Sustainable School Design

Nov. 19, 2009

Energy-efficient schools help educate students on sustainability and save on the bottom line for school districts

Energy-efficient schools don’t just happen. They follow a plan. If you’re a school district official who doesn’t have much experience with facilities management – but you’ve been charged with that responsibility anyway – you must:

  • Reach out to peers, professionals, and organizations to review lessons learned or successful case studies from other districts.
  • Tap staff, students, and community members to learn tips from those who are passionate about the cause.
  • Collaborate with experienced design professionals, including architects and engineers, to set measurable goals, action items, roles and responsibilities, and overall budget to determine level of commitment.

Once a sustainable plan is set, share it with staff and students. Their buy-in is essential to establish a culture of sustainability within a school. Typically, districts with the most success in decreasing energy costs have energy leadership, such as a sustainable czar or energy champion, to implement programs and strategies throughout the district.

The local community is also a key audience; don’t be bashful about promoting sustainable features and cost savings. When you do, community members will realize that their district is acting responsibly in terms of spending public money and lessening environmental strain.

A No-Cost Approach

There are no-cost or low-cost changes you can make that result in fewer dollars spent on energy usage.

Follow a simple rule of thumb: “If it isn’t needed, turn it off or turn it down.” Your district can save thousands of dollars and reduce energy consumption by simply turning off lights when a room isn’t occupied. In addition, close doors when the heating or cooling system is operating, and adjust thermostats – even if only by 1 or 2 degrees.

The responsibility for this no-cost approach typically defaults to the staff. Facilities managers can adjust building temperatures or program heating and cooling systems to run mainly during peak hours of building use. Teachers can turn energy lessons into life lessons by assigning students responsibility for turning off lights and computers, or taking recyclable materials used in the classroom and lunchroom to recycling bins.

Although simple modifications can add up (see A No-Cost Approach), physical location of your district, as well as regional climatic characteristics, plays a significant role in energy consumption and how you go about it. Each region of the country poses unique, localized challenges for sustainable school design.

Tennessee: Lighting Controls and Geothermal Systems
Districts considering renovations can experience significant improvements in indoor air quality and energy efficiency by replacing roofs, windows, and HVAC and lighting systems.

An innovative lighting design in the recently renovated Oak Ridge High School in Oak Ridge, TN, includes occupancy sensors that control classroom lighting so that lights are turned off when the room isn’t in use. In addition to these sensors, teachers and students have the option of selecting from three light levels, in one-third increments, so users can tune the lights accordingly.

A second element allows approximately two-thirds of all corridor lighting to automatically shut off while classes are in session. Corridor lighting, which is typically on for up to 10 hours per day, is only on during periods of high corridor traffic, or about 3 hours per day.

These solutions are possible using Oak Ridge’s master clock, which is part of the intercom system and controls the bell system. The master clock interfaces with the relay panel system that controls the corridor lighting circuits and sends signals to turn lighting on and off.

Oak Ridge High School also features a hybrid geothermal mechanical system and water-source heat pump that’s expected to use 40-percent less energy than an ASHRAE 90.1 baseline facility. These systems use the relatively stable earth temperature to heat or cool a building by circulating water through a continuous loop of buried pipes. Geothermal is a wise choice for a school if the site and sub-soil conditions can accommodate geothermal wells. At Oak Ridge, 200 geothermal wells were installed more than 300 feet below ground to utilize the earth as a heat sink.

Minnesota: Ground-Source Heat Pumps and Extra Insulation
When community members and district officials decided to build Woodland Elementary School in Alexandria, MN, they felt it was critical to be efficient with taxpayer dollars.

The school design creates a dynamic learning environment that’s expected to consume 44.5-percent less energy than an average school in the area, which projects an annual savings of $61,705 using current energy prices.

Several strategies were used to achieve these significant energy savings, including a hybrid ground-source heat pump system that decreases the amount of energy used to heat and cool the building. In response to below-freezing winter temperatures, displacement ventilation was used to reduce the amount of outdoor air required by up to 40 percent. In Minnesota, less outdoor air during the winter equates to significant energy reductions.

