The “Green Benefits that Don’t Start with $”
Why are today’s students so committed to preserving our resources and protecting our planet’s ecology? How does this passion for ecological issues translate to their learning environments? Answering these questions invites new possibilities for the design of sustainable schools that capture the imaginations and interests of contemporary students. Young people who typically would not consider turning off a light switch, exhibit a true passion for saving the earth and conserving its resources. Expressing a seemingly innate respect for the environment, their academic and vocational efforts are captured by concern for the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the animals and plant life that share our planet.
While “going green” promises substantial financial savings for school districts and administrators, sustainability in the educational environment impacts students, teachers and community members, in ways beyond the budgetary. Green environments are more healthful and aesthetically pleasing, offering a learning setting immediately effective in raising student achievement. A comfortable, attractive, and user-friendly environment encourages students to excel, and physically demonstrates the great importance our society places on learning. An energy‐efficient environment actively engages students in their school’s conservation efforts; simple acts such as opening and closing windows, turning off lights and recycling materials, reinforce a “green” philosophy through active practice. Building designs featuring daylight, healthful ventilating systems and natural materials throughout the school, improve student attention and attendance, while attracting and retaining outstanding teachers who enjoy teaching in a pleasant setting. Students daily have the chance to learn from every facet of the surrounding built and natural environment, as their school presents three‐dimensional opportunities to excel at environmental stewardship.
The environment is a rich teaching tool, inviting continual investigation. On the larger level, every school is located in a specific climate zone, readily available for further exploration – deserts, forests and tundra are not the only interesting biomes! Every urban, suburban and rural setting has a historical context, potentially evident in the learning environment when the buildings recall a region’s native character and traditions. Landscapes can reinforce classroom curriculum, as plants throughout the school grounds are labeled, cataloged and studied; native plantings and re‐creations of small micro‐climates promise additional learning adventures within the landscape. Abundant learning opportunities present themselves when students use the school site to plant and grow gardens, study water flow and drainage, and sculpt the surrounding landscape into landform representations.
Energy efficiency and reduced operating costs are financial “pluses” resulting from the institution of green construction methods; student interest and active participation in those budget issues can be piqued as they participate in their school’s daily operations. Monitoring energy use in the classrooms and common-use spaces, and tracking their school’s water and paper use, gives students first‐hand knowledge about their school’s overall carbon footprint. Built-in “windows”, offering views of the school’s operational systems, show students how the building was constructed, the materials and building systems utilized, and each element’s resultant efficiency and environmental impact. Students can monitor and measure their personal impact on available resources by: turning lights off and on; choosing to open windows or access the mechanical ventilation/air conditioning system; monitoring water usage in both the learning environment and restroom facilities. Students can monitor saved energy from solar hot water collectors, photovoltaic panels, and wind generation, when the school’s construction encompasses these systems. Portions of the school building powered by solar panels or wind generation permit students to measure the alternatively-generated energy, even deciding how that energy may then be employed. Bolder measures are evidenced in contemporary schools designed to be “off‐grid”, generating all necessary power through the use of photovoltaic panels. School buildings become permanent “model citizens” in the community, allowing students to daily practice energy and resource conservation.
Throughout our country, water pollution and conservation are important issues of concern. Site configuration and building design can dramatically improve water conservation and quality; permeable paving surfaces and/or permeable collection points can minimize site run‐off, recycling cleaner water into the local water table. In some locations, rainwater is directed into cisterns and utilized later for watering landscaped areas, or other non‐potable purposes. The school and its site provide great opportunities for students to study the water cycle, observing how run‐off is collected and distributed, and how rainwater is intercepted, channeled, stored and subsequently used. Siting a building advantageously is key to its efficiency and habitability. Additionally, many school sites have outstanding natural features that offer inherent educational opportunities for students: a wetlands, pond, or small creek provide endless opportunities for hands‐on science and nature exploration. A view of the ocean, lake, hillsides, mountains or natural landmark can tie into curriculum and provide lesson‐plan inspiration, or simply a contemplative moment. Celebrating or preserving previous land uses, whether in agricultural, natural, or urban settings, gives students a sense of context and community, as they take their place in the local culture and environment.
Historical, indigenous structures are often pleasing to the eye because they seem to “fit” their site, taking advantage of the sun’s orientation and natural breezes, while providing protection from storm winds or flood patterns. Early resident builders developed an intuitive sense of what was beneficial to their built environment; if they ignored existing conditions, they paid a serious price in efficiency and comfort. Indigenous buildings fit well in the landscape because they were constructed of local materials. Many of today’s buildings seem out of place and worse, impractical. We can save on transportation, manufacturing, and fabrication costs by selecting building materials that are readily available locally. As with earlier resident builders, these local materials help the building become part of the site, presenting a unique and hospitable setting to all who use it. As designers and educators work with planned community developers, together we can minimize environmental disruption, siting residential, commercial and institutional buildings in appropriate locations and leaving open spaces for vistas and recreational use, or for the preservation of specific ecosystems.
Several outstanding organizations encourage educators, architects, and engineers in the design of effective, efficient, sustainable schools; the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, Green Schools and YES are representative of these groups. These environmentally‐focused organizations provide great resources and incentives for designing “green” school buildings, and their support is fostering a growing number of “sustainable” success stories. Sustainable schools design offers us the singularly unique opportunity to present an effective, resource-responsible, learning experience to our students. During the average fifty‐year lifespan of a school facility, thousands of children will spend the bulk of their day in and around its buildings. If the design of the learning environment, indoors and out, helps students become better stewards of our resources, that school will encourage lifetimes of environmental responsibility.