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Building Sustainable Spaces in Schools

Allison McKenzie

While it’s a topic that was rarely mentioned decades ago, sustainability is now commonly discussed and planned for in many new buildings and renovations. This is especially true in schools with their community-driven, collaborative processes that also have certain unique state requirements and goals.

Yet there’s still a lot of misunderstanding of what exactly sustainability is and how it can help achieve the goals of a project. Most commonly, sustainability is thought to refer to a building’s environmental impact; things like how much energy is used and how large of a carbon footprint it might have. Environmental impact is certainly a key aspect of sustainable design, but true sustainability plays such a foundational role that it touches nearly all aspects of a project.

The concept of a “Triple Bottom Line,” coined by John Elkington in 1994 to describe sustainability as impacting people, planet and profit, is perhaps overly simplified and over-used, but it does begin to identify the true complexity of sustainable design.

Whether in schools or office buildings, parks or playgrounds, sustainability is focused on maximizing long-term benefits while minimizing negative effects, whether that’s for the budget, the happiness of occupants or the good of the environment. With that definition, it’s easy to see how sustainability can positively impact both the structural elements of a building and the daily lives of the occupants who use a building most often.

Environmental Sustainability

With greater public pressure on ensuring new buildings are as ecologically friendly as possible, it’s important for schools to be leaders in environmental sustainability. It’s part of our focus at SHP in future-focused design that meets and anticipates the needs of a fast-evolving landscape over the next several decades. Additionally, the Ohio Facilities of Construction Commission (OFCC) has helped school architecture in Ohio specifically take giant leaps forward in sustainability by requiring schools that receive state funding for their construction projects to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certification. Similar programs exist in other states, so it’s important that your architecture partner understand these before beginning any project.

LEED Certification is a third-party rating and certification system which verifies that a building is designed to be sustainable using a comprehensive set of sustainability criteria. There are four levels of certification – Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum – that are awarded based on the number of sustainable design strategies the building design achieves.

The sustainable design strategies included in LEED are meant to be comprehensive, and they encompass five basic categories of sustainability:

  1. Sustainable site development
  2. Water usage
  3. Energy efficiency
  4. Material use and conservation
  5. Indoor environmental quality

As you can see by the diversity of categories, there are numerous ways that building design can impact sustainability. A typical LEED project strives to do the following:

  • Develop the site it occupies in a way that minimizes impact on the environment and the project’s neighbors.
  • Conserve potable water used inside and outside the building.
  • Reduce energy use to minimize carbon emissions and reduce long-term utility costs.
  • Use building materials and construction practices that conserve natural resources through recycling and utilize local resources that reduce material transportation impacts.
  • Create an environment that protects human health and comfort through avoidance of volatile product emissions, provision of fresh outside air and creation of a comfortable thermal environment.

While LEED is typically voluntary and pursued by a building owner and design team to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability, as mentioned above, LEED certification at a Silver or higher level is required on all state-funded Ohio School projects. This is a fantastic recognition by the OFCC that sustainably designed schools create environments that are better for student health and well-being, the planet we live on, and the long term financial health of the districts they serve.

Human-Centered Sustainability

The role of sustainability continues to evolve, most recently with an increased focus on the inclusion of building spaces—especially those where we spend large amounts of our daily time, like at work and school—that promote the long-term, lasting health and wellness of those that use the building.

Numerous recent studies, including an often-cited one by Harvard, have shown direct impacts on cognitive function correlated to indoor air quality. It has becoming quite clear that a focus on sustainability can help create a school that, through its very design, makes students healthier and happier.

This is called human-centered sustainability, and you can certainly begin to see its appeal. While this type of sustainability is recognized in the LEED rating system through indoor environment strategies, a new certification focused entirely on the human impacts of building designs was recently created, the WELL Building Standard.

Physical activity in schools is also a focus of human-centered sustainability: promoting bodies that are healthier and more vibrant. Like the studies that link improved cognitive function to good indoor air quality, studies are proving that increased opportunities for physical activity improve focus and help reduce behavioral issues in schools. This can mean constructing spaces that allow students to be physically active, creating easy connections to exterior environments for play and even specifying furniture that allow students to burn energy through rocking, wobbling or swiveling.

All of these design strategies can serve as learning opportunities, allowing schools to use already beneficial sustainable efforts to also promote learning for the life of the building. Rooftop gardens and rain barrels, for instance, require specific design considerations aimed at reducing potable water use, but also inherently encourage hands-on learning by staff and students of all grades. Other, more holistic design decisions like those described above can become the basis for older students to conduct their own research projects and studies into how the built environment can be beneficial.

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