On an unseasonably warm December day, Phoebe Beierle is making the rounds at various facilities in the Boston public school system. The assiduous 29-year-old sustainability advocate has a mile-long list of aspirations, and today she's on a mission to spur recycling efforts. She meets with school administrators, peppering them with questions: What materials do they recycle? Do they use Styrofoam trays in the cafeteria? How much garbage do they generate each week?
“My role as sustainability director for the district is my dream job,” says Beierle, who holds a degree in environmental studies and worked on green building and renewable energy projects before joining the Boston school district. “Every day, I'm excited to have the opportunity to work toward improving schools and the education we provide for children.”
Beierle is on loan to the district through the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) new Green Schools Fellowship program, which places sustainability gurus in cash-strapped public school systems for three-year terms. The fellows are charged with boosting or creating green initiatives—from energy audits to edible gardens—depending on the district's needs and resources. In addition to Beierle, the center has hired a fellow to work in Sacramento, with hopes of expanding the program in the coming years. United Technologies Corporation is helping to fund the endeavor.
The fellowships are just one facet of the USGBC's burgeoning Center for Green Schools. Established in the fall of 2010, the center is an outgrowth of the organization's National Green Schools Campaign, which was launched in 2007 in conjunction with the LEED for Schools rating system. At its core, the center's raison d'être is to promote sustainability in the educational sector at all levels, from building design to facility management to classroom curriculum. The 12-member staff, bolstered by an army of volunteers, not only advises school districts, but also provides support to policymakers, USGBC chapters, student groups, and nonprofit organizations.
“We're like a campaign organizer,” says center director Rachel Gutter, who spends much of her time zipping around the country to spread the green schools gospel. “We're getting people the materials they need, linking them up with sponsors, providing training, offering a communication platform. We kind of function as a center of gravity for the movement.” The center also coordinates events; last fall, it teamed up with Robert Redford to host a green schools summit at his Sundance Resort in Utah, where dozens of civic and educational leaders converged to exchange ideas.
The center has arrived at an optimal moment. A bevy of advocacy groups, from local parent associations to national environmental organizations, are pushing for healthier, more eco-friendly learning spaces. In turn, 12 states, plus the District of Columbia, have enacted legislation requiring that public-school construction projects incorporate sustainable features. Then, last September, the U.S. Department of Education officially kicked off its Green Ribbon Schools awards program, which honors schools that reduce their carbon footprint while also promoting “environmental literacy” among students. The first winners will be announced on Earth Day in 2012.
The demand for building green schools is on the rise, according to studies conducted by McGraw-Hill Construction (MHC). [MHC is the publisher of record.] The 165 architecture and engineering firms that responded to a green buildings survey reported $508 million in school-design revenue in 2008; that amount grew to $641 million the following year (with 162 firms reporting), and to $690 million in 2010 (with 172 firms reporting). “Despite the education-construction market flattening out, there continues to be interest and growth in this market,” notes Gary Tulacz, MHC's manager of surveys.
Architects confirm that the slumped economy doesn't seem to be slowing the movement. “I haven't seen a decreased interest in green schools. If anything, it's going in the other direction,” says Steven Turckes, who leads Perkins+Will's K–12 practice, which has completed more than 2,500 school projects in the past seven decades. When Turckes began working in this sector in the mid-1990s, sustainability “just wasn't part of the lexicon,” he says. “Now, when clients are looking for architects to design schools, they want us to demonstrate that we know our way around sustainable design. Schools understand the benefits to them, both in terms of operational savings and the potential benefit to student performance.”
Still, misgivings persist about the price of going green. “We've come a long way as an industry in being able to address those concerns and do it with a straight face,” Turckes says. He generally tells clients that he can deliver a LEED-Silver facility with “very little, if any, additional costs.” While specific elements might come at a premium, savings are recouped in other areas. “Spend a little bit more on an exterior wall, and perhaps you don't need to spend as much on mechanical systems,” he says. Plus, eco-friendly features pay off over time, as schools are typically designed to last for 50 to 75 years.
