Schools Are the Building Blocks of Our Sustainable Future

How LEED-Certified Schools Benefit Our Children and the Planet

Schools Are the Building Blocks of Our Sustainable Future


Blog Topic:

Our children’s schools are leading the way towards a more sustainable future. How schools practice sustainability differs for newly constructed or ongoing operations, although the end result is the same: healthier environments for kids to learn and thrive.
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LEED for schools

What does the future hold for our kids (and their kids) in a world where the planet's health is at risk? Across all facets of life, sustainability is coming to the forefront of the public consciousness as we consider the danger climate change brings to future generations. Without a doubt, there are few better places to encourage environmental mindfulness than within the foundations of primary education. The buildings we call schools impact our children's ability to learn, and play and have a key role in shaping a healthier future for our planet.

Schools that are being designed – either as new builds or renovations – have a wide variety of choices of how the building will incorporate sustainable design principles and provide a healthy indoor environment for students and staff. Examples include installing motion-sensor energy-efficient lights or improving the building’s energy performance with improved insulation, windows, and heating and cooling systems. New and existing schools can evaluate opportunities to improve ventilation systems with filtration, settings for outdoor air intake, and CO2 and VOC monitors to improve indoor air quality. In any case, the building itself can serve as a teaching tool, providing a framework for learning.  

The Importance of Sustainability in Schools 

Collectively, working towards sustainability in schools is important for three main reasons: 

1) Improving Environmental Quality for Students: Making changes to school facilities promotes the improvement of indoor environmental quality, which has been identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to directly affect the health of students, faculty, and staff through the presence of allergens and respiratory irritants causing asthma, headaches, nausea, cognitive impairment, and other health problems. 

2) Reducing Carbon Emissions: Renovating or building facilities to be more energy-efficient reduces carbon emissions and resource use, reducing schools’ environmental footprints.  

3) Saving Money: Reducing resource use saves on up to 20-40% of the costs of utilities for schools and taxpayers.  

Schools represent places where we protect our future both for people and the planet.  

How are Schools Creating Healthier and More Sustainable Learning Spaces? 

Many teams look to third-party frameworks for guiding operations and design decisions for sustainable schools. Several frameworks exist, including LEED for Schools, the Collaboration for High Performance Schools (CHPS) and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) through its Center for Green Schools.

The LEED for Schools rating system is the leading global framework for sustainable schools being newly built or undergoing major renovations, with over 3,000 certified buildings. The LEED Existing Building Operations & Maintenance rating system helps existing schools measure and improve sustainable performance. These certifications offer several paths for schools to improve or build facilities that follow LEED’s holistic approach, which focuses on climate change, human health, water resources, biodiversity, green economy, and natural resources.

The Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) provides technical resources for school design, construction, operations, and maintenance standards through its extensive design criteria programs and project reviewers. It's made up of a collaboration of school districts, architects, builders, building scientists, health professionals, and consultants who are dedicated to fostering healthy learning environments. CHPS develops tools (in many cases free) that help make schools energy, water, and material efficient, well-lit, thermally comfortable, acoustically sound, safe, healthy, and easy to operate.

The Center for Green Schools at the USGBC provides education and support systems for administrators to advocate for their schools to incorporate sustainable changes and work towards LEED certification. This is accomplished by providing educators and students access to programs and learning labs to learn about sustainability in everyday practice and become environmental stewards in the classroom and in their communities. This training is invaluable for creating future sustainability leaders.

Health Benefits of Green Schools 

Research completed by the U.S. Green Building Council on LEED schools reveals that green schools protect student and teacher health by ensuring a clean and healthy indoor environment. Key areas of focus include: 

How States Create Change 

As we discussed in a recent blog on climate action, local and state codes create incentives for sustainable school design and operation. The State of Ohio continues to be the global leader in LEED-certified public schools, with more certified than any other state or province in the world. Ohio boasts 495 LEED-certified schools (8 Certified, 267 Silver, 117 Gold, and 8 Platinum). These results are directly attributable to Ohio’s 2007 legislation that requires all K-12 schools funded with state dollars to achieve LEED certification.

Todd Hager, LEED BD+C, LEED Project Manager for The Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, adds, “The OFCC policy for LEED Silver goal has resulted in more efficient school buildings as well as increases in student test scores, improved staff retention, and fewer absentee days. These results all benefit the students of Ohio Schools.”

Second to Ohio with 121 LEED-certified schools is California. The state requires buildings or renovations over 10k SF to achieve LEED certification.

As more communities and states develop climate action plans, schools will continue to be at the forefront of emissions reductions. In fact, the Inflation Reduction Act is likely to spur more investments in schools in the near future. Incentives of that bill include investments to reduce pollution and greenhouse gases and the purchase of electric buses. 

The Impact of LEED-Certified Schools 

According to USGBC, green schools use an average of 32% less water and 33% less energy than non-LEED certified schools and save approximately $100,000 annually on operating expenses. Such savings allow for more funding for student resources and reduce long-term operating and utility costs.  

Furthermore, LEED certification does not have to be more costly than a non-LEED-certified construction or remodel process; most of the schools that obtained LEED certifications in the past three years did so without incurring additional costs. The benefits are environmentally, socially, and economically impactful. 

How Your School Can Begin the Process  

When considering LEED certification, schools can choose one of two options: building design and construction (BD+C) or operations and management (O+M). BD+C focuses on new builds or major renovations to improve the sustainability of the building and internal systems such as lighting, heating, cooling, and water efficiency. To date, LEED certification is achieved by schools being built new or undergoing major renovation because the projects present an easy way to maximize the benefits of healthy indoor environments, saving on utilities and resources.  

Alternately, O+M focuses on tracking data to optimize already-existing spaces for improved energy efficiency, waste flow, indoor air quality, and occupant satisfaction. While fewer schools have achieved certification under O+M to date, all schools are eligible to pursue certification and benefit from the tracking and engagement to continuously improve performance.  

Hathaway Brown SchoolFor example, the Hathaway Brown School, an all-girls PreK-12 school in Cleveland, Ohio, is in the process of obtaining a LEED O+M certification, in partnership with Emerald as a recipient of the Emerald Gives Program. Director of Fellowships in Sustainability at Hathaway Brown, Tory McMillan, said, “We had considered pursuing LEED O+M certification in the past, but the process and documentation seemed overwhelming without outside guidance… [Emerald is] shepherding us through each step of the process, providing technical and general assistance to help us collect the information and data we need.” 

While obtaining a LEED certification for your school may seem daunting, Emerald’s experienced experts have extensive experience in guiding K-12 and higher education facilities through the LEED certification process throughout the U.S. Emerald strives to make healthier and more sustainable schools possible for the health of our students, future generations, and the planet. One way we do that is through our annual Emerald Gives program. Click HERE to learn if your school may be eligible to apply for this donation of complimentary sustainability consulting services. We are your team!

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