The difficult decisions facing school districts, from budget cuts to improving test scores to personnel issues, are significantly multiplied when districts choose to design and construct new facilities.

One of the first questions school leaders ask us as designers is: “Should we design a green school?” The green school debate has been active for years, with proponents making claims that green schools improve the health and performance of students, result in lower operating costs, and do not increase construction costs.

However, the extent to which green design affects occupants, operations, and construction costs is often difficult to quantify, which can make green school design sometimes hard to justify to school communities.

We recognized the need for a research study to better inform us and our district clients about green school design. We wanted to have data for districts debating the merits of green school design.

The extent to which green design affects occupants, operations, and construction costs is often difficult to quantify.

We developed the study with the Institute for the Built Environment (IBE) at Colorado State University. We wanted to look at performance, both building operational performance, and the effectiveness of education delivery. We asked the question: “What effect does green school design have on occupants and long-term building performance?” We used the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Center for Green Schools’ definition of a green school: a school that creates a healthy environment that is conducive to learning while saving energy, resources, and money.

We identified 12 schools in eight states offering preschool through eighth-grade instruction, including Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, and Washington. We opted to evaluate PK-8 schools because these facilities offer a more controlled and consistent operational environment for study. We also selected schools that were third-party certified or align with criteria for certification as sustainable buildings, and were in operation for at least 12 months.

The findings show that the green schools we studied are more energy efficient, provide more space per student, and are constructed for less cost when compared to regional averages for schools constructed during the same time frame. The overwhelming perception of school staff is that the learning environments within these schools have a positive impact on health, achievement, and behavior.

Energy reduction

The IBE team used a variety of energy usage tools and programs to evaluate energy consumption at each school, including ENERGY STAR, Target Finder, and Architecture 2030. A full calendar year of utility data was provided by school representatives.

The overall ENERGY STAR score was 81, which means they were operating better than 81 percent of similar buildings nationwide. Also, the study determined that eight of the 12 schools met or exceeded current Architecture 2030 targets.

Energy savings through design can be accomplished in many ways. We use research and computer simulations to help reduce the need for energy consumption. We then strategically apply technology, like ground source heat pumps and photovoltaic solar panels, to help achieve our design and performance goals.

Green doesn’t have to cost more

To evaluate the value of green design, the project cost for each school was compared to regional costs for schools constructed in the same year using the “Annual School Construction Report” published by the Peter Li Education Group.

On average, the schools in the study were constructed at a 6 percent cost savings over regional averages. The buildings also had, on average, an additional 26 square feet per student, or 14 percent more space per student for instruction, compared to the regional mean. These findings show that there does not need to be a cost premium in order to design and build a green school.

“We know that green design processes, materials, and building systems are only a portion of the factors influencing cost,” says Stephanie Barr, lead researcher for IBE. “In order to understand the impact of green building practices on cost, a more detailed analysis of all factors is needed. However, our analysis shows that green building practices do not have to equate to higher project costs.”

Green construction does not have to cost more than traditional building construction. The secret sauce is challenging every design decision to focus on how money is spent. For most projects, the construction budget is the budget—there is no more money. In green construction, energy efficiency and sustainability are often the primary goals that impact the use of budget dollars. As the design team formulates the project, ingredients that don’t contribute to the goals are simply left out of the project.

For instance, floor tile is a common ingredient in school construction. The fact is, though, that floor tile does not contribute to energy or sustainability goals. As a result, money that would normally be used for floor tile is used in a different way to advance the goals of the project and a less-expensive flooring system is applied.

Comfort increases

To gauge the impact of green school design on occupants, teachers and administrative staff were surveyed using an online questionnaire.

Eighty-seven percent of respondents reported that they perceived a positive impact on student health. Seventy-one percent of respondents perceived that the building has a positive effect on student achievement, and 71 percent also perceived a positive effect on student behavior. On a personal level, 85 percent of respondents reported that their health and productivity were positively affected by the building.

As designers, we experience a variety of learning environments while visiting schools across the country. Ask any of our designers or educational planners and they will tell you that green schools provide a superior learning environment. They have more light. They are more inviting and healthier. While we need more research, these responses validate what we experience when we are in a green school.

We have found that some elements used by our design teams have an immediate impact on occupant health, including HVAC systems that create desirable indoor temperatures, humidity, and carbon dioxide levels.

The selection of building materials, such as carpet and wall coverings, contributes to the quality of the indoor environment. Plus, the use of shapes and colors in the interior palette promote a positive learning environment that impacts student achievement.

Technology, including sound reinforcement, lighting controls, and instructional devices, also creates a healthier, more sustainable environment for students.

Evaluation is critical

The most important lesson we learned through this process was that design does not stop when the school opens. The design process must include traveling back to a project to measure building performance.

Evaluating the actual performance of a school post-construction is the only way to determine if the intended design actually has been delivered to the client, and in school design the ultimate client is the community.

Without post-occupancy evaluation, it is impossible to know if a building is performing – both operationally and programmatically – as designed and if the public is in fact receiving a valuable return on its investment.

The full report can be found at

Reprinted with permission from American School Board Journal, October 2014 ©National School Boards Association. All rights reserved.

Jim French is senior principal and national K-12 practice leader for DLR Group. Rod Oathout is principal and regional engineering leader for DLR Group.