A+ In Green Learning

Yesterday’s Out and About blog touched on why universities are embracing green building. They aren’t the only ones.

For some of the same — and other unique — reasons, many public grade schools throughout the country are also incorporating sustainability into their new construction plans.

Thus far, roughly 60 U.S. schools have been certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. Another 370 are on the way. The USGBC has also launched the "Green Schools Advocate" Program, which will train volunteers to urge state education and local school boards to make schools green.

As more U.S. cities and states encourage sustainability by either supporting or requiring green building, it makes sense that their education systems would follow suit.

But whereas green building often is encouraged primarily on the basis of its long-term financial benefits, green schools — who also can benefit from a sustainability savings reduction over time — are offering some additional positive effects of going green.

Take, for example, the program introduced in June at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a 1,100-strong group. All conference attendees — every last one — voted to support a green schools resolution.

The resolution urges Congress to provide funding for K-12 green school demonstration projects and support new research funding to support the various benefits of making schools green.
The proposal, sponsored by T.M. Franklin Cownie, Mayor of Des Moines, Iowa, lays out some clear green school benefits, including:

  • Improved indoor air quality — Studies have shown children are healthier and more productive as a result.
  • Better health — “Cleaner indoor air quality … [has] been linked to lower asthma rates, fewer allergies, reduced absenteeism and increased teacher retention rates,” Cownie said.
  • Cost reduction — A recent study by Capital E researchers found that a typical green school costs two percent more to build, but would save $100,000 per year in energy costs alone — enough to hire two new teachers, buy 500 new computers, or purchase 5,000 new textbooks, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Less expensive green schools can, by reducing operational costs, ease the financial burden on taxpayers, who fund local school systems via property taxes. That burden can be heavy: In New York state, which has the highest combined state and local tax in the nation — 26 percent higher than the national average — local property taxes were 49 percent over the national average in 2002, according to the Office of the New York State Comptroller.

Primary residential homeowners paid $9.5 billion in school property taxes in 2005. And yet, because school needs are growing, budgets proposed in May suggested increasing per-student spending by 6 percent — twice the annual rate of inflation — raising total property taxes in local districts by almost $700 million, according to the Business Council of New York State.

Schools embracing sustainability truly is good news for the economy — and for the  construction industry: They are its largest sector. About $53 billion will be spent on school construction this year. (And, in a time when commercial construction is helping to offset the weak residential market, that’s a good thing.)

Green building is expected to be 5 to 10 percent of that new building, according to the Council of Educational Facility Planners International.

The commitment to reducing energy, water and other costs is one shared by schools catering to older and younger students. And for similar reasons, couldn’t green design improve productivity and reduce illness in office buildings? Couldn’t it produce big savings in energy operating costs in 24-hour buildings, like police stations and hospitals?

Reducing energy costs isn’t just an environmental argument — it’s a financial one, too. And that’s important to remember, because while some may not support sustainability’s conservational effects, every taxpayer wants to pay less on April 15.