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The Greenest Schools in America
Sarah Rich, 18 Jul 06

main-left.jpg Given that so many people are moving towards having healthier homes and choosing better food, it's a wonder that schools are not higher on the priority list as an environment that could use improvement. College and university campuses have been getting a fair bit of attention for sustainability efforst, but where the younger kids are concerned, there's not much taking place, or at least not much in the public eye.

From cafeteria meals to bus exhaust, poorly ventilated hallways to harsh lighting, students face numerous challenges at school that have little to do with what is being taught or how. But dotted around the country are community groups and teachers associations who want to see the school building itself become a catalyst for learning. By implementing green building principles inside and out, some schools have begun to establish conditions where the classroom is a pleasant place to be.

The Waldorf School in Charlottesville, VA has embarked on a campaign to build a LEED Platinum educational facility. In keeping with the Waldorf philosophy, the goal is to create a healthy environment not only in terms of the physical building, but in terms of the well-being of the children and teachers who use it.

The campaign is geared not only toward building the school, but toward galvanizing a community. According to Marianne Lund, chairperson of the CWF, “We are creating a school that will be a model of affordability in green design. It allows members of our community, and communities across the country to be part of a dialogue on what it means to live green.”

Their goal is to raise a total of $6.2 million to complete the project, and in doing so, to increase awareness around the importance of transforming building strategies and considering a broader concept of "good" education which respects and considers how surroundings effect one's ability to learn.

Part way across the country, Twin Lakes Elementary School in Elk River, MN, is already being constructed, with the goal of achieving a LEED Gold rating. As part of their green building package, they have installed a product called SageGlass - a high-tech glass that can be tinted at the flick of a switch to reduce glare and heat without eliminating natural light and views to the outdoors.

According to Helen Sanders, SAGE's vice president of customer solutions, it takes less electricity to power and control 1,500-square-feet of SageGlass products per day than it does to power a 60-watt incandescent light bulb. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that electronically tintable window systems are capable of providing up to 40% savings on energy bills, 20% savings on operating costs, 24% reduction in peak demand, and a 25% decrease in the size of HVAC systems.

Obviously beyond simply saving electricity for lighting and A/C, this has significant benefits on kids in the classroom, for whom dim lighting and isolation can make focus difficult. These types of structural improvements hold profound potential to make learning easier, and there few more powerful ways to change the world than by helping students learn more effectively.

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A firm in Raleigh NC called Innovative Design, has been building green schools in the area for many years. They've done some lovely work with a big emphasis on natural daylight.

Posted by: PJ Nery on 19 Jul 06

One thing worth mentioning is that the Quarker schools across the country have shown a serious commitment to green design. My firm is currently building a LEED platinum school for Sidwell Friends in DC, and friends central here in Philly is planning a green renovation of their urban campus. As for this electrochromic glass, the claims made above are, really, pretty silly. Good daylighting, which can reduce electric bills and improve classroom environments dramatically, requires the implementation of a number of interlocking architectural strategies, including proper orientation, shading devices, finish albedo, room proportions, light level sensors, dimmable fixtures, low-e glass, and other technologies. My experience is that the electrochromic glass can help (it basically replaces automated solar blinds - the kind you can see through), but is difficult to make cost effective. The stuff costs the earth, and if improperly implemented, won't be very effective. Quick technological fixes are usually a poor substitute for good comprehensive sustainable design. These kinds of technologies are hardly fundamental "structural improvements" they're just substituting a new technology for an older one, the manually operated solar shade, that, in practice, works fairly well.

Posted by: Kevin Pratt on 20 Jul 06

This technology reminds me very much of Solar Tracking Skylights. I was able to sit through a presentation on their work the other day. I found it very impressive. The basic idea is a skylight with a set of mirrors that move along with the sun throughout the day, so that there is more light earlier and later than otherwise. It doubles to quadruples the amount of light, depending on how far you are from the equator. Neat stuff, and very cost efficient depending on where you are.
Thanks for pointing out another great worldchanging Charlottesville initiative.

Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 20 Jul 06

Then there are the disaster-resistant, 50-75% more energy efficient domes many southwestern schools are using.

Posted by: Michael K on 29 Jul 06



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