about 1% of a $35

Clackamas High School, Oregon, designed by BOORA Architects, featuring abundant daylight. Certified at the LEED-NC Silver level in 2002, this project is one of the first LEED-certified schools in the country.
Financial Benefits of Green Schools ($/sq.ft., 20-year net present value)

Energy cost reductions

$9.00 (30% average savings)

Emissions reductions

$1.00 (from reduced energy use)

Water and wastewater costs

$1.00 (32% average water savings)

Asthma reduction

$3.00 (25% reduced incidence)

Cold and flu reduction

$5.00 ($45 per child per year)

Teacher retention

$4.00 (3% reduction in teacher turnover)

Employment impact

$2.00 (from higher initial costs of green)

Future increased earnings

$49.00 (from better health, higher test scores)

Total benefits


Cost increase

($3.00) (assumes 2% higher initial cost)

Net benefit


million building project that will last 50 to 75 years). Imagine the lack of daylighting and energy efficiency in a nearly 20-year-old set of building plans, and you (like her) will be astonished at the lack of priority placed on the health of the children when it comes to school building design.

A 2006 research report by Greg Kats on the benefits of green schools should put to rest the notion that green design is an option that we should use only if we have extra money for a project. Given the clear and compelling evidence, doesn't the act of not building green schools, at a minimum with abundant daylighting and views to outdoors, represent professional neglect?

But there's even more to the story. The table above shows the range of benefits you can expect from green schools.137 In addition to the operating cost benefits you might expect from energy-efficient schools, look at all the others you might not have considered at first glance. There is a total benefit of about 25 times the assumed initial cost increase. Throw out even the imputed benefit of increased lifetime earnings for kids who have greater learning, more time in the classroom and higher test scores. There is still $25 of benefit for a $3 investment, about 8 times the return over 20 years. So who is being unintelligent: those who advocate for spending the money to build green schools or those who oppose the idea because it supposedly costs more? Even the $10 per square foot of benefits that accrue directly to the school (from energy and water savings) are triple the assumed higher initial cost.

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