We ask our schools to do a lot on a tight budget: Invest in new technology, adapt to national standards, keep teachers and staff happy, maintain discipline, collaborate with other schools, mentor teachers—the list goes on. Little wonder, then, that maintaining the school building itself falls near the bottom of the priority list.
However, the learning environment is fundamentally important to student success. When it underperforms, so do our students. What’s more, overspending on a poorly ventilated and/or uncomfortable learning environment is the worst of both worlds.
If better buildings make for better students, how should cash-strapped schools prioritize and actualize more energy-efficient school facilities?
The three elements of energy efficiency
Creating energy-efficient schools isn’t just about going green, write McKinstry’s Lauren Frugé, senior program manager, and Clint Hawn, project director—it’s also the right thing for the students. Less money spent on unnecessary utility expenses means more money available for teachers and classrooms.
Energy efficiency relies on three strategies: capital improvements, operational changes and behavior change. With most districts facing tight budgets, the authors argue, schools should adopt all three strategies to maximize efficiency.
A healthy, thriving school is a dynamic environment dependent on many interconnected building systems. These systems need to excel today, tomorrow, and—with the threat of budget cuts always looming—for another 20 years. Districts need to ensure that they have quality, reliable systems in all of their schools, both new and existing.
A school can have the best building systems money can buy, but they don’t do any good unless they’re operated properly.
The majority of buildings are operated in a way that uses more energy than necessary and run equipment longer than needed. Schools are no different. Operational changes that accumulate over time place added stress on aging systems and reduce overall efficiency.
Students, teachers and building operators all play a huge role in maintaining energy efficiency. Additionally, engaging students in energy-efficiency projects can provide a valuable extracurricular experience. Behavior change programs turn the school facility into a classroom and helps make the connection between the learning environment and the student experience.
Good schools, better students
Simply put, better school buildings improve the student experience.
According to the U.S. Green Building Center for Green School’s 2013 State of Our Schools Report (PDF), “a review of an array of studies found that air quality, acoustics, levels of thermal comfort and levels of daylight affect the stress levels, health and well-being of occupants in schools.” That means facility upgrades like improved lighting and more efficient heating and cooling systems play a significant role in improving the student (and teacher) experience.
The systems that enable a comfortable learning environment demand a lot of energy. Energy and utility costs generally account for 20 to 40 percent of a school’s maintenance and operations budget, and can be much higher if equipment is outdated or hasn’t been properly maintained.
A sweet spot
Energy efficiency should never detract from the learning experience. On the contrary, improving the performance of the systems that keep classrooms at the right temperature, well-ventilated and well-lit should help maintain a quality learning environment.
There is a sweet spot between efficiency and the learning environment. Our collective job is to find it.
Read the entire article in the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce to learn about ways McKinstry has put these ideas in practice in Washington state school districts.