Green With Possibilities

December 9, 2011

Sustainable design provides more than energy savings to educational clients

John R. Dale, FAIA ,LEED AP

Once considered to be exotic and beyond reach, green design has become an increasingly mainstream solution for our pre-k-12 educational providers who now see the potential of huge paybacks for their initial investments. We recently interviewed three of our school clients on this subject:

Mothers’ Club, Family Learning Center, a non-profit educational center integrating child development and parental training in Pasadena, CA, Sue Kajawa, Executive Director, and Sarah Orth, Development Director

Charles Kim Elementary School - Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), one of the first CHPS (Collaborative for High Performance) Schools for elementary children in central Los Angeles, Ying Wang, Sustainability Specialist, and Lucy Padilla, Senior Facilities Architect

Highland Hall Waldorf School, a pre-K through 12 Waldorf School that sits on 11 acres of land in Northridge, CA, Bari Borsky, Development Director, and Elizabeth Seward PhD., Master Teacher

In a series of interviews, we explored our clients’ initial aims and some bonus outcomes. Our discussions with them revealed some common goals: 

  • Reducing Energy Costs
  • Creating a Healthy Learning Environment + Enhancing Student Performance
  • Using Buildings as Teaching Tools

Reducing Energy Costs
One of the major benefits of sustainable design in education projects is the more efficient operation of building systems and the resultant reduction in energy consumption. Our clients are quick to point out the benefits.

LAUSD’s Charles Kim Elementary School has paved the way for comprehensive(,) District-Wide standards. “When we started this project, we had some lofty goals,” says Ying Wang. Lucy Padilla points out that, although the school has been open just 18 months, evidence suggests that annual energy cost savings will be $60,000 per year with an anticipated payback on the upgraded energy systems of 2.9 years. Energy efficiency exceeds mandatory California (Title 24) standards by 33 percent.

The Mothers’ Club, Family Learning Center is situated in an underserved area on Northwestern Pasadena. This new facility was created out of a converted factory building and early in the design process, the owner decided it should be a Gold LEED rated facility – one of the first of its kind in the Western United States.

Sarah Orth, Development Director of Mothers’ Club, has also started to notice the benefits of photovoltaic arrays and other energy saving systems at their 9-month-old facility.

"We just got the meter in that lets us see when we get the power back. We had done an original estimate on what we thought we would spend in the first year in power and it came in quite a bit lower. In the heat of summer it is nice to know that our air-conditioning is being run off the solar panels."

Creating a Healthy Learning Environment / Enhancing Student Performance
The quality of sustainable learning environments and their impact on students are critical motivating factors. Sustainable, integrated building practices for schools provide healthy, high performing learning environments for students, faculty, and staff. Recent surveys are increasingly pointing to evidence that green buildings promote higher student and teacher participation and achievement.

As Ying Wang notes: “We evaluate [school performance] by ADA (average daily attendance) numbers and sick days. When measured six months ago, attendance was almost 97%. That is a great number… [For] the teachers too; there were very few sick days.”

The other way LASUD evaluates student performance is by test scores. Early indications are that students are bringing home better report cards in their new setting.

At Highland Hall, a perception of intensified engagement on the part of students and teachers is expressed in more qualitative terms and reflects the holistic potential of sustainable design. Elizabeth Seward says: “We are not really looking for test results. We are looking for a sense of attentiveness, reverence, cooperation. …I think for me the key is to humanize the environment.”

At Mother’s Club, the light filled interiors and access to fresh air have a palpable impact on its users: Sarah Orth comments: “Everyone who comes through here says they want to work here.”

Buildings as Teaching ToolsOne of the emerging themes of educators who have committed to the creation of sustainable environments is their conviction that the architectural setting can be an embodiment of core educational philosophy and may even influence the curriculum itself. Implementing sustainable practices sets the stage for students to learn about how they too(,) play a role in shaping our environment.

In the case of Mothers’ Club, making the building a teaching tool includes placing vertical and horizontal photovoltaics (that provide 20 percent of the facility’s electricity in a highly visible location so the children can see them. Sarah Orth speaks about the core goal of setting an example for its community.

"… it goes back to Mothers’ Club’s core values, as a non profit and member of the community; something we really value is modeling. The staff models for the parents, the parents model for the their children, and we really felt that when we were developing the plans for our new building sustainability fell right in line with our philosophy…"

At Highland Hall, the buildings and the site which envelops them will become a critical teaching medium within the Waldorf curriculum. The proposed new science building is cut into the hillside and features an accessible green roof to preserve and enhance the existing landscape.

Bari Borsky reflects:
"…the science center creates a lot of excitement because of the idea that it is going to be built into the side of the hill. It is embraced by the earth while we are taking care of the earth. It has a sod roof that just inspires the imagination of the kids…the classrooms themselves are an earth science as it were and in doing that there still is an accommodation for light and space and for air."

Elizabeth Seward continues:
"…through the curriculum, we are consistently trying to bring the children into a closer, you could say, loving, caring relationship with the environment. If we can do that also in the school that houses the teaching then we are giving them a double message, both verbally with the curriculum and non-verbally with the building and the environment we house them in."

The Unexpected Benefits of Sustainable Education Environments
Through conversations with our clients, we continue to uncover unexpected bonuses to a holistic sustainable design approach.

At Mothers’ Club, committing to building a Gold LEED rated project helped spur fundraising efforts.

Sarah Orth:
"It did [help], definitely, with certain key funders, like the Kresge Foundation. They really viewed a green building as an important part of capital conception. We found out that … going green would actually give us enough of an edge in the fundraising to raise the extra money."

At Highland Hall Waldorf School sustainable design is also an important message to would-be funders.

Bari Borsky: “I think it is a basic value of Waldorf education and the parents who bring their children to this school. …So, sustainability is what gets people excited. We cannot even imagine not doing it that way.”

Borsky is actively working on Highland Hall’s capital campaign with ambitious goals that include: Platinum LEED certification, active photovoltaic arrays, wind turbines, displacement heating and cooling, outdoor classrooms spaces employing straw bale insulating walls and use of recycled water.

In the course of our discussions, we have found that sustainability is neither viewed as exotic nor beyond reach, but as an essential approach for today’s schools. Early goals for energy and dollar savings are joined by other less predictable motivators, such as added curriculum components and demonstration tools. Bonus outcomes have been seen in added public interest and increased donor participation.

Perhaps the greatest benefit moves beyond the business plan or educational philosophy to a purely visceral reaction. As Sue Kajawa, Executive Director of Mothers’ Club has said, “Green building falls in line with our organization’s philosophy and practices, so it made sense. But we didn’t realize how lovely it would actually be until we moved in,” she admitted. “It was a huge bonus.”