A transformation is in the air as better built, greener schools become a focus of states and local communities. Though green school advocacy has been around for a number of years, a clear momentum is developing as cash-strapped school districts recognize how better performing buildings can lower operational costs and possibly foster better performance from students and staff members alike. Electrical contractors (ECs) should take note.


To green school advocates, the buildings that house students are a neglected part of the discussion about raising student performance. The U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Center for Green Schools in Washington, D.C., has the ambitious goal of “ensuring everyone has the opportunity to attend a green school within this generation.” The Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) based in Sacramento, Calif., is also working to fundamentally change the design, construction and operation of schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. Both have drawn other organizations, states, local bodies and the business community together in a quest to transform school buildings into better places to learn.


Several states and school districts have policies and goals in place to achieve and maintain high-performance school building standards. Many incorporate Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Schools or CHPS as their sustainability roadmaps. Others participate in Energy Star and other Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) school programs.


The benefits


According to the Center for Green Schools, studies have shown that green schools use less water and energy and can save an average of $100,000 per year on operational expenses. 


“That is enough savings to hire two new teachers, purchase 200 computers or buy 5,000 textbooks,” said Rachel Gutter, Center for Green Schools director.


CHPS cites that school districts can save 30–40 percent annually on utility costs by applying high-performance design to new schools; for renovated schools, the savings are 20–30 percent. The California Energy Commission estimates high-performance-designed schools could yield savings of up to $50 per year per student, according to the CHPS 2006 Best Practices Manual.


Coming at it a different way, the EPA says its top performing Energy-Star labeled schools cost 40 cents per square foot less to operate than the average performers.


The EC as teacher


When creating a green, high-performance school, visual comfort and energy efficiency fall to the EC. Visual comfort involves quality lighting that makes reading and following classroom presentations easier. ANSI/IESNA RP-3-00 actually provides guidance on proper lighting for educational facilities and identifies cost savings and lighting design elements to support a learning environment. In effect, classroom lighting must be “designed,” not merely specified.


So what might an EC provide to help green a school? Recommending and installing a daylight harvesting system might be one project. Such systems are becoming a popular specification in schools to encourage the benefits of natural light on classroom learning while conserving the cost and use of artificial lighting. Finding ways to minimize glare on computer screens, projections and the like may also be a goal.


The school’s lighting system will require high-efficiency products, including luminaires the knowledgeable EC can select. The EC can be the expert to optimize the number of lighting fixtures needed in each room. Additionally, a contractor might suggest and incorporate other lighting controls and install controls for efficient heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Furthermore, those professionals who can advise and be part of the design team may continue to win work from a district committed to greening all of its schools.


Know your certification programs


Certification programs help provide a framework to achieve sustainable school buildings. USGBC’s LEED for Schools and CHPS Verified and CHPS Designed are such programs. ECs play a role here, too.


“We currently have 13 states participating in CHPS,” said Bill Orr, executive director for CHPS. “High-performance schools make a lot more financial sense if you are implementing them on a district-wide basis for old and new schools. The more you can standardize around high-performance, the more you help drive down costs. In a world of retrofits right now, green is part of it.”


Both Orr and Gutter recognize that raising the consciousness about the whats and whys of green schools is necessary for building support and a market. They see experienced contractors as valuable advocates who know what it takes to create a high-performance building. 


“Too often missed in the discussion of a quality education is the ‘where,’” Gutter said. “That’s the conversation we’re attempting to have with the taxpayers, school boards and other partners. Contractors can help.”


ECs that have worked with green certification programs can educate clients. They can guide projects through the certification process. They can ensure a project qualifies with the necessary prerequisites and earns the necessary certification points. LEED for Schools has its checklists. CHPS has its scorecards. Both help contractors track and meet the parts of a project needed to earn green certification. Contractors can then play an ongoing role in maintaining building performance.


Developing a partnership


Dennis Randolph, executive director for the National School Plant Management Association (NSPMA), said his constituents should be part of the green schools discussion. He also said facility managers should turn to ECs for education and advice.


“I represent plant managers from across the country,” Randolph said. “Many of these professionals are starting from scratch when it comes to knowing what a green school is and how to run and maintain one.”


Randolph’s day job is physical plant manager for Roseburg Public Schools in Oregon. 


“You can’t achieve design guidelines without everyone at the table. Schools are different from other buildings.”


Orr and Gutter couldn’t agree more. 


“Subcontractors like the EC play an integral role in building and maintaining a high-performance building,” Orr said. “But they should recognize that schools are different in their construction, in their capital and in their bidding. In a lot of cases, there’s a higher level of scrutiny and rigor for schools. Safety is a big one, be it fire protection, American Disability Act requirements, or weathering natural disasters. Many times, schools are critical facilities used in emergency evacuations. Also, bidding can vary from state to state as can codes at the district or local level. The school construction process can also take a long time.”


Randolph would like to create two-way conversation between contractors and facility managers.


“We are constantly trying to leverage limited budgets and resources for maximum benefit,” he said. “We’d love to develop a team approach with subcontractors. I think we could be a resource to understanding what approaches in lighting design and building management will work for a school and be economically feasible. In turn, ECs can help fill a vacuum where we need knowledge and direction. We need them as a partner in design, installation and in measuring our performance.”


Indeed, Gutter said, ECs are critically needed to measure, care for and service high-performance systems. 


“It takes more than an immediate assessment to gauge how a green school is performing,” Gutter said. “At least a year is needed to measure a school’s complex mechanical systems and optimize them. Finding easy-to-read energy performance dashboards can be especially helpful to plant managers and ECs alike.”


“It’s not uncommon to take six to 12 months for system balancing,” Orr said. “ECs can step in to help tweak or recalibrate a daylighting system or other energy controls to reflect the real life occupancy of the school. A number of studies have looked at not just how high-performance features make a difference in a school but facility maintenance as well.”


Websites for CHPS and the Center for Green Schools provide valuable information to help educate the contractor and others to the features of a high-performance school.


“Schools need to be stewards for their communities when it comes to operating cost, building health to staff and students, and providing a space that encourages a receptive education,” Randolph said. “We need to start gathering thoughts from contractors. For ECs, there is a real opportunity to be a resource.”