Green Building Goes Back to School

By Matt Baker

Federico Garcia Lorca Elementary, which opened in the Avondale neighborhood last year, features a vegetated roof over half of the school.

That disappointing surrender of freedom that every child feels upon returning to school at the close of summer is generations old. School itself, however, is changing at an ever increasing clip as textbooks are giving way to computer tablets, chalkboards to whiteboards and spiral notebooks to flash drives.

And of course, school buildings are changing as well. Because green buildings obtain the greatest economic benefit over a long lifespan, early adopters have been governments and municipalities. They have the capital to build or retrofit a large stock of buildings, but they also can expect to hold those properties for decades to come. It only makes sense, therefore, that schools should be a major focus in the green building movement.
“Twenty percent of America goes to school every day. We spend almost 90% of our time indoors, and for one out of every five of us, … much of that time is in school buildings,” said Doug Widener, Executive Director of USGBC – Illinois. “There are more than 130,000 schools in this country and each one can be a better place to teach and learn through its natural and built environment.”

The repurposed water tower atop Mark T. Skinner Elementary irrigates the green roof and landscaping with harvested rainwater.

Green schools have better indoor air quality than traditionally-built ones, which leads to an improved learning environment and to fewer absences. Reduced operating costs are an incentive for any building owner, but Widener estimates that green schools can save over $100,000 a year on average.

In 2009, State Representative Karen May (D-Highland Park), proposed a task force to address sustainability in Illinois’ schools. After passage in both houses of the state congress, House Joint Resolution 45 (HJR 45) was born. Under the resolution, the HJR 45 LEED Task Force was created, comprised of representatives of the Illinois State Board of Education, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the Capital Development Board, bipartisan members from the Illinois General Assembly, the Governor’s office and ultimately led by USGBC – Illinois.

This past July, the task force presented their recommendations regarding organizational, financial and other resources that can nurture sustainability initiatives in Illinois’ schools on a much larger scale.
The task force recognized barriers to greening the state’s schools in three main categories: programmatic, funding and data. As far as programmatic recommendations, they suggested providing schools with access to sustainability professionals at no cost and creating a centralized resource for schools to access information and services related to green improvements. In addition to enhancing and publicizing existing support services and funding opportunities for schools pursuing green practices, the report also recognized the need for more efficiency training for building engineers.
The financial recommendations call for expanding initiatives to a larger scale such as continuing to authorize capital fund grants for schools, alleviating the matching fund requirement for state grants in impoverished districts and enhancing the Illinois Finance Authority’s energy efficiency bond program, which would enable schools to implement retrofit projects.
The task force also identified the need for funding of sustainable consulting related to ongoing operations. Currently, funds exist for new LEED projects, but not for existing buildings.
Finally, the task force made recommendations for the collection and dissemination of green school data. Regulated sustainable school surveys can help educators and decision-makers set benchmarks and understand trends, while green school report cards would recognize and reward achievement in school sustainability.

Students at the Gage Park community’s Eric Solorio High School, enjoy plenty of daylighting and views of the building’s green roof.

