Taking School Design Into the 21st Century

Climate change, the densifying of our cities, and budgetary pressures, among other factors, have combined to make school designers focus on sustainable school design. By designing green schools, we can reduce costs, improve the health of schoolchildren, and improve education outcomes. This is crucial for all schoolchildren, but especially for those from deprived areas and underprivileged homes.

By focusing on the benefits and principles of sustainable school design, not only can we improve the education of our children, but we can also reduce energy use and costs, preserve water more effectively, and improve air quality.

Here, we describe five benefits, five principles, and five trends in sustainable school design.

Five benefits of sustainable school design

There have been numerous studies and copious research into the benefits of sustainable school design. 

Here are five of the major benefits as discussed in the report ‘Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits’:

  1. Lower energy use and billions of dollars saved

When we construct sustainable schools, the direct and indirect energy savings can be tremendous – green schools use around a third less energy than non-green schools. Were all new schools constructed in adherence to green principles, the country’s education establishments could save tens of billions of dollars over a ten-year period.

  1. Cleaner air reduces pollution and reduces respiratory illnesses

A green school is estimated to reduce annual emissions by: 

  • 1,200 pounds of nitrogen oxides, thus reducing smog

  • 1,300 pounds of sulfur dioxide (SO2), reducing acid rain

  • 585,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, helping to reduce global warming

  • 150 pounds of coarse particulate matter, reducing smog

Apart from obvious environmental benefits, these reductions also lead to an improvement in the respiratory health of children. This is especially true in schools attended by lower-income and minority children, who are disproportionately affected by poor air quality. These children are up to 50% more likely to suffer from respiratory problems, leading to greater absenteeism and poorer academic outcomes.

  1. Reduced water usage

Sustainable design in schools also helps to reduce water usage, with studies showing that the average reduction in water use is more than 30%. This saves money for the school and achieves other wider benefits such as a reduction in costs to process wastewater.

  1. Longer-lasting school buildings

Green roofs not only help to maintain temperatures inside schools and reduce air conditioning costs, and to disperse stormwater more effectively, but they also last longer. Up to 50 years longer.

  1. Better education outcomes

Research shows a clear link between green schools and education outcomes, with at least a 3% to 5% improvement in learning ability and test scores. Why is this? Better lighting, a healthier environment, better air quality, and reduced absenteeism.

Five principles of sustainable school design

To access these benefits, and more, it’s crucial that when we design school buildings, we adhere to tried-and-tested design principles. By doing this, not only can we construct more sustainable schools, but we can also improve existing schools and make them more sustainable, too. 

Here are five key principles of sustainable school design:

  1. Incorporate natural daylight

Natural daylight has a positive impact on children’s learning. It improves vision and productivity as well as uses less power for lighting – thus reducing carbon emissions. How can we do this? By designing for more and bigger windows, skylights, etc.

  1. Design for air quality indoors

We must prioritize air quality to reduce health threats. We can do this in several ways, including installing HVAC systems and using materials that reduce or eliminate health risks. We should also design our school buildings to induce better airflow and natural ventilation.

  1. Emphasize energy efficiency

The annual energy bill of America’s schools is huge – more than $6 billion. When we design schools for energy efficiency or refurbish existing education establishments, we should consider:

  • Incorporating/switching to renewable energy sources

  • Installing smart lights with occupancy sensors

  • Using smart thermostats

  • Incorporating energy management systems

Many such changes can be made to existing schools at a minimal cost. When constructing new schools, we should also ensure that we use energy-efficient building materials.

  1. Use locally sourced materials

Wherever possible, we should use locally and ethically sourced building materials, and/or renewable or recycled materials. For example, marble floors last longer than laminate flooring. Locally-sourced materials are better for the environment, help sustain local communities by providing jobs, and reduce waste and energy usage.

  1. Design adaptable classrooms

Instead of building single-purpose classrooms, we should design schools in which the classrooms are multifunctional. We can do this by including folding walls and moveable furniture. This also reduces construction costs and makes expansion or change of use easier to implement in the future.

Five trends in sustainable school design

How are we seeing the benefits of designing sustainable schools being delivered in alignment with the design principles we have outlined above? 

Here are five trends that are being embedded into the design of school buildings.

  1. Air quality and lighting

Designers are focusing on air quality and providing more effective natural ventilation to improve air circulation and reduce sick days. Simultaneously, designers are incorporating floor-to-ceiling windows to allow daylight to flood in. Where this isn’t possible, LED light bulbs are increasingly used as well as automatic room light sensors.

  1. Renewable energy

Schools are being designed to incorporate their own sources of energy, including solar and geothermal (by tapping into underground heat sources). In addition, we are finding that schools are connected to community sources of renewable energy.

  1. Green transport

It’s not only in schools that we can design for sustainability. The outside matters, too. We can encourage more children to walk or cycle to school by planning and designing safer school streets. Doing so has the added benefit of making the surrounding environment less polluted and school grounds more conducive to the learning experience.

  1. School gardens and green roofs

We can take advantage of the benefits of green spaces in schools by designing schools to include them. As these benefits become more widely understood, it’s likely that more schools will be designed to include green space, including creating roof gardens that not only deliver the benefits of sustainability but also provide outdoor classrooms.

  1. New materials in building envelopes

While the external walls of a school building (the envelope) are designed to be resilient to weather conditions and built to last, designers are considering new materials that improve sustainability. These include smart glass, insulation of concrete block walls, and the combination of commercial build methodologies. We might also see modular construction methods being incorporated into the school building design process.

How ACB Consulting is helping to deliver sustainable school design

Sustainability is a big issue in the design and planning of residential, industrial, and commercial infrastructure, and its importance in growing the design of our schools. 

Whether it is a new school that is being planned or the refurbishment or improvement of an existing school, it is possible to use design principles that unlock the many benefits of sustainability – including reducing waste, using energy more efficiently, and minimizing damaging emissions.

At ACB Consulting, we are committed to helping improve the communities in which we live, work, and play – including how they are conceived, designed and created. To learn more or to join the conversation, contact ACB Consulting.

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