By Julie Bonnin

Houston’s air quality and recycling rates may be nothing to brag about, but the city’s school district is among the country’s leaders in its commitment to building energy-efficient schools.

Walnut Bend Elementary, on the city’s southwest side, is one of the first of dozens of Houston Independent School District schools that will be built or retrofitted to meet LEED standards, the nationally accepted benchmark for design, operation and construction of high performance “green” buildings.

“We’re the largest employer in Houston, and we feel we have a responsibility to the environment,” says HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra. “We are teaching children, and that means we need to set an example of environmental stewardship that the children can follow.”

When Walnut Bend (pictured) opened last year, its teachers and students exulted in design touches that include hues from nature, terazzo floors embedded with scattered leaf imprints and lots of natural light. But it was the greening of this school that really sets it apart –- the drywall is guaranteed against mold and wind is powering the school’s electricity for at least the first two years. Chickens scratch and scurry in an enclosed courtyard nature center that includes vegetable plots and a fishpond. Wood and brick from the old Walnut Bend building were recycled and integrated into the sleek new construction. Mechanical and electrical systems are optimal performance, and plumbing fixtures and native landscaping are designed to conserve water.

“It’s probably one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve been in,” said Principal Julie Fernandez, as the 2008-2009 school year was set to begin. “It’s airy, it’s open, it’s very warm and inviting; you don’t feel like you’re in an institution.”

Amid growing concerns about higher energy bills, strengthened commitments to environmental stewardship and research that shows improved academic achievement when students attend high performance “green” schools, more and more school districts are building campuses like Walnut Bend. The U.S. Green Building Council launched its LEED (Leader in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system for schools in spring of 2007 with a few hundred schools. A little more than one year later, there are nearly 1,000 schools either certified or awaiting certification, says Rachel Gutter, an education sector manager with USGBC.

“We’re certainly on the upswing,” she says. At least 10 states have passed legislation that requires school districts to build using energy efficient methods. California and Pennsylvania offer incentives to school districts, and many other districts are passing resolutions to build green.

When Houston passed a bond proposal to build 24 new schools and renovate 134 more, the school district committed to construction designed to meet LEED standards.

“We are not the first school district to adopt the standards but we may be the first to commit to building such a large number of schools,” says Meredith Smith, architect and project manager for HISD’s Bond Program.

“It’s been an evolving process for us,” Smith says. “The architects we hire (in Walnut Bend’s case, VLK Architects, Inc.) are on the cutting edge, so we were already doing many of the things required.”

Smith says comparing conventional construction costs with that of Houston’s first schools built to LEED standards is difficult because of factors such as accelerating construction costs and the fact that some engineers and architects donated time on the first few projects in order to gain experience.

“We would like to think the cost is about the same,” she says. Walnut Bend’s price tag was $14 million.

A 2006 study found green schools cost about $3 more per square foot to build, but that the added costs are quickly recouped. The same study found green schools’ spend an average of 33 percent less on energy costs and average a 32 percent reduction in water usage.