These recommendations do not ignore the advancements that the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and other institutions have already made in this area. This report attempts to carve a path for the future of green schools in Illinois, but the concept is not entirely foreign here.
“Chicago leads the nation in LEED certified municipal buildings,” said Mimi Simon, Public Information Officer with the Public Building Commission of Chicago (PBC). And schools make up a significant percentage of that portfolio. Since 1996, Chicago has invested nearly $6 billion in capital improvements aimed at educational facilities. For the past five years, CPS has partnered with the PBC to construct 17 new green schools and extensively remodel two more. All of these projects were designed to meet LEED Silver at minimum, though most receive LEED Gold. The recently opened Ogden International School, Federico Garcia Lorca Elementary and Eric Solorio Academy High School, for example, were recently submitted to the USGBC with Silver as the benchmark and Gold the intended target.
The Modern Schools Across Chicago project will result in approximately 18,000 student seats and 2.5 million square feet of new or rehabilitated schools when completed and has already created over 3,200 full time jobs. Incredibly, the PBC is currently under budget by over 10%, saving the city—on green building projects, no less—more than $117 million.
Mark T. Skinner West Elementary on the near west side, for example, was built to LEED Gold. The K-8 school, being a hybrid community/magnet institution, shows a willingness to try the untried when it comes to education.
“I’ve asked our school leaders to hold our schools to an even higher level of accountability and excellence than ever,” Mayor Richard M. Daley said at the school’s dedication in 2009. “We must ask more of every student, every parent, every teacher and every principal.”
That disposition is also manifest in the construction of the school campus. Replacing a fifty-year-old structure, the new, three-story, 101,000 square foot Skinner Elementary features the classrooms, labs, library, gymnasium and other attributes you’d find in any modern school.
Slightly more novel were the school’s green features. The landscaping is composed of adaptive and native plants to cut down on the need for water. While most of the roof is covered by a white coating designed to mitigate the urban heat island effect, the library features a vegetated roof. The school’s most notable feature is probably the historic water tower at the eastern end of the roof. Reclaimed from an adjacent industrial building, the tower stores harvested rainwater to irrigate the school grounds and green roof.
Bioswales support rainwater retention outside while inside the building, efficient plumbing further reduces water consumption by over a third. Energy efficiency is enhanced by solar louvers, which reduce the building’s heat load in warmer months and allow much needed daylight in the winter. Energy-efficient mechanical systems help Skinner perform 27% better than similarly-sized buildings.
While Skinner features outdoor classrooms that connect the building with the adjacent park, another west side CPS school also used site and landscape design to not only promote sustainability, but where possible, showcase green design as an educational opportunity. George Westinghouse College Prep opened in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in 2009 and offers college preparation in areas such as broadcasting, medicine and information technology.
This urban high school is centered on a large interior courtyard. A grid of terraced planting beds separate the area without physical barriers and the courtyard provides a space for outdoor learning. Various signs provide students with information on the progress of the reclaimed prairie that their school surrounds, and the plants it contains.
Westinghouse also has several invisible sustainable elements. Stormwater runoff is stored beneath the athletic fields and parking lots. The foundation of the school building that was demolished to make way for Westinghouse was crushed and used as infill in the grounds surrounding the high school.
Aside from the aggressive stormwater management plan, Westinghouse makes use of reflective materials on the roof and site that minimize the heat island effect and solar panels that pre-heat water, an effective energy-saver. Water-reducing plumbing fixtures, a high-efficiency heating and cooling system and the use of recycled construction materials also contributed to the green facility.
The first CPS school to obtain LEED certification was the two-story, 134,000 square foot Tarkington School of Excellence, a K-12 school in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood. From the recycled glass floor tiles to the sustainably-forested maple ceilings, the designers of Tarkington aimed to make Chicago’s first green school one of the finest of its type in the nation.
Two-story-high windows allow for natural lighting that, along with a sensor system, reduces the need for artificial lights. Solar panels installed on the roof not only help power the school, they supply a teaching opportunity for the student body.
Large windows also give students a glimpse at another environmental teaching device, the school’s vegetated roof. Covering a third of the school (the rest being covered by a reflective coating), this roof garden insulates to help moderate the building’s temperature and captures some of the site’s stormwater. A series of pipes transmit runoff water directly into a lagoon adjacent to the school.
Fixtures such as the low-flow toilets help reduce water usage by 20%. Recharging stations were installed in the school’s parking lot in anticipation of more electric vehicles. Tarkington’s indoor air quality is improved by low-VOC coverings and adhesives. During construction, 90% of the structural steel came from recycled sources, and over 80% of the construction waste and debris was diverted from landfills.
Keep in mind that these are just three green CPS schools. There are dozens more in the city, and even more in the outlying suburbs. Sustainably-built schools represent an excellent opportunity to curtail waste through more efficient management of publicly-held property. A more important aspect, however, is manifest in the outdoor classrooms at Skinner and the signs sprouting out of Westinghouse’s cultured prairie: educating the next generation about sustainable design may help lower the hurdles they will have to jump as they strive for better environmental stewardship.

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