School Design in the Era of Climate Change

School districts across the country made headlines this week after they canceled classes due to the heat wave crushing the U.S. Excessive heat, exacerbated by failing (or nonexistent) HVAC systems put the health of students and educators at risk, forcing districts throughout the Midwest to pivot in order to keep their communities safe.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time schools have closed due to extreme weather—and it won’t be the last. As climate change illuminates the need for spaces that are environmentally conscious and weather resilient, many school districts may find themselves at a crossroads. No matter if a school district renovates existing buildings or selects new construction, there are factors and strategies they, and the architects working with them, should intentionally consider to ensure protection against dangerously unpredictable weather.

Community Impacts of Extreme Heat

It is vitally important to design buildings that are resilient and prepared for the changing climate in order to combat global warming and its many effects. Studies have shown that thermal comfort has an impact on student performance and productivity. For example, excessive heat can lower cognitive function, focus and enthusiasm for learning, and is also known to cause some students to act out.

Furthermore, according to the CDC, more deaths are caused by extreme heat each year than any other weather-related hazard including hurricanes, tornados or flooding—a trend that is only likely to increase as global daily record temperatures continue to rise. Extreme heat can also result in economic impacts, including high energy costs and loss of productivity due to heat fatigue and/or power outages as the energy grid is strained.

AEC Standards for Adaptability

When it comes to construction standards, we previously explored whether LEED remains the “Gold Standard” of energy-efficient, sustainably designed buildings. LEED certification typically focuses on the qualities and ecological footprint of the building itself, measuring things like the use of sustainable materials and resources, energy consumption and use of clean energy, water efficiency, impact on ecosystems and waterways and so on.

One thing that the latest iteration of LEED standards does not touch on directly, though, is adaptability and resiliency related to the impacts of climate change. Resilient buildings are designed for longevity and durability and can withstand extreme weather conditions or events such as hurricanes, coastal floods, blizzards, droughts and heat. These structures are more likely to quickly recover from these sorts of devastating and disruptive events, which means less rebuilding and, in turn, less waste and energy consumption.

Intentionally Designing for Heat Resiliency

While we may not be able to solve global warming and climate change through architecture and design alone, there are strategies that can mitigate the effects of extreme weather on building occupants. Here are a few ways to account for extreme heat and create building resiliency:

  • Choosing cool roofs: These are either light in color and/or reflective. Cool roofs transfer less heat to the building below. They can reduce the buildup of heat, which can strain air conditioning units.
  • Increase tree canopy cover and vegetation: Trees and plants can help resist extreme heat by shading structures and preventing heat buildup that is prevalent in other surface materials like paving.
  • Use shading structures: Canopies, awnings and shades keep solar energy off of the building, thus reducing heat buildup.
  • Install a solar energy production and storage system: This will help mitigate impacts from any rolling blackouts or grid failures caused by extreme heat.

Climate change, and more bouts of extreme heat, are also influencing school districts to install air conditioning systems in older schools that were built without them, and AC is a given in most new school construction. Consider the following when selecting a new air conditioning system:

  • Choose the most energy-efficient, affordable system: This will help reduce long-term operational costs and stress on the energy grid, which will positively impact the school district and the broader local community.
  • Utilize design temperatures that account for increases throughout the equipment’s lifespan: This will ensure that the air conditioning system will last a long time and has enough capacity to keep buildings cool in future extreme heat events, not just for those events that occur right after it is installed.

When working together to build climate-resilient schools, school districts and architects should take a page from states where temperatures are typically warmer than in other places in the country. Schools in Texas and in Arizona, for example—which commonly experience consecutive weeks of extreme heat— can provide roadmaps for building design in states that historically have experienced extreme heat in shorter spurts.

For example, Austin had 45 consecutive days of triple-digit temperatures in July and August 2023, beating the old record set in 2011 of 27 days. Though Texas is used to hot summers, the intensity and longevity of the heat is a new experience.

So, what can we learn from these weather patterns? Two additional suggestions for building resiliency are:

  • Playground improvements: In addition to adding trees and/or shading devices, as mentioned above, removing blacktop surfaces will create cooler areas for outdoor play.
  • Provide indoor environments that allow for play and socializing: The Arizona Department of Health Services says the main way to manage heat among students is to keep them inside, away from the heat. That’s only possible with resilient buildings that can provide protection and relief from extreme temperatures. Programming student-centered spaces such as Extended Learning Areas and sensory rooms is necessary to allow students to continue to play and get a break from the classroom. We can also design gymnasiums and student dining spaces to be places of respite by including natural lighting, biophilia and acoustic comfort.

Going Beyond Building Resiliency

It’s also important to consider the building’s overall impact on human health and well-being, which is where the WELL Building Standard™ can be useful. This goes beyond considering building resilience and LEED standards.

Managed and administered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), the WELL standard measures and certifies features of the built environment that impact human health and wellbeing, looking at factors like air quality, water quality, accessibility to nourishment, light levels, opportunities for activity and fitness, overall comfort and impact on mental wellbeing. Incorporating this standard requires district leaders to take steps to ensure that occupants of that building—students and staff—feel confident that their health and wellness are a top priority.

Designing for the Future, Now

There is no one way to build for longevity and durability. What makes a building truly resilient will largely depend on its location, its role in the community and what environmental challenges it is expected to face. Creating climate-resilient school buildings requires those of us in the AEC industry to design and construct a bit differently, incorporating more durable materials, making classrooms flexible and adaptable for future use and opting for renewable power to minimize grid dependency, for instance. As climate change continues to dramatically transform our world, architects have a responsibility to address these looming impacts by including resilience approaches in their sustainability plans.


Allison McKenzie, AIA, LEED AP, WELL AP, is Vice President and the Director of Environmental Responsibility at SHP. Connect with her via LinkedIn or email.

Annie Morman, WELL AP, Assoc. IIDA, is an Interior Designer at SHP. Connect with her via LinkedIn or email.