Increased insulation on the walls, roof, and windows saves energy year round. The building is 100-percent electric, enabling the district to go off-grid once it establishes its own energy source. Occupancy sensors (similar to Oak Ridge High School’s) for lighting and ventilation systems, a solar shading device to maximize daylighting opportunities and minimize heat gain, and a reflective white roof to minimize cooling costs were all incorporated into the design.

Illinois: Funding for Energy Efficiency
Districts have multiple options to support their energy-efficient initiatives: grants, district operations budgets, bond referendums, and other government programs.

The Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation awarded Indian Prairie School District No. 204 in Aurora, IL, a grant for its new high school. Metea Valley High School received $135,000 to incorporate energy-efficient, sustainable features.

To qualify for the full grant, a building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) roofing system was designed over the competition gym, and a portion of the roof is a green roof.

Translucent fiber glass panels and clerestory glazing limit the use of artificial lighting in public corridors and student life spaces. Other energy-efficient design features at Metea Valley:

  • An energy model design maintains its target of being 19-percent more efficient than required by ASHRAE 90.1.
  • A daylight harvesting system automatically turns lights off in public spaces as exterior lighting levels change throughout the day. This system is projected to save the district $21,032 annually, with a payback of 6.6 years.
  • Demand-control ventilation is part of the mechanical system in the gymnasiums, auditorium, and other large lecture spaces. These systems have an initial cost of $10,000, with estimated annual savings of $5,000.
  • Energy-recovery wheels are designed into the air-handlers over the classrooms. The initial cost of $70,000 is projected to save the district $15,000 annually, paying for itself in 3 to 4 years.
  • High-efficiency boilers, which cost $10,000 initially, provide $5,500 of savings to the district each year.

Arizona: Solar Power
In the Southwest, solar gain of west-facing elevations can be addressed by minimizing the number of windows on west-facing walls and placing more windows on north- and south-facing elevations. Shading devices added to these north- and south-facing windows can block the high midday summer sun, while highly efficient, dual-pane, low-E glass can let in solar rays during cooler winter months. Clerestory windows and semi-translucent wall panels also allow light into a school with minimal effect to thermal comfort.

Landscaping is another important geographic element of schools in the Southwest. The new Sandra Day O’Connor High School campus site in Phoenix is a beautiful, hilly, natural desert that features drought-resistant desert landscaping and a preserved desert wash within the courtyard. The design minimized site grading to allow for rainwater retention on campus.

In addition to site orientation and sustainable landscape elements, the design also features canopied pathways that minimize the heat-gain factor in the already-intense desert heat.

Washington: Schools as Educational Tools
Steilacoom Historical School District No. 1 in DuPont, WA, received a $350,000 grant as part of the Washington Sustainable Schools Protocol (WSSP) program, a continuation of the state’s commitment to developing sustainability in schools.

Six workshops, including an eco-charrette, were led with the district and patrons to develop design goals and a sustainable program for the new school. The project team also collaborated with educators over a span of 8 months to develop specific sustainability curricula and means to incorporate Pioneer Middle School as a tool in the educational experience.

“We get a lot more ‘Ah-ha!’ moments because we can physically point to elements in the building and relate that back to our lesson,” says Laura Lowe, Pioneer Middle School teacher. “Students are more excited when they can actually see, up close and personal, the lesson teachers are trying to explain.”

Educating students, staff, and the community about energy conservation – specifically, the impact of routine activities and individual habits on energy use – was a priority of the district and design team. The design solution is an interactive, “green touchscreen” that’s prominently positioned at the main public entrance. A network of energy sensors throughout the building continuously stream energy-consumption data to the touchscreen display, which is accessible to students, staff, and visitors. A graphic readout of energy consumption allows teachers to conduct hands-on coursework and experiments so students can learn about responsible energy use within the context of a building designed for maximum en­­ergy efficiency.

Measuring Success
Obviously, these various pathways all lead to energy-efficient school design, but how is success truly measured? ENERGY STAR and ASHRAE 90.1 are two benchmarking tools that districts can use to judge the energy performance of their schools.

Energy benchmarking can raise red flags when facilities don’t operate the way they’re intended. If benchmarking data shows that one or more buildings are not consistent with regional and national averages, districts can study building operation and control strategies, like retro-commissioning, to determine causes of the performance discrepancies.

Jim French is a senior principal and K-12 practice leader with Overland Park, KS-based DLR Group.

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