Greening Schools: Better, Safer, Cheaper

March 20, 2018


We awaken again a to senseless school shooting.

Instead of turning schools into armed work camps, maybe there’s another way?
Along with sensible gun laws, expanded access to mental health care,  making our schools healthier and more efficient achieves multiple goals.

Sense and Sustainability:

To America’s school boards,

What if I could you offer you a reliable path to:

  • Improve educational results
  • Improve student, teacher, and staff morale
  • Improve student, teacher, and staff health
  • Create jobs in the local economy
  • Improve economic performance in the near-, mid-, and long-term
  • Save money

Intrigued? You should be.

And, the great news is: that path already exists.

This is the simple reality of the benefits that come from serious efforts to green the school environment. Take the time to understand why greening should be core to your leadership. You have the opportunity to foster better educational performance, improve your community’s economy, help clean up the environment, and save money.

When approaching the analysis with an open mind, it becomes clear: greening schoolsmight be the most cost-effective path toward improving school performance. In fact, it might be the only educational achievement enhancing path that is also “profitable” (due to energy and operational cost benefits) even without considering the secondary (job creation, student/teacher health) and tertiary (lower pollution levels, capacity building for energy efficiency, and other “green” across the country) benefits.

How could “greening a school” improve educational achievement? Let us look at just a few examples:

  • Energy Efficient Windows: Imagine your childhood classroom, the single-pane windows. When you sat next to that window in winter you might have been freezing but toward the end of the school year frying in sun relative to your classmate 10 feet away. Hmmm . . . perhaps eliminating that discomfort might have made it easier for you to focus on the teacher and your studies?
  • Daylighting: Obviously, human eyes have evolved with fluorescent lighting. Not! Consistently, tested performance in stores, factories, offices (also), and schools has shown improvements with increased daylight.
  • Non-Volatile Organic Compound Paints / Cleaning Products: Eliminating VOCs will reduce headaches, disturbing odors, and other distractions from academics.

Greening the schools, for many reasons, will improve student performance with healthier (driving lower absenteeism, as seen in the office environment) and more attentive students in an environment more conducive to learning. Let us explore, however, a fuller range of benefits:

  • Save money for communities and taxpayers: Quite directly, public infrastructure is one of the clearest places where the taxpayer should be concerned about the “cost to own” against the “cost to buy”. What is interesting is that achieving basic green level standards (which might cut energy usage by 25% or more) often can cost less than building “normally,” as good passive design might, for example, lead to improved heating/cooling system requirements and water efficiency (e.g., through water-less urinals). In addition, achieving quite aggressive standards might have direct financial payback times from energy savings of well under five years.Remember, just like your household, your local (and national) government is getting hit by rising energy prices. Spending the time and money to “green” schools will lower that burden for coming years and represents a hedge against rising energy prices. Green buildings also use less water (e.g., through water efficient fixtures and rainwater capture) and have reduced runoff (green roofing, good landscape design), lowering sewage bills.

But thinking only about direct savings sells greening schools short.

There are also indirect savings. Workers in “green” buildings have far lower absentee rates, which means lower costs for substitute teachers. Green buildings also have lower maintenance requirements and more longevity for components. For example, highly reflective (cool) or green roofs last roughly twice as long as asphalt roofs. This not only reduces energy costs, but also means that the roofs won’t require replacement before the entire school might require renovation 30–40 years in the future. The indirect benefits continue, however. Greening schools can:

  • Create employment: Renovating buildings and investing in infrastructure to lower tomorrow’s costs means replacing spending on energy, water, and health care with spending on labor and materials. These jobs (as per below) are unlikely to disappear when school renovation and construction is done, as these skills are directly transferable to other government infrastructure, businesses, and homes. And, this is a path to providing valuable work opportunities to businesses and workers who might otherwise be unemployed. These are jobs that will keep money in the community, rather than (in many cases) spending even more money to import energy from outside the community.
  • Reduce pollution loads: Reduced energy demand, by definition, will reduce pollution levels from generation. Greened buildings will also reduce urban-heat island impacts (e.g., through better roofing).
  • Foster capacity for greening the nation: Widespread greening of school systems across the country would create demand for architects, general contractors, and workers who understand how to build with energy efficiency and environmental consequences in mind. Local government officials (politicians, administrators, code writers, inspectors) would learn about the benefits and technical issues, while the general public will learn about energy efficient options. A Federal-Local-Private partnership to green schools will foster capacity and lower the barriers for the private sector to green businesses and homes. It will also create demand, as people get exposed to the benefits that accrue from this path. Finally, greening America’s building infrastructure is one of the most exciting and beneficial opportunities for tackling global warming.


Bloomington Pantagraph (Illinois):

District 87 received the 2017 Governor’s Sustainability Award for its many green efforts, including upgrades to heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment, controls and lighting across the district to more efficient models.

“We expect to generate a cost avoidance of approximately $400,000 annually in electricity and natural gas savings,” said Colin Manahan, D-87 director of facilities.

Officials also expect the upgrades to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40 percent across the district.

“As an organization, the award confirms we’re doing the right things in our community via our carbon footprint and it sends a message to our stakeholders that these things matter. This isn’t about dollars and cents, it’s about better habits and a new way of doing things,” said Manahan.

Unit 5 also is completing several energy efficiency projects throughout the Normal-based district to cut utility bills.

By installing geothermal heating and cooling systems at many schools, Unit 5 will save more than $100,000 each year per site.

“The goal was to get our energy consumption under control,” said Joe Adelman, Unit 5 director of operations.

New HVAC equipment, roof replacements, plumbing upgrades and LED lighting at nearly every building are upgrades that will last decades, said Adelman.

“Making sustainable changes is important, but so is running our buildings efficiently and using taxpayer money very wisely,” he added. “We want it to be a win-win solution for everybody.”


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