School systems nationwide are beginning to realize the benefits of “going green” when building new schools, according to experts who follow school construction trends. Though the initial building costs can run higher, schools are seeing a return on their up-front investment through a reduction in monthly energy costs. Another important (and often unexpected) side benefit has been a boost in student achievement resulting from more healthy, productive, and comfortable learning environments.

John Weekes, an architect who is a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Committee on Architecture for Education, says “green,” or environmentally friendly, school buildings aren’t just a West Coast concept anymore.

“Of course, places like California have been thinking green for a while, but it’s really all over now–the Pacific Northwest, the upper Midwest, and the Northeast,” he said. “Recently, it’s also been [occurring in] the Southeast. It’s certainly [a] mainstream [concept], but not entirely even across the board. Every region has its own rate.”

There are many levels of “green,” and each green building can vary in its degree of energy efficiency. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has its own set of measurements, called the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, which measures design, construction, and operation of green buildings. To date, the LEED certificate-available in bronze, silver, and gold-has been given to 55 schools around the country. However, another 370 reportedly were waiting for certification as of press time.

LEED also has a special certification for green schools, which takes into account joint-use agreements that allow other groups to use the facility and also has stricter requirements for features such as minimum acoustic standards.

According to Deane Evans, a research professor and executive director of the Center for Architecture and Building Science Research at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, a high-performance green school has “healthy, productive, and comfortable environments for students and teachers that provide high levels of acoustic, thermal, and visual comfort.”

Features of green schools include windows and skylights that admit generous amounts of daylight; buildings that are safe, secure, and cost-effective to own and operate, because they use durable products and systems; materials that are chosen using life-cycle cost analysis, rather than the cheapest first cost; and availability to non-students during hours when the school is not in operation. (Community participation during design also is encouraged.)

Already, many states and school systems are using LEED guidelines to structure future school design. For example, in September the Ohio School Facility Fund passed a requirement that all new schools and major renovations in the state be certified LEED Silver, using $4.1 billion in state money to help cover the costs. The plan will create at least 250 more green schools in Ohio in the next two years.

In California, 23 school districts, including San Francisco and San Diego, have pledged to meet criteria for the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS), a system similar to LEED. Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine, Washington, and New Hampshire also are using measurement processes based on CHPS building standards.

Pennsylvania even provides up to $500,000 in state funding to school districts for each new building that is LEED certified.

Green school examples

Dave Burns, design principal for Burns Wald-Hopkins Architects, says geographical differences “are the foundation” for effective green-school construction.