For decades, especially in the period following passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, school districts provided additional classroom space by slapping up portable buildings on parking lots and play fields. Some campuses evolved into mazes of nearly windowless, flat-roofed, "temporary" buildings that housed more students than the main building of the original school.
Those days appear to be over. State bond money and local tax dollars are flowing into new school construction at record rates, and school officials are learning that a "green" campus is both better for students and teachers and is less expensive to operate.
In the last few years, a collection of state agency officials, school district leaders, architects, contractors, product manufacturers, and utility representatives have put together the Collaborative of High Performance Schools (CHPS). The CHPS has established criteria similar to that of the United State Green Building Council's LEED program for commercial and residential construction (see Environment Watch, Page 3). Twenty-six school districts, including Los Angeles Unified and other large districts, have adopted CHPS standards.
"I think it's going to be big," said David Thorman, who, as state architect, is responsible for overseeing all public school construction. "We're just starting. The CHPS program is all-encompassing."
Indeed, CHPS covers indoor air quality, thermal, visual and acoustic comfort, energy and water efficiency, indoor fixtures and materials, site development and stormwater control, architecture and even the way the facilities integrate into a neighborhood.
There are two primary reasons the program appeals to districts: Both students and teachers perform better in CHPS-certified schools, and plant operating costs are decreased.
"They have found that when schools are built to CHPS standards, kids are better learners and are healthier," said Thorman, who believes that studies completed to date are credible. So does Guy Mehula, chief facilities executive for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).
"The two biggest pieces that affect the production of the kids is daylighting in the classroom, and the acoustics in the classroom," Mehula said. "And the third piece, I would say, is the indoor air quality, especially here in Los Angeles."
Ted Rozzi, assistant superintendent for school facilities in the Corona-Norco Unified School District and chairman of the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, agreed that alternative design and project delivery are hot topics in the school business these days.
"It's been a subject in our district as we were planning a sixth comprehensive high school," Rozzi said. Although the project has slowed because of site availability issues, district officials envision a school with sustainable architecture and technology, which could then serve as a laboratory for students. "It just seemed to be the right thing to do. From a curricular aspect, it makes sense," he said.
Skeptics contend that school officials are "greenwashing" ordinary projects. The skepticism may arise because some of what CHPS involves is very basic: Orientation of the school building so it makes the best use of natural light, skylights, windows that open and provide cross-ventilation, shade trees in appropriate places, low-water landscaping and drip irrigation. Not exactly high-tech stuff.
Other features of CHPS-certified schools, however, can be more involved: high-efficiency and extraordinarily quiet heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and ducts, downsized cooling systems where appropriate, recycled or sustainable building materials, carefully selected furnishing and fixtures, abundant insulation, pitched roofs with solar panels or photovoltaic cells, or low-sloped roofs with a white mineral cap sheet to limit heat retention, and — especially in polluted areas — heavy-duty air filtration systems. These schools also often feature highly automated lighting and HVAC systems that rapidly adjust to room conditions.
"From the beginning of the design process," the CHPS literature states, "each of the building elements — windows, walls, building materials, air conditioning, landscaping, etc. — is considered part of an integrated system of interacting components. Choices in one area often affect other building systems; integrated design leverages these interactions to maximize the overall building performance."
That approach is a significant departure from covering the ball field with portable classrooms.
Among the most committed to green school facilities is the LAUSD, the nation's largest school district. For about 30 years, the district built no new schools and invested little in the facilities it did have. But in 2001, the district embarked on a gigantic, $20 billion construction program that is scheduled to result in 132 new schools and the overhaul of dozens more by 2013 (see CP&DR Public Development, December 2002). The district has completed 68 new schools, for which CHPS criteria has been applied to 42. The district has used CHPS for 15 existing school upgrades. All 20 new schools scheduled to open during the next two years will be CHPS-certified, according to an LAUSD spokesman.
"Green" schools do cost roughly 5% to 10% more to build. "The additional cost is in energy-efficient mechanical systems," explained Thorman. Yet CHPS proponents contend such systems help schools save 30% to 40% on energy bills.
Mehula, of the LAUSD, said that when the green features are integrated into the design of a school up-front, construction cost does not have to cost more.
Besides construction techniques and building operations, CHPS criteria also include site selection, land development and neighborhood compatibility. The CHPS best practices manual recommends selecting sites near public transportation and within walking distance of a majority of students to decrease energy use and local traffic congestion. Some school districts are bringing back bike racks and working with other government entities on bike lanes and paths that serve school campuses. CHPS also provides instruction on capturing stormwater in cisterns, ponds and vegetated areas.
The LAUSD designs new schools to promote community use of the facilities, said Mehula. Playgrounds are available as public park and recreation space, and buildings are designed so that sections can be locked off while community members use other sections, he said. "We know that schools need to be centers of the community," he said.
Thorman's big emphasis is on energy independence for schools. Photovoltaic cells may be installed on existing schools, he said, and solar panels may be designed into new facilities, even serving as shade structures in a parking lot.
David Thorman, state architect of California, (916) 445-8100.
Guy Mehula, Los Angeles Unified School District, (213) 241-7000.
Ted Rozzi, Corona-Norco Unified School District, (951) 736-5045.
Collaborative for High Performance Schools: http://www.chps.net/