The past few years have been lean ones for most school districts across the country, so it is no big surprise that construction activity has waned in many areas.
But take heart. The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities and McGraw Hill Construction predict that annual spending on new schools, additions and alterations will almost double to $70 billion by the middle of the decade. Many factors are driving this more optimistic outlook, including rising student enrollments and shifting demographics.
The biggest driver of this projected growth is the need to replace and repair America’s aging schools, most of which were built in the 1950s -1970s. The American Society of Civil Engineers assessed schools across the country and awarded them a “D” grade in its 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.
Society cannot build itself out of this predicament. But we can make sure that when we do build, we build high-performance, energy-efficient schools that meet the current and future needs of students, educators, communities and taxpayers.
District Makes the Case for Going Green
In 2006, Bryant Public Schools opened Bethel Middle School, the first LEED-certified school in the state of Arkansas. The school was so successful and well-received that the district has since built Hurricane Creek Elementary and began expanding Bryant High School, using LEED guidelines for both projects.
With enrollment expanding by about three percent per year, Bryant is one of the fastest-growing school districts in Arkansas. In 2003, voters passed a millage increase to fund seven construction projects, including two new schools.
“This was a wonderful opportunity to improve the learning environment for Bryant students,” says Richard Abernathy, superintendent at Bryant Public Schools. “We knew it made sense to follow LEED guidelines. But we also knew we had to first win the support of the school board, state legislators, community leaders and other constituents by showing how green schools benefit students, teachers and taxpayers.”
Improving Learning Environments
The district engaged an energy services company to examine the connection between green schools and an improved learning environment. Many studies show a connection between an improved indoor environment and student health, absenteeism and academic achievement.
Deborah Bruick, Bryant’s assistant superintendent, studied the effect green schools have on student attendance and achievement for her doctoral thesis. As part of her analysis, she compared the perceptions of teachers from LEED and non-LEED schools.
“All the teachers I surveyed believe that the classroom environment affects student learning and health,” she says. “Overwhelmingly, teachers from LEED schools perceive that their schools provide a better place for students to learn and teachers to teach. This is especially true when they are asked about the effects of indoor air quality and acoustics.”
Going green also makes economic sense. Studies show the initial cost of building a green school is about two percent higher than conventional construction. But savings in energy and operating costs repay the higher first costs many times over during the school’s typical operating life.
Building Support for LEED
Bruick said building a passionate cadre of supporters was essential to the success of the district’s efforts to build greener schools.
“Keeping the school board apprised of our findings was essential to gaining their support,” she says. “We met regularly with board members throughout the pre-construction phases of the process.”
Along with the architect, commissioning agent, energy service provider and other traditional members, Abernathy included school administrators and faculty on the project design team. He and Bruick met regularly with a wide range of stakeholder and community groups. The administrators also reached out to state legislators, including state Sen. Shane Broadway, for backing. They accompanied several legislators on a field trip to a LEED school in Texas to see the difference first-hand.
Performance Contracting Helps Capture Savings
“Because he understood what we were trying to accomplish, Sen. Broadway sponsored legislation to amend state law so that we could use a performance contract to fund new construction,” Abernathy says.
“A performance contract considers the entire lifecycle cost of a project,” Abernathy continued. “It’s not enough to just compare construction costs. You also need to take into account such factors as energy consumption, operating expenses and maintenance costs. It’s impossible to put a price tag on the value of creating a better learning environment for our kids.”
Bryant’s new schools use natural lighting and acoustical panels to control noise. Energy efficiency features include a state-of-the-art heating, air conditioning and ventilating system, automated building control system, and lighting and temperature sensors in each room. With these and other features, the two schools are expected to save taxpayers $19.8 million in energy and related costs over their projected 50-year lifespan.
Bill Harris is the vertical market leader responsible for Trane’s K-12 and higher education business segments.