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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Sustainable School Buildings: Operations

A guide for making school buildings more environmentally friendly.



This section addresses construction and retrofitting, siting, commissioning and actual design of new and remodeled schools. A high performance, sustainable school refers to the physical facility. Before actually proceeding with construction, school designs must be properly commissioned.

Commissioning plans allow schools to be confident their heating, refrigerating and air conditioning systems (HVAC) meet the school's requirements.


California's five phases of building commissioning are:

  • Program
  • Design
  • Construction
  • Acceptance
  • Post-Acceptance

This process includes visual and physical examinations; functional performance testing; and a facilities performance evaluation. The California model usually conducts these a year after the building has been completed and occupied.

A facilities performance evaluation encourages continuous improvement from assessments. Steps involved are:

  • Adjustment and review
  • Planning for action
  • Constructive action

California's Office of the State Architect has developed a comprehensive document for planning and building sustainable schools. Use these steps as a model, whether planning new construction or retrofits/remodeling of existing buildings.


Siting impacts all design and sustainability aspects of a new school building. This includes community and transportation access, energy use, waste management, indoor air quality, alternative energy sources, endangered species, and existing pollution.

Factors to consider Issues and questions
Existing site pollution
  • What was on the site prior to construction? 
  • What was removed? 
  • What is nearby that might create risks?
Environmental siting
  • Will the new school destroy undeveloped land or endangered habitats?
  • Will it increase urban sprawl?
  • Can existing trees be preserved?
Existing infrastructure
  • Is it possible to design using urban infill to create a new school more centrally located and accessible by the surrounding community?
Building orientation
  • Is the building oriented to account for sun and prevailing winds? Building orientation impacts use of prevailing winds, daylighting, passive solar, radiant heating, and other energy conservation measures.
Heat islands
  • Building envelopes or surroundings can enhance or decrease energy consumption.
  • Lack of vegetation and tree cover combined with high percentages of paved area will create higher HVAC loads.
  • Placements of schools in areas that are both lacking vegetation and are surrounded by heat sources can reduce benefits of wind cooling.
Permeable ground surfaces
  • Stormwater management and water runoff concerns can be mitigated by careful construction and placement of parking lot, as well as by using landscaping features that trap excess sediment and fossil fuel contaminants that might run off into local watersheds.
  • When managing stormwater runoff, consider slope of the site and integrating rain gardens, gutters, retention ponds, permeable pavement, and filters into the site.
  • Rapidly increasing transportation costs and energy consumption are forcing reconsideration of siting elements.
  • Consider traffic congestion and related air pollution when siting schools.
  • Plan for access to mass transportation and accommodations for people who choose to walk or bike.
Community access
  • Is the school being built outside of the community or is it accessible to all who might wish to use the building as a community center?
  • Can the school be accessed through bike or pedestrian travel?
  • Is multi-use of the building considered in the design and siting?
Shared use of open space
  • Evaluate whether the location of the school makes it possible for joint use of the school and shared use of open space or existing/new parks?
  • This reduces the environmental footprint of the school and maintenance overhead while allowing green space opportunities with local parks. Expenses for maintenance can be shared through partnerships.

Alternative Technologies

The table below shows key areas of concern when designing sustainable schools. 


Structure or Equipment

Building Envelope
  • Roofing
  • Insulation
  • Exterior Construction
  • Windows
  • Doors
  • Overhangs
  • Acoustic Comfort
  • Safety Features
  • Chemical Safety Storage
Electrical Systems
  • Lighting
  • Occupancy Sensors
  • Sensors
  • Timers
  • Computers
  • Solar Panels/Arrays
  • Daylighting
  • Exit and Emergency Lighting
  • Vending Machines
  • Athletic Fields
  • Exterior Security Lights
HVAC and Mechanical Equipment
  • Heating
  • Air Conditioning (Cooling and Moisture Control)
  • Fans and Ventilation
  • Air Volume
  • Solar Panels/Arrays
  • Hot Water
  • Solar
  • Geothermal Energy
  • Biomass Energy
  • Ducts
  • Air Filters
  • Gas Lines and Distribution
  • Fixtures
  • Flushless Urinals
  • Distribution (pipes) and Fixtures
  • Tankless Hot Water Heaters
  • Graywater
  • Irrigation
  • Wells and Domestic Water Systems
  • Waste Water Management
  • Sensors and Flow Management
Green Cleaning
  • Products and Equipment
  • Carpet and Flooring
  • Painting
  • Cafeteria and Kitchen
  • Lockers
  • Break Rooms
  • Classrooms
  • Restroom Facilities and Locker Rooms
  • Furniture
  • Window Treatments
  • Whiteboards/Chalkboards
  • Science Labs
  • Theater, Drama, and Art Facilities
  • Integrated Pest Management (Indoors)
  • Indoor Air Quality
Landscaping and Pest Management
  • Turfgrass
  • Native Plants
  • Garden Areas
  • Greenhouses
  • Hardscape
  • Playgrounds
  • Irrigation
  • Permeable Parking Areas
  • Athletic Fields
  • Snow Management
  • Integrated Pest Management (Outdoors)