Sustainable Schools Make the Grade

Tetra Tech’s High Performance Buildings Group hones in on the importance of designing sustainable schools.

At Harrison School in Canberra, the naturally ventilated, well-lit classrooms—each featuring individual heating controls and occupancy sensors—deliver comfortable conditions all year round. With its 5 star Green Star rating, the building is certainly energy efficient—these energy savings are enhanced by the accelerated teacher productivity and student learning.

On the other side of the globe, the students at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester are now learning and performing in a building that combines sustainability and acoustic sensitivity to spectacular effect. The largest specialist music school in the United Kingdom, Chetham has integrated cutting-edge sustainable technologies—from high-spec HVAC and lighting to CO2 sensors and state-of-the-art acoustic treatments—within a heritage-listed building. The result is a healthy, high-performance learning and teaching space.

And La Trobe University’s Institute for Molecular Science building in Melbourne— featuring labs and learning spaces—connects science with sustainability in an environment that delivers energy efficiency and excellent indoor environment quality.

These are just three examples that point to a sustainable future for our schools.

While conventional wisdom has it that talented teachers and a well-rounded curriculum are the essential ingredients of a good education, research now tells us that a school’s physical design can affect a child’s academic progress by as much as 25 percent.

A recent, year-long study by University of Salford’s School of the Built Environment and British architecture firm Nightingale Associates found environmental factors—such as classroom orientation, access to daylight, acoustics, temperature, air quality and even color—directly influenced learning rates. In fact, 73 percent of the variation in pupil performance could be explained by building environment factors.

This isn’t the only study to link academic outcomes with school environment. A seminal study by Heschong Mahone Group, covering more than 21,000 students in 2,000 classrooms, found a direct correlation between daylighting and student learning, including a 20 percent faster progression in math and a 26 percent faster progression in reading. Simply ensuring students had window views enhanced student learning by up to 10 percent.

Other studies have found that better classroom acoustics improve academic performance, while good ventilation, high quality lighting and paints and carpets that don’t release toxic chemicals can improve student and teacher health, resulting in fewer sick days and higher teacher retention. When coupled with the estimated operating cost savings—which can be as much as 40 percent—more money can be spent on teacher salaries and learning resources.

For most schools and universities, the desire to build green was driven by economic efficiency. Green buildings are cheaper to operate, which means more money for teachers, text books, and other learning resources. The Center for Green Schools in the United States estimates that each green school saves around $100,000 each year in direct operating expenses, which is the equivalent to two teachers’ salaries, 200 computers, or 5,000 textbooks.

But more than operational cost savings, schools and universities understand they have a deep and abiding responsibility to the occupants of their buildings—who are, after all, our next generation of leaders.

Sustainable school buildings are also being used as a powerful teaching and learning tool—with green-featured and advanced technology inspiring children to come to grips with the real-world application of green technologies. We know many students learn better when abstract concepts are demonstrated to them visually. Some schools position real-time energy monitors around the school, while others incorporate stormwater management into the landscape design.

It’s clear that a sustainable school delivers far more than energy efficiency. It’s time we reframed our conversation so that the community begins to understand that an investment in better buildings is an investment in the education and learning outcomes of our most precious asset—our people.

Image courtesy of Daniel Hopkinson