By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Step into a green school and the first thing you’ll likely notice is the airy bright lobby.
It’s as if someone turned on all the overhead lights. Except they didn’t, quite the opposite. They turned off the electric lighting and let the sunlight pour in, and they did that while either keeping out the summer heat out and allowing in the winter sun, or both. Picture the electricity meter outside slowing to a crawl.
Architects and builders are getting really good at this trick. It requires some thought, but it’s not a mystery. They open up the building to south, east and north exposures, and keep western sun to a minimum. They add wide overhangs to shield rooms from the heat of midday, but put in sheets of glass where it makes sense to collect both daylight, and sometimes solar heat. The put greenery or white reflective pain on the roof. They use shade trees to greatest advantage.
The next thing you’ll notice: These buildings are quiet and comfortable. There are no clanging ducts connected to heaving, outdated or oversized HVAC systems. They’ve been built with energy conservation front of mind and rely on insulation, walls, roofing, greenery and siting to reduce energy demand.
The term’s been overused, but it is accurate, this is “smart construction”.
Across the country, more and more children are benefiting from their school district’s decision to go for A’s in building, modernizing schools in ways that aren’t just cookie-cutter replacements for aging buildings, but forward-looking, highly efficient structures that also reduce the toxic indoor air created by old-style resins and epoxies, save water in multiple ways and recapture resources wherever possible.
Some of these new green schools have cut the school’s energy costs by 30 percent or more — that’s typically according to the US Green Building Council — and will continue to save taxpayers over the long haul by localizing energy production with solar, wind and geothermal systems. Advocates say they see an effect on the children’s attention in the classroom and pride in their school.
“Our community has been very responsive to the green schools. They see the long term value in investing in these long term facilities and systems. Not to mention the imporved learning environment,” said Jessica Bollen, communications director for the Bryant school district in Arkansas which has two schools certified by the USGBC and two more underway. “The lighting, the air quality, the acoustics, you can just tell it’s a great environment and the kids just thrive in it.”
Once, school districts built green if they could afford to because there were significant extra upfront costs. But with the price of solar panels and other technologies coming down, and the recession reducing borrowing and labor costs, some are reporting that there is no green upcharge anymore.
Still, many school districts cannot afford to replace or repair schools, green or otherwise, in these times of eroding tax bases. The Obama Administration wants to step in with help for cash-strapped school districts with its $25 billion green school program, contained with the proposed American Jobs Act. It would offer assistance to local communities for green renovations, funding upgrades but not new construction. The idea: Put people to work, help make public buildings more energy efficient and help school districts redistribute construction money toward teaching.
The rehabbed or modernized school buildings would share features with the more 400 schools nationwide — some new and some renovated — that already have earned LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Here’s a look at a few of them:
CEDAR RIDGE HIGH SCHOOL — ROUND ROCK, TEXAS
The 45,000-student Round Rock Independent School District outside of Austin, Texas, is fast becoming an exemplar of green building, with Cedar Ridge High School completed and certified and four elementary schools in the pipeline for LEED certification. Cedar Ridge (above and below) saves energy through careful siting and ample indirect lighting as well as state of the art systems, says Wesley Perkins, energy manager for Round Rock ISD. The school also saves water by capturing air conditioning condensate in rainwater tanks. “Even in a drought we’re getting water to water the grass,” Perkins says.
The school district has paid for its green features with savings in general construction costs and has been supported by a community that believes in environmental stewardship.
TARKINGTON SCHOOL OF EXCELLENCE – CHICAGO
Tarkington School of Excellence in Chicago (above and below) shares a space with a city Parks and Recreation office, demonstrating how a more compact approach to public buildings can conserve money and land. The pairing makes sense because many of the Chicago public school’s students participate in after-school programs with the parks department, and together the two entities have become a hive of community activity, explains assistant principal Melissa Goude.
Since its opening in 2005, the school has acquired a greenhouse, paid for by a grant won by a teachers. Raised beds featuring prairie plants are the fruits of a student effort shepherded by 8th graders in the Chicago Conservation Corps. The garden beautifies what has become a community gathering spot just outside the school building, which hosts many more green activities inside during the year. “There’s a language our kids use that I ddin’t have when I was that age,” Goude says. “They’ll say, can we recycled this, can we reuse that?”
BETHEL MIDDLE SCHOOL — BRYANT, ARKANSAS
The Bryant School District west of Little Rock, Arkansas, planted a green school, Bryant Middle School (above and below) and grew a corps of green-minded young people. The school’s green team attracted about 90 kids and they’ve made Bryant MS into a hub of recycling. Because the town does not offer curbside pick up, the 6th-8th graders undertook to provide it themselves. Each week they set up a drop off for paper, aluminum and plastic bottles outside their school, which they sort and send to a local recycler. Inside, they’re also manic about recycling, collecting snack wrappers, ink jet cartridges and other recyclables for TerraCycle, which pays them back a small sum. They also collected soda can pull tabs, which the Future Business Leaders of America collect for Ronald McDonald Houses.
The fees for their recycling projects have been adding up. This year they bought a picnic table and six benches for the beginnings of an outdoor classroom. They also wrote a skit about green practices and performed it for elementary students, paying for their own bus travel.
“The minute we said green team I was just inundated with kids,” says green team coordinator, Lynn Cardin, a technology teacher. “Yeah,it’s nasty sorting snack wrappers, but at the end of the day we just wash our hands and go on.”
STODDERT ELEMENTARY — WASHINGTON D.C.
Stoddert Elementary, which opened nearly 80 years ago, remained well-located in Washington D.C. , but badly needed upgrading. The green plan saved the existing school, but wrapped it with modernized classrooms, media spaces and a gym, all closely integrated with trees on the site. A two-sided stageprovides for indoor or outdoor performances in a new amphitheater.
The extensive renovation created a 47,500 square foot school addition that dwarfed the original 17,900 square foot building and eliminated portable classrooms. It paid homage to the previous facade, but otherwise pressed reset. Classrooms now have wi-fi, movable modern furniture and water fountains. A community garden was installed next to a restored ball field. The gym (below) created an indoor-outdoor feel, hugging the urban forest on the school’s 6.5 acre site.
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