Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Getting to the Questions of Green Schools and Student Performance

Recently, editors of this blog have reported on some of the impressive sustainable efforts of schools around the nation.  Perhaps because I am fortunate to have two of the best little boys on the entire planet, I think the subject matter is worth an ongoing dialogue.  Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, explains the charge: “With so many of our country’s schools in disrepair, it is critical to highlight the importance of providing our children with healthier, more sustainable educational environments that enhance learning.”

On February 27, 2012, co-authors Lindsay Baker and Harvey Bernstein - on behalf of the Center for Green Schools at USGBC and McGraw-Hill Construction – released a report entitled, The Impact of School Buildings on Student Health and Learning: A Call for Research. The report addresses the very important question of how we research school building design, maintenance, and operations to assess and maximize the relationships between building performance and student health and performance.  The report highlights the state of research on the subject and identifies areas where attention to building performance may reap substantial rewards for our children.  In particular, the authors provide an inventory of student needs in the classroom based on how students hear, breathe, see, feel, move, think, and learn.  The authors also identify the roles and responsibilities of the various stakeholders in researching the impacts of buildings on childhood education:  school staff and leaders; teachers and students; building professionals; researchers; governmental agencies; and other supporting networks and organizations. The paper suggests a need and basis to account for the already 2,300 schools across the nation that are already participating in the USGBC’s LEED green building program.

One take-away from the report is that the information needed to complete research on this relationship is becoming easier to access, at least in part because high-performing buildings are becoming an easier sell to higher education administrations.  At least, sustainable initiatives are quite popular and stimulated on the campuses of higher educational institutions.

Nevertheless, to many the ultimate challenge remains the cost, a nagging obstruction that is exacerbated by the growing price tag on higher education.  However, the evidence on cost savings associated with energy efficiency continues to grow.  For example, Gregory Kats argued in 2006 that “Green schools cost on average almost 2% more, or $3 more per ft2, than conventional schools. The financial benefits of greening schools are about $70 per ft2, more than 20 times as high as the cost of going green.” More recently, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and the Appliance Standards Awareness Project recently released The Efficiency Boom: Cashing In on the Savings from Appliance Standards, in which it reported that the existing energy efficiency standards governing appliances will net consumers more than $1.1 trillion in savings cumulatively through 2035.  New and revised energy standards will improve these savings, resulting in typical household savings of over 180 MWh of electricity and over 200,000 gallons of water between 1995 and 2040.

An equally promising trend concerns school investments in “Green Revolving Funds” to facilitate cleantech and other sustainability improvements on campus.  Harvard’s $12 million Green Loan Fund is self-described as follows:

The Loan Fund provides capital for high-performance campus design, operations, maintenance, and occupant behavior projects. Basic project eligibility guidelines state that projects must reduce the University’s environmental impacts and have a payback period of five to ten years or less. The model is simple: GLF provides the up-front capital. Applicant departments agree to repay the fund via savings achieved by project-related reductions in utility consumption, waste removal, or operating costs. This formula allows departments to upgrade the efficiency, comfort, and functionality of their facilities without incurring any capital costs.

The number of schools utilizing the GRF model has been growing steadily, aided in large part by AASHE’s Billion Dollar Green Challenge. Of course, the GRF model may not suit every school, at least because the initial investment may feel like the type of discretionary spending that simply is not available.  Ideally, the lessons learned from existing and contemplated green schools, the predicted market shifts, and the associated forward-thinking will outgrow this misperception.

- Keith Hirokawa

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/environmental_law/2012/03/getting-to-the-questions-of-green-schools-and-student-performance.html

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