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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Sustainable School Buildings: Background and Overview

A guide for making school buildings more environmentally friendly.

Background and Overview


This section contains information on the nature of the problem and reasons for focusing on sustainable school design and its contributions to preventing pollution.

What is sustainable design?

Sustainable design is a process that provides for fulfillment of human needs while protecting the natural environment and a belief that these can be maintained in perpetuity. Sustainable development focuses on social, environmental, and economic issues, and the interdependence and mutually reinforcing qualities of these concepts. Schools across the country are being encouraged to examine plans for new designs as well as retrofits in terms of effective measures that address long-term considerations.

Energy efficiency is only one part of this complex puzzle. Sustainable design helps schools create high performance environments that insure optimal health and productivity for all. Sustainable School Design addresses many areas. Key categories are outlined in the table below.

Design Category Example of  Concern Sustainable design solution
Indoor air quality (IAQ) Asthma Poor air quality is cumulative. Air-borne irritants can include dirt, dust, asbestos fibers, chemical vapors, bacteria, pest droppings, and diesel exhaust. These can trigger asthmatic reactions. Design considerations need to provide adequate ventilation. Suggestions might include include increasing air turn over in the room or facility and evaluating the HVAC system.
Energy consumption Inefficient systems Although somewhat more expensive initially, Energy Star rated efficient appliances, computers, and HVAC can reduce long-term costs. Lighting upgrades, occupancy sensors, programmable thermostats and individual controls can be used to reduce energy consumption.
Construction materials Renovation & new school construction Renovation and new school construction materials should be selected for their durability and their potential reuse/recycling. Roofing material can be selected that is environmentally friendly and durable. Materials that have longer life expectancy minimize the volume of waste entering landfills.
Education materials Expectations and behavior modification Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for creating sustainable schools is education of the staff, parents, and students. Daylighting technology allows for substantial energy savings as well as environmental savings, but the individuals benefiting from daylighting need to understand the process so they can modify their own behaviors. If landscaping integrates native plants, maintenance staff need to be educated so that they don't spend extra effort watering and fertilizing to keep the plants blooming out of season.
Water use Excessive lavatory water use Water conservation technologies water have undergone major changes over the past few years. Schools are integrating low-flow toilets, zero-flow urinals and faucet shut-off controls in their lavatories/locker rooms.
Waste management Paper consumption Technology allows for paper-free schools (schools that distribute documents and files electronically via email, websites, and networked files). Paper-free schools not only reduce the need to rely upon trees for paper and the energy cost to create the paper, but decreases paper entry into the waste stream and it reduces habitat for pests in the school.

If you go this route, also be aware that not all families have access to computers at home. A paperless school is a terrific goal, but recognize that you may be instituting barriers to access for some students and plan accordingly.
Transportation Staff and students Not only are buses expensive to fuel, they discourage walking to school. Some districts are creating schools with walking distances for students in mind. They are encouraging carpools and bike riding. In districts where this is not possible, they are looking at alternative fuel sources for buses.
Community interaction Building use Schools need to accommodate community functions, events, and meetings. Schools should be a source of community pride. Bicycle paths, bicycle racks and sidewalks should make the school readily accessible for all community members.
Landscaping and building envelope New construction site analysis Evaluate whether the site will allow for orienting the building in the most optimal arrangement to either maximize southern exposure (in a northern climate) or to allow prevailing wind flow through the building for ventilation. Whole building design (Building Envelope) encompasses the interaction of building and site.

Additional considerations

The above table provides only a few examples of the issues to address when designing a sustainable school. The overall objective is to minimize the energy consumption and maximize the environmental quality of the physical school in perpetuity. Additional considerations include the following:

Building construction

Building construction and deconstruction are significant sources of pollutants and solid waste. Deconstruction of existing schools contributes large amounts of waste to landfills. New buildings can lead to habitat destruction, air quality concerns, pollution, and water quality issues for communities.

Traditional building practices consume resources and fail to address the inter-relationships between the construction and the surrounding community.

Sustainable design promotes conservation of resources (reduce water, energy, materials, and waste). It evaluates the entire footprint of the school and analyzes the lifecycle of the materials used in construction.

Energy consumption and options

Many school districts have changed their energy use patterns, partly due to increased costs. School districts realize that it is necessary to examine alternative design strategies for heating and cooling, energy efficient design, and energy consumption monitoring.

Some schools are exploring local alternatives for heating and cooling their buildings (solar, photovoltaic, geothermal, or wind energy systems). These systems, once installed, can provide economic as well as environmental benefits. Downsizing systems and purchasing smaller, more efficient systems can also reduce energy costs.

Alternative energy produced locally that take advantage of renewable resources (wind, solar, biomass) will help schools become more sustainable with less reliance on expensive non-renewable fuels. There are schools around the country benefiting from their locations to install geo-thermal, wind, solar, photovoltaic or biomass units during construction. Some of these will be identified in the case studies section of this topic hub.

Landscaping and the building envelope

A building envelope is the physical separator between the conditioned and unconditioned environment of a building including the resistance to air, water, heat, light, and noise transfer. This includes exterior contributions that reduce the impact of passive solar heat through windows.

New approaches to school landscaping have moved beyond native plant landscaping. Some schools across the country have begun managing wastewater runoff from their buildings and across their parking lots through the use of rain gardens and permeable surfaces. Rain gardens are designed to capture stormwater runoff and filter contaminants before they can enter the stormwater system or local watersheds. Schools in large urban areas are exploring design strategies (green roofs) that take advantage of rooftops to minimize stormwater runoff and to reduce the heat islands affects created by their building. Awnings on windows or orientation of windows can also minimize heat incursion.