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School Districts Building Healthy, High Performance Schools | Environmental Law Institute
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Environmental Health

School Districts Building Healthy, High Performance Schools

Summaries of Selected Initiatives (2005)

School districts across the US are changing the way they build and renovate schools, to create facilities that are healthier, more environmentally sound and more financially efficient to operate. These healthy, high performance school buildings advance education by promoting the well being and productivity of students and staff, and by consuming fewer scarce education resources for utility and related operating costs. In many cases, the buildings themselves are interactive tools for learning. The central feature of this approach to school facilities planning is the early, integrated consideration of a wide range of environmental and health strategies, including superior indoor air quality; resource efficiency and daylighting; sustainable materials; environmentally responsive site planning; life cycle cost analysis; and building commissioning.

Considerable technical resources have been developed to make it easier for school districts to create healthy, high performance school facilities, and school officials are putting those resources into practice. Motivated by increasing utility costs, poor indoor environmental conditions, and a general desire to produce durable, high quality buildings, school districts have begun to place health and environmental goals at the forefront in the development of capital projects. Many districts have used this approach for individual construction or renovation projects. Some have sought more far-ranging changes throughout their building programs.

Below are summaries of nine school districts that have developed formal high performance school building initiatives aimed at integrating a broad range of environmental and health goals into the decision-making process that guides their building programs. Several of these school districts also have made considerable efforts to improve health and environmental conditions in their existing schools; for example, four have received recognition under EPA’s Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Program. While these are not the only school districts that have sought systematic change in their school building programs, the examples described here illustrate a range of policies and practices that can be adapted to the challenges and opportunities facing other jurisdictions. The information contained in the summaries has been gathered from published sources, as well as from interviews with school officials and other individuals involved in the nine initiatives.

The summaries describe the key programmatic elements of these initiatives, as well as some of the important sources of support for their development. This information builds on a more in-depth analysis of school district and state-level high performance school building initiatives described in the Environmental Law Institute’s 2003 report, Building Healthy, High Performance Schools: A Review of Selected State and Local Initiatives.

The nine initiatives summarized in the following pages vary in their specific elements, but they have a number of general features in common. A review of these examples suggests four key elements that are important in developing a high performance school building initiative: (1) strong local support; (2) adequate technical resources; (3) a clear framework for decision-making; and (4) effective implementation.

Strong Local Support

School districts typically have received support for their high performance school building programs from within and outside the district. In nearly all cases, a “champion” within the school district — e.g., a senior manager in the facilities department — plays a critical role in advancing the initiative. Also important are individuals and groups outside the district. For example, in several of the examples discussed below, the school board played a significant role by adopting a formal resolution in support of the initiative. Several districts benefited from strong community support, and in some cases, community-based organizations were a major factor in the creation of the initiative. Support may also come from state or local government agencies that have established high performance building programs and are able to share resources or expertise.

Adequate Technical Resources

In addition to establishing the goal of designing and building healthy, high performance school facilities, school districts must have the technical resources for achieving that goal. As the field of high performance design has expanded, so has the availability of professionals with experience in this area. Many districts have hired a sustainable design consultant to guide their initiative. Typically, the consultant helps develop a framework for integrating health and environmental goals into the district’s capital projects, and may also help to ensure effective implementation of the framework. In some cases, districts that use project management firms to manage their building programs may assign to that firm the responsibility of developing the high performance building initiative as part of the building program. Another, though less common, approach is for the district to hire new staff (or dedicate an existing staff position) to oversee the high performance building program.

In addition to hiring consultants or staff, a number of school districts have created informal or formal partnerships to leverage technical resources outside of the district. These partners include local utility companies, state and local government agencies, private building professionals, and community-based groups. In some school districts, working groups may meet regularly to provide strategic or technical advice. Some districts have been able to obtain state government grants or in-kind assistance from electric utility companies, through programs designed to promote energy efficient, high performance building practices.

Clear Framework for Decision-making

A core element of any high performance school building initiative is the creation of a mechanism for ensuring that a wide range of health and environmental goals is considered in individual projects. In some cases, school districts establish broad environmental goals and then identify specific design strategies on a project-by-project basis. More typically, districts decide that most or all of their capital projects will use a high performance design guidance document and/or a measurement tool, such as a checklist.

In developing such design guidance, school districts can build on existing models. These models offer a flexible approach by providing a menu of numerous optional design strategies, organized by general environmental and health goals such as indoor environmental quality, energy efficiency, daylighting and site planning. School districts can adapt these models based on their own priorities. For example, school districts can emphasize indoor environmental quality goals by working with design teams to select a wide range of design strategies in that area.

One prominent example of an existing guidance document is the Best Practices Manual created by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS). The CHPS Manual was the first document to provide extensive guidance for building high performance schools, tailored to a particular state (California). Other states, such as Washington and Massachusetts, have since adapted the CHPS manual for use by their own schools. In addition, the US Department of Energy has adapted the manual to create a national best practices manual for schools. Another example is the US Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED™) rating system. LEED™ is not specific to schools. However, the USGBC currently is developing a schools-specific application of its rating system that may focus greater attention on indoor environmental quality and other areas of importance to schools.

In addition to adopting design guidelines and checklists, some districts have further institutionalized high performance design criteria by incorporating specific design requirements and recommendations into the district’s formal standards or specifications applicable to all capital projects.

Ensuring Effective Implementation

Effective implementation of a high performance school building initiative is a significant challenge for school districts, especially large districts. In addition to garnering internal management support, the jurisdictions discussed below have taken a variety of steps to ensure that their framework for high performance design is applied to individual projects. For example, many districts require submission of a checklist at various stages of a project, to indicate which high performance design features are being incorporated. Another component that is critical to implementation is training for district project managers and for A/E teams, and several initiatives have included workshops and other educational programs. A few of the school districts have provided formal opportunities for community involvement (e.g., working groups and building committees) in order to help ensure oversight and broad support for the continued development of their initiatives. Finally, while the emphasis to date has been on developing and applying high performance design criteria, some districts have included program evaluation mechanisms in their initiatives. These include commissioning for individual projects, as well as periodic or ongoing program review to identify needed adjustments to the district’s overall approach to high performance building.

As suggested throughout the summaries, advances in high performance building are due in large measure to the work of many governmental agencies, non-profit organizations, and private professionals who have provided the technical tools, support, and outreach that are critical to translating environmental and health goals into design and construction practices. A list of selected technical resources is included below. The school building initiatives summarized here have marshaled these and other resources to develop policies and practices for creating healthy, sustainable and cost-effective school facilities.

Download Summaries by School District:

Selected Technical Resources