Financial motivation is one reason Charles “Chuck” Saylors, vice president of South Carolina–based M.B. Kahn Construction, championed green schools while serving as president of the National PTA (his two-year volunteer term ended in June). His company, ranked among the top-50 Southeast green contractors by Engineering News-Record [ENR is a sister publication of record], has built more than 2,000 K–12 schools in the last four decades, and Saylors has seen firsthand the advantages of sustainable strategies. His local district, where Saylors is a school-board member, has trimmed about $2 million from its annual electric bill due largely to the installation of energy-efficient lighting and HVAC systems. “In the long-term,” he says, “these kinds of decisions help save taxpayer dollars.”
Still, investments of any kind are out of the question for many budget-crunched districts. In 2005, the Washington state legislature passed a law mandating that major school construction projects receiving state funds be designed to achieve LEED Silver Certification or an equivalent. Even in the progressive-leaning Evergreen State, the requirement has stirred resistance. “The cost issue really causes dissention—the cost to design, build, and maintain,” explains Gordon Beck, the state's director of school facilities. While there's no reliable data, the general perception is that green schools cost 2 percent more to build, he says. “People are frustrated; they think it's just an added expense,” Beck explains. He suspects, however, that the opposition will fade over time, similarly to how concerns in the 1990s about retrofitting facilities for ADA compliancy eventually dissolved. “It was a really big deal. Now, we don't even talk about it. It's a given,” he says. “With green schools, I think it will just become a part of doing business.”
In the meantime, select companies and nonprofits are jumping in to help. Four years ago, Cause and Effect Evolutions, a California-based marketing firm, started an initiative to build green facilities at no cost to underserved districts. Construction projects would be funded entirely through donations. “We're the puzzlemaster,” says Jeff Zotara, a cofounder of Cause and Effect. “We work with architects, engineers, general contractors, building-product manufacturers, and consumer-corporate clients to fund these schools.”
The impetus for the program, branded the Green Schoolhouse Series, was to curb the proliferation of portable classrooms—cheap structures that often have poor air quality, noisy mechanical systems, and no windows. The “puzzlemaster” broke ground on its first project in December: a 6,000-square-foot, $2.4 million facility at Roadrunner Elementary School in Phoenix that will double as a community center during nights and weekends. Designed pro bono by Stantec, the building, made of insulated concrete forms and a steel moment frame, will replace up to eight portables. Green features include bio-based flooring, low-flow toilets, and solar panels. “In a lot of cases, we have to say no to potential donors because they're not sustainable enough,” says Zotara.
In the next 18 months, the Green Schoolhouse Series aims to start work on two more projects in Arizona, plus two in California. The ultimate goal is to construct facilities nationwide. “We're focused on getting schools built in these tough economic times,” says Zotara.
Indeed, addressing funding issues is a priority for the Center for Green Schools, particularly when it comes to retrofitting existing buildings. “Most districts in the country right now don't have enough money to repair a leaky roof,” says director Gutter. She argues that greening a school doesn't require big bucks. Schools can immediately start conserving the environment—and money—through simple actions, such as judiciously monitoring thermostats and powering down computers when they're not in use. Having an energy management plan can help: Since instituting such a scheme in 2003, the Warren County School District in Kentucky has reportedly saved $6 million in energy costs. It also has a full-time “energy educator” on staff.
To effectively infuse a green ethos into a school district, it “has to be someone's job,” says Gutter. That's why her center established its fellowship program; it recognizes that many public districts, such as Boston Public Schools (BPS), can't afford to have an employee dedicated to carrying the green torch. “We've lost a lot of staff lately,” says Khadijah Brown, director of facilities management at BPS. Comprising 132 schools, her district has several successful environmental initiatives in place, but slashed budgets could put these at risk. Other programs, such as ones for the collection of recyclable paper, are struggling.
Enter Beierle. “I have a flyer here that explains how you can qualify for free recycling bins,” she says as she hands a brochure to Amy Sprott, the principal at Philbrick Elementary School. Situated in the ethnically diverse neighborhood of Roslindale, the small school provides free or reduced lunches to 69 percent of its students. Thanks to the longtime support of the nearby Boston Nature Center, Philbrick already boasts edible gardens and a modest composting program. “We wouldn't be able to do these things without the help,” says Sprott. Now, it has the USGBC lending an extra hand. “My goal is to establish the Boston school district as a leader in sustainability,” Beierle says. “A lot has already been accomplished, but there are so many more opportunities.”