Green Technology Home

Twin Valley Elementary Center
Photo courtesy USGBC


Reaching Critical Mass: Green Schools Groundswell

by Racquel Palmese

LEED for Schools was one year old in April, and according to U.S. Green Building Council Education Sector Manager Rachel Gutter, today between one and two schools register for LEED certification every day. Underlying this groundswell is a combination of enormous stakeholder advocacy for the program, a growing concern about rising energy bills at the school district level, and development of the tools and information that allow for economical and standardized green school construction.  

A year ago, when USGBC launched the rating system, it was happy to see a few hundred registered school projects. Now there are almost a thousand projects certified or in the pipeline.

The LEED certification process begins when a project team completes documentation attesting to the green attributes of the school, each of which are assigned points. The documentation is submitted to USGBC for a third-party evaluation that ensures the project has met the prerequisites and minimum points needed for certification. A school can become certified at four different levels, ranging from Certified to Silver, Gold and, finally, Platinum.

Early in the process, project teams register their intent to go through the LEED certification process, which gives them access to USGBC’s online resources. “All the documentation is submitted electronically through interactive templates,” says Gutter. “At last count, we were creeping up on 850 schools in the process.”

California has had a green school rating system, CHPS (Collaborative for High Performance Schools) in place for several years. In fact, qualifying for the state’s $100 million Proposition 1-D funding for green schools is based on CHPS criteria. But many schools are also opting for LEED, which Gutter says will qualify for 1-D funding. In fact, California now has more registered projects than any other state. “I guess, when you think about it, given the fact that one-third of the nation’s school going children are in California, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise,” says Gutter. 

There are also what she refers to as “hotbeds” in states with successful green school programs. Ohio tops the list, as does Pennsylvania.  Unexpectedly, Texas and New Mexico are also showing up with many registered projects. Gutter attributes much of it to public awareness. “The Texas legislature had a green school bill that didn’t pass last year,” she explains, “but I think it did a lot to raise the awareness of the benefits of green schools.” 

What is sparking all the interest?  The program is talked up at the local level by advocates for green schools at USGBC’s almost 70 local chapters. But even more significantly, says Gutter, “we’re seeing a lot more advocacy being done by parents, school decision makers like superintendents or principals, school boards, even students in a lot of cases. Before, I think you could say that this movement was really being led by the architecture and engineering community. These days there’s a new model for advocacy, which includes the PTA, teachers unions, ASBO (The Association of School Business Officials) and NSBA (the National School Boards Association) and others. We’ve been working closely with these groups.”

The PTA has about six million members, and the National Education Association (a teachers’ union) has more than three million, and both groups are spreading the word in support of green schools. All this is leading up to what Gutter calls a tipping point, that most cherished goal of the green movement, where green building is no longer called “green” but is just the way buildings are built.  

Another big part of “tipping the scale” is increased interest in green schools at the federal level. HR3021, the 21st Century Green High-Performing Public School Facilities Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives by a vote of 250–154 recently, called for $20 billion over a several-year period for green school improvements. If it does pass in the Senate, President Bush has already threatened a veto. This does not faze Gutter, who feels optimistic that the bill will come to life in a new administration.

“At least it’s out there,” she says. “The value of green school awareness the bill has created at the federal level and the national level is worth almost more in some ways.”   Indeed, on the Hill, the Green School Caucus, which only got rolling last December, is already approaching 50 members, says Gutter. “Green schools are getting a lot of traction through the Caucus. Imagine the significance of a congressman going home, showing up at a school and talking up green. That kind of dialogue and communication, I think, is worth its weight in gold.”

More and more states are also passing legislation requiring green school construction. The USGBC website lists 12 states with green school policies in force. Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Washington DC and Washington state all have green school requirements. But some of the big green schools states are states like Pennsylvania, which has a very successful incentive program in place for green school building. California’s Proposition 1-D offers a similar incentive.  These are not incentives for schools to do piecemeal greening, such as installing some solar panels, but for a holistic approach to green design.

The media is also taking notice. Gutter says local news outlets are showing up at conferences and trade shows when she does presentations on the LEED for Schools program. “We receive at least half a dozen media requests a week for information on green schools,"” she says. “A year ago most of the media requests were coming from within the architect and engineering community. These days we typically get calls from a wide variety of publications, from USA Today to Scholastic Magazine.”

The biggest concern about initiating a green schools program in a community is still the cost, says Gutter. “By far the greatest barrier to getting green schools built is that fear, that perception of increased first cost, that only schools in wealthy districts can afford to do it. We crunched some numbers recently and found that more than 30 percent of our registered projects are Title 1 schools, so we know it’s not just the wealthy districts and private schools that are achieving certification.” 

It’s a matter of getting the correct information out there, she explains. Studies are showing that the average green school actually adds less than two percent to the building’s cost, and that is paid back within the first few years by energy savings alone.  It’s hard for people to believe, because the perception of a twenty-year return on investment is entrenched in people’s thinking. 

A study, Greening America’s Schools Costs and Benefits, shows that while green schools cost about $3 per square foot  more to build, they provide financial benefits that are 20 times as large due to factors such as energy savings and teacher retention. “Recently, we’re finding that many schools are being built for a zero green premium,” Gutter says. “Schools in New Mexico, Texas and Virginia are being built for no premium above the regional average.” She cites an example of the Chartwell School in California, which achieved a Platinum LEED rating, the highest certification, for construction costs that were $40 less per square foot than the average public school in California.

There is also a perception that LEED certification, itself, is expensive, but Gutter says that the average cost to go through the third-party verification process for certification costs an average of $5,500, or less than a tenth of one percent of the total construction budget. “It will take awhile to get that across,” she says.

What about existing schools? The LEED for Schools rating system is for new construction and major renovations. But there are almost 126,000 existing schools in the United States, and many of them are old. In response to that, USGBC’s focus is shifting, and the organization is creating what Gutter describes as “a very robust tool kit” called Green Ex2, which stands for Green Excellence for Existing Schools. It will include a best practices manual, guidelines to plans, policies and procedures for greening an existing school, and a training program that can be administered to school districts.

“The tool kit will allow school districts to crack the code when it comes to greening their existing school facilities,” she explains. “And it will show them the best ways to achieve LEED for Existing Buildings certification.” 





























Copyright © 2008, Green Technology. All rights reserved.