Budget-Friendly Green Schools

I’m going to come right out and say it: Building a green school doesn’t have to cost a penny more. You’ve heard that green schools save money over time, reducing energy, water and even healthcare expenses. What you may not know is that, these days, a green school can be built for a price comparable to a conventionally designed facility.

I don’t have to prove it. Your peers have done it for me.

Throughout the country, integrated project teams are building green schools that don’t cost more and sometimes cost less. West Brazos Junior High, the first LEED-certified school in Texas, was built for 18 percent less than an average middle school in the region. Northland Pines High School in Eagle River, Wis., is an LEED Gold school built for 25 percent less than the regional construction average for high schools constructed in the same year.

An integrated team and an integrated design process were the secret for success for those projects. Successful LEED-certified school projects like West Brazos and Northland Pines give everyone on the project team a seat at the table, from facilities staff and administrators to engineers and teachers. Inviting all stakeholders to the conversation allows the project team to unearth inefficiencies while at the drawing board, resolve them, then build a school that meets the needs of students, educators and the broader community. 

When the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Colo., began planning a new high school in 2004, the project team’s goal was to design a school that would reduce operational costs and enhance the learning environment. District facilities staff, architects, engineers, teachers and a host of other contributors worked collaboratively to design and build a facility that would be a living laboratory for students and a showcase of sustainable technologies for the community.

The result was Fossil Ridge High School, an LEED-certified facility that is 60 percent more energy-efficient than its conventional counterparts. Energy-efficient design, coupled with water-saving strategies, puts more than $100,000 a year back into the district’s pocket. Did I mention that the project incurred no so-called green premium and was built on a conventional school budget?

But green schools do not have to be new schools. In fact, our greatest opportunity to have the biggest impact on energy and water use and the least impact on the environment is through the greening of our existing schools.

There are nearly 126,000 schools across the country, and we’ve yet to count all the buildings. As the economy forces many districts to slow or even halt their capital improvement plans, many districts are turning their attention to what can be done to improve the efficiency and environmental quality of their existing facilities. With capital and operating budgets stretched thin, smart districts are finding ways to cut costs without cutting corners.

Just as with new green construction, implementing green strategies into existing school buildings doesn’t have to come with a hefty price tag. For an existing facility, green isn’t a single moment in time, it’s a journey.

Districts should develop a plan to introduce new green strategies, technologies and policies over time, focusing first and foremost on high-impact strategies that yield immediate savings or have a significant impact on student health and wellness.

When it comes to writing your sustainability plan, think big. But when it comes to thinking about how to begin, it’s okay to think small. Bringing an “energy educator” onto the staff has saved Florida’s Charlotte County Public Schools more than $1.4 million a year by educating students and staff on simple ways to save energy, such as turning off lights and computers.

As with new construction projects, a successful districtwide approach to green operations and maintenance also requires an integrated team. Greening a school district can’t be achieved by the facilities team alone. Dining services, transportation and even curriculum departments should participate in the conversation, too.

The facilities service division of the Los Angeles Unified School District assembled a sustainability steering committee that brings together representatives of multiple divisions within the district — from business services to environmental health and safety — to map out a comprehensive green plan for the district, then take responsibility for implementing the strategies for their respective areas.

To help your district reach its green potential, the U.S. Green Building Council in November will launch the Green Excellence in Existing Schools Toolkit, a resource designed to help crack the code to greening existing K-12 facilities across campuses or districts.

The toolkit will include a project management guide, an implementation workbook, and Web-based training modules, which will provide comprehensive guidance, strategies, and policy and planning templates for green operations and maintenance. The manual and guide will be free to all schools through USGBC Web sites www.usgbc.org and www.buildgreenschools.org.

Rachel Gutter is director of the Education Sector of the U.S. Green Building Council.