U.S. Green Building Council Launches Push for Energy-Efficient Schools

By Amanda Peterka of Greenwire

Stoddert Elementary School Principal Marjorie Cuthbert sees her school as a “microcosm of solving future world problems.”

The Washington, D.C., public school reopened recently after a renovation that added a geothermal heating and cooling system, energy usage displays, information kiosks in three different languages, numerous new windows, a greenhouse made from recycled water bottles and carbon dioxide censors.

Students are assembled in “green teams” and give tours to visitors using a guide put together by the U.S. Green Building Council. The school is attaining gold certification from the council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system, one of 6,500 schools in the country that are registered for certification or already LEED-certified.

With this “microcosm” as its backdrop, the USGBC launches its newest program today, the Center for Green Schools, with the goal of giving everyone the opportunity to attend a school like Stoddert within this generation.

“The education sector is doing more in the way of green building than any other sector, more than health care, more than commercial, more than religious institutions. But we still have a really long way to go,” said Rachel Gutter, director of the USGBC’s new initiative, before the launch event at Stoddert.

USGBC is hoping to educate and connect the people and groups involved in greening schools, from committee members in the council’s chapters throughout the country, to mayors who wield influence to get projects rolling, to the architects and engineers who actually get the work done.

It is also hoping to show teachers how to use the school building as a laboratory for lessons in different subjects, the idea being that students learn sustainability at a young age much like how they usually learn foreign languages.

“We want these students to simply act in a sustainable fashion,” Gutter said. “We want them to slip the note under their parents’ and roommate’s door that says, ’You’ve exceeded the five-minute shower limit.’”

There are 133,000 K-12 schools and 4,300 colleges and universities in the country, according to Gutter. The USGBC has helped establish more than 1,000 green school committees in its local chapters and is helping college students set up groups to promote the Center for Green Schools’ mission on their campuses.

The center is also partnering with the USGBC’s 50 for 50 Green Schools Caucus Initiative and the Mayors’ Alliance for Green Schools.

A major part of the center’s college work is also to help the Princeton Review create guides to green colleges, the first of which was published in April. Gutter said she hopes it will prompt prospective students to ask, “Where are the LEED-certified dorms on campus?” when they visit campuses.

“Colleges and universities need to be responsive to that because these are ultimately the students that are keeping the college or university running,” she said.

The implementation stage

Finally, the Center for Green Schools is handing out a tool kit and holding training events to give school facilities managers, engineers and others the know-how to bring about green schools.

Greening a school does not necessarily mean gutting it or building a completely new school, Gutter said. It could mean making improvements when things need to be replaced. “If you need a new roof, let’s make sure it’s a white roof,” Gutter said. Or it can mean changes in operation, like switching to green cleaning products.

“The building is efficient if it’s used efficiently,” as Megan Campion of the Green Schools Program at the Alliance to Save Energy puts it. “You can’t be too reliant on efficient technologies without the habits.”

According to Sean Miller, education director at the Earth Day Network, which runs another green schools program, a LEED silver-rated school building can save about $100,000 a year — enough to possibly retain two teachers in cash-strapped school districts. Indoor air quality can increase up to 90 percent with doing things like changing filters and using fewer toxic cleaning chemicals, and a school can save 30 percent on its water usage by installing low-flow heads and other measures.

The USGBC, which partners with the Earth Day Network, is launching its program as interest in green schools is rising. Sixteen states have green schools programs, while about a dozen national nongovernmental organizations promote the idea, according to Miller.

“Right now I feel we’re moving in a phase where we’re getting done with the advocacy. People are now aware of green schools, and we’re moving now toward the implementation,” Miller said.

The resulting building, Miller said, has benefits in education, the environment and the economy: “You’re building finally an informed citizenry that understands the environment and its interaction with the economy. They’re active, they’re healthy, they’re engaged in their community.”

Back at Stoddert, teachers have committed to teach 10 hours of environmental education across the school year and have plans to plant gardens, according to Cuthbert, the principal. Gutter said it is “wonderful” to showcase a school district “that isn’t necessarily associated with abundance and help people to understand that they’ve been able to do this.”

“It’s a comprehensive approach to green, which really epitomizes what we’re trying to build at the center,” Gutter said.

Copyright 2010 E&E Publishing. All Rights Reserved

The New York Times, September 30, 2010