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What Certification Framework is Right for Your Green School

Whatever your motivation for pursing a third-party certification on a new or existing school building, in addition to environmental and health benefits, green building standards and rating systems are effective tools for stakeholder engagement, decision making and goal setting. Documentation and verification requirements, prerequisites and checklists all allow schools to easily demonstrate excellence and innovation. The educational system exists to provide a very similar service to students as these programs provide to project teams and taxpayers.

As more schools make the move towards being green, they have a growing list of programs to choose. The most prominent in our state, LEED for Schools, CHPS, and WELL, are examined below.

LEED: The U.S. Green Building Council created LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) in response to a need in the building industry for a voluntary and flexible rating system to define, measure and recognize green buildings. LEED began by serving new commercial class A office buildings but has since created adaptations to address the specific needs of a wide variety of building types, including schools. The LEED for Schools rating system examines and awards points for everything from reducing waste during the construction process to commissioning the building’s HVAC systems. The program also awards teams for mitigating issues specific to learning spaces, like acoustics.

CHPS: The Collaborative for High Performance Schools has criteria for new and existing schools similar to LEED that is intended to help school districts reduce operating costs, achieve higher student performance, and minimize environmental impact.

Adams 12 Five Star Schools is one of the first Colorado schools to develop a case study on this particular set of criteria for existing schools. The district realized that a step-change in school building efficacy would require a more holistic approach so they have adopted the seven CHPS metrics related to a school’s current state of health.

WELL: The WELL Building Standard is still relatively new to Colorado and focuses heavily on physical health and occupant behaviors. It is a good fit for schools with a current or desired culture of health and wellness. WELL, which can be achieved in conjunction with LEED, explores the intersection between individual health and wellbeing and environmental sustainability. The performance requirements are set in seven categories: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. Each of the categories have their own features matrix used when grading the buildings compliance.

Colorado’s Finest Alternative High School has implemented the WELL framework into their modern learning environment. The open environment teaches respect and creates positive behavioral habits, and gives the students a chance to interact in a positive environment.

All three programs provide a framework for delivering a green school building. To be successful, a school must first evaluate its sustainability culture and understand how critical the occupants will be in maintaining the school after it is open. The criteria lays the groundwork and certifies the building, but the faculty and staff are critical to ensuring that the building’s sustainability attributes are maintained long after construction ends.

Each year, USGBC Colorado’s Green Schools Summit offers an opportunity to examine how far Colorado has come in its journey to transform K-12 school buildings. The Colorado Department of Education’s BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today) grant program, which requires recipients to pursue LEED for Schools or CHPS certification on new construction projects when possible is a clear contributor to the growing number of third-party certified green schools. Green schools champions found at public, private, and charter schools throughout our state are also helping Colorado stake its place as one of the greenest states in the country.

Patti Msaon is Executive Director of USGBC Colorado.

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