Green building trends have affected nearly every sector of the construction and renovation market, and schools and universities are part of it. With more incentives, more local legislative requirements, and participation in President Barack Obama’s Climate Neutrality Commitment, facility managers are asking how sustainable their buildings are and how to improve on the efficiency. The drive is intended to slash utility costs, prove that schools are good community stewards, and make students part of that effort.

While schools and college administrators want to operate more efficient buildings, the budget isn’t there to replace them. There had been a steady uptick in new building construction for schools and colleges until about six years ago, but it dropped off as state and local funding dried up. With budgets still tight, today’s growth focuses on smaller renovation projects and bringing efficiency to the buildings already in use.

Gaining efficiency has become more than a decision made between the building manager and those paying the utility bills. Today, students and staff members are expected to play a role as well, and that means they need access to data about the building’s operation. In this way, school operators are making the facility part of the education, including students in how they are using resources.

As a result of these trends, most school planners are focusing on building automation, lighting, solar and rainwater harvesting, according to Sohail Hassan, principal and owner of engineering consulting company Bovay Engineers International, Houston. 

“Overall, we are seeing new and innovative concepts for classroom designs that include flexible space options and more common areas dedicated to collaboration,” Hassan said. 

Collaboration is both physical and virtual. On the virtual (data) side, schools want dashboards that help students and staff members see their energy usage, how it can be adjusted and how the environment may be affecting their education. It also means making a building that is more efficient and conducive to learning.

“These are more apparent in higher education facilities, but even K–12 facilities are repurposing library areas [for example], in an effort to maximize space and increase efficiencies,” Hassan said.

Hassan expects the green building trend to continue to affect design efforts and installation projects for contractors.

“With new rating systems in addition to LEED that offer incentives for green building design, it’s likely that these trends will not only continue but will be the basis of future design efforts,” he said. 

His prediction is that government incentives, which are sometimes accepted as a substitute for LEED certification, will drive the green building trend.

Jaime Van Mourik, director of higher education at the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Washington, D.C, said, “When we look at LEED project activity [in schools], we’ve seen a downturn in construction.” She added that this is, in large part, because of funding.

“We’re seeing a lot more activity in smaller projects, smaller upgrades,” she said.

Thus far, about 700 higher education institutions have signed up to be part of the Climate Neutrality Commitment, which means they pledge to eliminate their campus’ greenhouse gas emissions in a reasonable period of time. Typically, they must set up a committee or task force, create a climate neutrality plan, begin taking the first steps, and then integrate sustainability into the students’ educational experience.

The effort to bring education into the equation is felt in the K–12 sector as well, said Anisa Baldwin Metzger, manager of school district sustainability at the USGBC.

However, most districts have one obvious problem: a lack of integration. Historically, as districts have set up metering and automation systems in their schools, they have gone to a multitude of vendors, leading to a handful of separate systems that don’t talk to each other and a facilities manager who monitors each system in isolation.

Metzger said she has run into the problem repeatedly in renovations, at which point schools need to bring these systems together. They’re ready to strike because of the incentive programs and offers from some vendors for free installation in exchange for sharing a percentage of the future savings. Of course, districts need to be careful when making these kinds of commitments.

The USGBC has published a guide, “Paid from Savings Guide to Green Existing Buildings,” intended to be used by facilities managers and energy services companies (ESCOs) to use power-cost savings to pay for green-building retrofits.

Improving efficiency

Whether facing new construction or renovations, every school district and university building manager has begun some discussion about sustainability and how that could be accomplished. In most cases, the old, historic buildings are renovated, and the challenge is to operate them as efficiently as possible.

“A lot of schools know that they have to deal with the existing infrastructure,” said Wynn Calder, consultant to the National Association of Independent Schools on sustainability and principal of Sustainable Schools LLC. 

Many states are dictating new regulations and offering incentives. The low-hanging fruit is the retrofits of existing lighting systems—linear fluorescents being replaced by light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

“Some are still using T8s and T5s, but LED is totally here to stay,” Calder said.

Lighting automation is the next level, and some schools are installing occupancy sensors for offices and classrooms to prompt lights or heaters being controlled.

An advanced solution that appeals to all education levels is using dashboards that allow anyone to view the building energy use and then include facility managers, faculty members and students in identifying and addressing waste.

Such solutions are offered by companies such as Lucid Design Group, an Oakland, Calif., firm that enables occupants to become part of the energy-reduction team. The company’s BuildingOS software allows submeters in buildings to track conditions and power usage and to analyze and feed that information back to users. This can be done either on computers or on dashboard kiosks installed throughout buildings. Schools that take advantage of these solutions will need cloud-based software, building management systems and meters. The software creates a common interface for all building functions.

To foster student buy-in, some schools take part in energy-reduction competitions against other institutions. For example, the Campus Conservation Nationals is the largest electricity- and water-reduction competition of colleges and universities. Hosted by colleges across North America, campuses compete to achieve the greatest percentage reduction in electricity usage.

Students can also participate in what the USGBC calls LEED Lab, a course that uses the energy consumption of facilities on the students’ campus to learn how to better focus on sustainability.

In most cases, universities are still leading the way on sustainability renovations, Calder said.

“Higher education has been the leader in sustainability,” he said. “They’re setting the bar pretty high, but K–12 is definitely on the path, as well.” 

He said it is due to the high cost of operating an inefficient building as well as the state regulations and incentives.

Staying up to date

To offer the kind of services schools need today, it behooves contractors to be educated in local requirements, the needs of schools and their building managers, and keeping an eye on the learning environment as well, Calder said. Most customers have evolved in the past 10 years to a reasonable understanding of what they need to achieve to bring up the efficiency in their facilities. They are attending conferences, talking to technology vendors, and gaining knowledge they didn’t have a decade ago.

In the next decade, however, every school will need to boost efficiency, and most of that work will require the services of an electrical contractor.

“Soon every renovation will have to be at least somewhat green,” Calder said.

A lot of educational building stock is behind in upgrades and facing two problems: sustainability and the increased need for data and collaboration for students.

“Data is the language of the day,” Van Mourik said. 

Students need to access data and could share in the data coming from the building itself.

“There needs to be collaboration for any high-performance school,” she said. “I think a savvy contractor is able to connect the work they are doing back to a school’s academic mission, connecting what’s happening in the renovation and with the building to students’ opportunity for research.”

Ultimately, a new sustainability system in a building serves as a pedagogical tool for the institution, she said.

After all, facilities are being asked to explain how these renovations will improve academics. Students and instructors are looking to take education out of the classroom and into real life, Van Mourik said.