Sustainable Schools

Wise Long-Term Investment

Sustainable design and education go hand-in-hand thanks in part to the global awareness that our buildings contribute to roughly one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions. Incorporating green practices into our everyday has become the norm. When it comes to buildings, sustainable design is no longer viewed as a costly design option, but rather a wise long-term investment.

While there are a number of green building rating systems, the goal is the same; to create a high-performing, healthy atmosphere for inhabitants while minimizing the impact on the environment.

Schools are one of the most important building types to apply the principals of sustainable design, as the right setting for learning is paramount for academic success. Unfortunately, there is a misconception that sustainable design is cost-prohibitive, especially in budget-conscious districts. Fortunately, even if a school project opts not to pursue an official green rating, such as LEED or CHPS, there are many opportunities to apply the principles of sustainable design that do not add cost. In fact, many green design strategies can reduce the cost while improving public health.

Site selection, the first step in a building project, can have a signification impact on the environment. Ideally, a district would first consider renovating an existing building and/or creating an addition with minimal impact to the site. The recently completed Methuen High School, in Methuen, Mass., took this approach. The design team of Finegold Alexander Architects converted the existing 1975-era open classroom plan into a virtually new school within the same footprint.

If renovation is not an option and a new building is the only solution, then selecting a site that has been previously developed or an infill in an urban location with existing infrastructure (roads, parking lots and utility services) reduces the negative impact to the existing environment. Using the school building and playing fields for non-school events and functions is another strategic way to minimize the impact.

The building location can also have a direct correlation to how students and faculty commute to school. Schools co-located near quality public transit can decrease transportation pollution, as well as land development otherwise needed to construct parking lots. Increasing the amount of bike rack facilities on campus and preferred parking spaces for green vehicles also encourages students and faculty to seek alternative transportation to school. Not only does this reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it also improves the health of the students, faculty and staff by encouraging physical activity.

Students spend a majority of their time at school inside the building, so providing good indoor environmental quality is crucial to the health of the occupants. A good indoor environment includes access to natural ventilation and daylight, as well as views to the outdoors. This allows the occupants to connect with the outdoors, reinforce circadian rhythms and reduce the demand for electrical lighting. Studies have shown that student test scores improved when exposed to natural daylight and views to nature. Selecting the right building materials is another way to improve indoor air quality at little to no additional cost. Using low-emitting materials with reduced concentrations of chemical contaminants, referred to as low VOCs, is now very common in everyday building materials.

Re-use of existing building materials, or materials made with recycled content, is another option. It is now possible to trace how much recycled content is in certain building materials. For renovation projects, retaining as much of the existing building reduces the amount of material sent to landfills and minimizes the percentage of new material required. Methuen High School, for example, retained 82 percent of the existing exterior walls, 86 percent of the existing floors and 72 percent of the existing roof during the renovation. This significantly reduced the cost of new building materials and demolition costs.

Many sustainable design rating systems also include “innovation” credits. The purpose of these credits is to encourage design teams and school administrators to adopt significant policies that truly represent best practices in sustainable and/or environment health and safety that are compatible with their district. Some examples of innovation points include establishing a green cleaning policy — requiring use of green cleaning supplies and equipment, and using the school as a learning tool by installing signage describing the various green design and building strategies.

For most districts, school building projects happen infrequently, therefore it is important to get the most bang for the tax-payers’ buck. While the green building rating systems continue to change and refine with each new version release, the underlying principals remain the same.

These sustainable design and building strategies are just a few examples of the many opportunities for school building projects to incorporate into building projects. After all, schools are not only a place to learn how to be prepared for the future, but also how to be stewards of our environment.

For more information on how you can incorporate sustainable design strategies visit

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Regan Shields Ives, AIA, LEED-AP BD+C, is a Principal at Finegold Alexander Architects. She is an expert is historic preservation and adaptive reuse. She was recently elected to the board of directors of the Boston Preservation Alliance.

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