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Green Perspectives
A Greener and Healthier Future for California Schools
By Ariel Dekovic

In the late moments of the twentieth century, power use in California was reaching a crisis point. Rolling blackouts were becoming the norm, and energy rates skyrocketed.

The Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) was born out of this energy crisis. In November 1999, the California Energy Commission called together Pacific Gas and Electric Company, San Diego Gas and Electric, and Southern California Edison to discuss the best way to improve the energy performance of California’s schools. 

CHPS was formed out of this partnership and has expanded beyond energy efficiency to address an array of issues that make up healthy and environmentally conscious school environments. It also grew to involve a diverse group of 150 government agencies, utility companies, school districts, non-profit organizations and private companies, as well as seven other states, all with one unifying goal: to improve the quality of educational facilities for our nation’s children. 

High performance schools help school districts achieve higher student performance, retain quality teachers and staff, reduce operating cost, increase average daily attendance (ADA), and reduce liability, while at the same time reducing environmental impact and resource use.

Support for this concept continues to grow in California and throughout the United States. Over twenty-two California school districts have signed resolutions making the CHPS Criteria the standard for all new school
construction. New York, Massachusetts, Washington, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, and Connecticut have all adapted CHPS for their school systems.

In 2002, CHPS published the CHPS Criteria, establishing the nation’s first building rating program created to specifically facilitate the design of school learning environments that are healthy, comfortable, energy, resource, and water efficient, safe, secure, adaptable, and easy to operate and maintain.

CHPS has a six volume Best Practices Manual that supports the CHPS Criteria, as well as a recently-introduced new third-party verification program, called CHPS Verified, which adds project management and an independent review to the process. This builds upon CHPS’ original rating program, called "CHPS-Designed," which is a free self-certification system, where the burden of responsibility rests with the architect and school district.

Twenty CHPS-Designed schools have already opened their doors, and over a hundred more are on the way. These schools are environmentally sustainable and healthy places of learning. They demonstrate that while high performance technologies may be new, they need not be complicated, expensive or unreliable. CHPS schools are saving their school districts money through energy and water utility savings and increasing occupant health and productivity.  Quite simply, a CHPS school belongs to the next generation of schools.

Monterey Ridge Elementary School, in Poway Unified School District, is a $21 million project that opened its doors in fall of 2006. Its stunning 20,000 ft2 solar panel array supplies at least 50 percent of the school’s energy needs (view a real-time analysis of the campus’ energy use and solar production here). 

Richard Nowicki, a partner with San Diego-based NTDStichler Architecture, the architecture firm that designed Monterey Ridge, estimates it
will take the school 14 years to pay back the initial outlay for the $1.5 million system, with annual electrical cost reductions of $30,000 to $40,000.

he photovoltaic array is not on the roof like what you typically see,” explains Norwicki. “It is on one of the slopes or banks adjacent to the school, and that allowed us to install a lot more panels than we could on a roof.” Monterey Ridge received recognition as a CHPS-Designed school in 2007, claiming 37 points out of 81 possible points on the CHPS Criteria. 

Energy efficient, CHPS-Designed schools such as Monterey Ridge aim to save money while conserving non-renewable energy resources and reducing atmospheric emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases. Heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems use high efficiency equipment that provide adequate ventilation and air filtration; are “right sized” for the estimated demands of the facility; and include controls that optimize system performance and occupant thermal comfort. The school’s lighting system uses high efficiency and high quality products that make visual tasks easier; incorporates control devices that ensure peak system performance; and successfully integrates electric lighting and daylighting strategies.

Environmentally-preferable building materials and efficient use of resources can also add to a school’s CHPS rating. The Chartwell School in Seaside, California, claimed 57 out of 81 points on its CHPS scorecard. The school incorporates building materials that have been produced in a way that conserves raw materials, with a rapidly renewable resource and recycled content.  The school also limits how often materials will have to be replaced by choosing high quality, durable materials that are recyclable. They include linoleum flooring, bamboo flooring and ceiling panels made from renewable materials for a total of 5.6 percent renewable material use. 

The school also uses as little off-site water as possible to meet its needs, controls and reduces water runoff from its site, and consumes fresh water as efficiently as possible by harvesting rainwater in an 8,000-gallon tank onsite. Rainwater is used for half of all the toilet water needs in the school. Chartwell’s toilets are high-efficiency, utilizing dual-flush capabilities to reduce water use.

CHPS also stresses the importance of community involvement and using schools as teaching tools. Monterey Ridge’s site includes a park that is used jointly by the school and the community.  By incorporating important concepts such as energy, water, and material efficiency, schools can become tools to illustrate a wide spectrum of scientific, mathematical, and social issues. Chartwell’s students learned about triangular bracing for roof support from their school’s stimulating architecture, and incorporated this design into their model bridge building competition, increasing strength of the bridges by 50 percent.

One of the main challenges in building high performance buildings is achieving project buy-in from all the key stakeholders. It can be difficult to convince stakeholders that these projects won’t run severely over-budget or hold up the completion date.  However, the reality is that high performance design and construction have been shown to be just as cost-effective, and yield long-term benefits worth any extra investment. 

The key to a successful high performance project is to integrate the design goals from the beginning of the process, and ensure that these goals are not sacrificed during development. When lead architect Stan Clark first brought his ideas to the team at Kenilworth Junior High School in Petaluma, California, he modeled two schools for the district: a conventional school design like those the school had built before, and a high performance school with unique architectural features that could provide long-term health and economic benefits. “The school district saw the value-added of the latter model, and chose to invest the additional funding for the high performance concept.”  Throughout the process, he says, they “kept the vision of sustainability.”

These days, convincing school boards and facilities managers of the benefits of green schools isn’t hard.  In his “Greening America’s Schools” report, Greg Kats of Capital-E analyzed the costs and resource savings of 30 green schools and found that the average cost premium was 1.7 percent or about $3/ft2. However, the total energy cost savings from a green school as compared with a conventional school ranged from $7 - $9/ ft2

As high performance building practices become more and more common, the cost premiums will only go down, creating "bottom line" momentum for practices that promise to bring significant improvements to the educational experience of millions of American students.

Ariel Dekovic is the Communications Manager for the Collaborative for High Performance Schools. To contact the author, email or call 877-642-CHPS.  For more information about CHPS, visit

More information:
Greening America's Schools: Costs and Benefits

To view a schematic diagram of the elements of a CHPS classroom, click here.














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