Schools are where children – bright, energetic, and ready to learn and grow – first see society at work. It’s where they learn how to write, solve problems, socialize, relate to others and the world around them, and it’s where they build foundations for the future.
But what kind of foundations are schools providing?
Sadly, many children attending public schools in America are actually spending their days in inefficient and even deteriorating classrooms, which can negatively affect their well-being and overall ability to learn.
So what’s the solution?
Designing, building or upgrading schools so that they are sustainable and energy-efficient learning environments is certainly part of the solution. But it goes beyond an initial concept.
From the preliminary design stages and initial construction to maintenance years down the road, there are many ongoing factors that contribute to a green school. All of these factors combined are part of the “green schools” solution.
What makes a school green?
The design of the school does not simply come down to the architects and contractors. Rather, the building should be as integrated as possible so the facility can operate with maximum efficiency. The physical materials that go into the school are major components that can help solve the problems plaguing children’s well being and ability to learn. Some of the simplest changes that could greatly contribute to improved occupant well being include increased day-lighting, improved insulation and incorporating furnishings, fixtures and equipment that are in alignment with the green integrity of the facility.
Many classrooms have insufficient natural light – or no windows whatsoever – which has a direct impact on students’ ability to stay focused and comprehend new material. A report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory states that natural light in schools may significantly increase students’ test scores and promote better health and physical development – and can be attained without an increase in school construction or maintenance costs.
Measures include orienting the building to maximize day-lighting potential and minimize undesired heat gain. Other features, such as tall windows and slanted roofs, which allow light to “bounce” in, can also add natural light to a classroom.
Poor ventilation, mold and other hazards cause an alarming number of classrooms to be reported as substandard or even dangerous. Ensuring a building is insulated with the right materials is also critical to increase student comfort for a more conducive learning environment.
According to “Sustainable School Architecture” by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) accredited professional architects Lisa Gelfand and Eric Corey Freed, no other green building feature has greater impact for less cost than insulation. Insulation materials, a good sealing package and proper HVAC ductwork can provide thermal control and create good air flow, all being integral to increasing efficiency and reducing operation costs, when used together properly.
The outside temperature can affect learning within the classroom when a building is poorly insulated. And it isn’t uncommon, for schools lacking air conditioning and properly insulated classrooms to dismiss students early because of the soaring heat. For schools that do have functioning HVAC systems, the equipment works much harder if walls and ceilings are poorly insulated, thereby increasing energy and operation costs.
Proper insulation can also contribute to the acoustics of a room, as well. Disruptive sound can come from outside activities, noisy HVAC equipment and even conversations from across the room or adjacent classes. Loud learning environments can increase stress levels in students and teachers alike, resulting in misunderstanding and lost classroom time. However, proper insulation is designed to control noise transmission between rooms and absorb sound vibrations, which may improve the learning environment.
Finally, the classroom furnishings, fixtures and other equipment also have an impact on the school’s overhead costs. No- or low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints, recycled flooring, cleaning products and energy-efficient lighting are a few examples of ways to improve a classroom.
Green schools in action
The urgency to conserve and sustain our environment is increasing. It might be a bit of work for us to change our habits now, but we can instill the ideals of sustainability in our children – in schools.
Part of building the foundation for young students today includes teaching them about sustainability to ensure their well-being in the future. One organization, The Green Schoolhouse Series, is doing just that.
A unique collaboration that brings together communities, school districts, corporations and volunteers, The Green Schoolhouse Series replaces uninspired and outdated portable classrooms at low-income public schools with sustainable “Green Schoolhouses.”
“The Green Schoolhouses will be built using donated top-of-the-line, green, sustainable products and state-of-the-art technologies,” explained Marshall G. Zotara, Co-founder and Senior Managing Partner of CAUSE AND EFFECT Evolutions. “Not only will the students benefit from learning in a more energy efficient classroom setting, the Green Schoolhouses will also serve as integral, hands-on teaching tools.”
The schoolhouses address many of the problems that impact students’ learning abilities. The inaugural Safari Schoolhouse in Phoenix, AZ, for instance, is aiming for LEED® Platinum certification. Stantec Architecture designed the building to utilize maximum day-lighting, Owens Corning will provide insulation, while the paint, flooring, lighting and furnishings are all sustainable products donated by green-minded companies.
Because of companies such as the ones contributing to The Green Schoolhouse Series, it’s possible to improve children’s learning environments – the foundations on which they build their knowledge, habits and perception of society.
Written by James Hou. James Hou is Director of strategic marketing for the Engineered Insulations Systems segment for the Building Materials Group at Owens Corning where he is responsible for creating and optimizing go-to-market strategies and plans.