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August 21, 2003
Image courtesy of Mahlum Architects
The new Benjamin Franklin Elementary in Kirkland incorporates many of the sustainable-design principles that may appear in new statewide green-building guidelines. Elements include recycled building materials, natural lighting and ventilation, and drought-resistant landscaping.
Educators, architects and others involved in building and renovating schools in Washington state and elsewhere are increasingly committed to sustainability.
Whether that commitment takes the form of increased attention to natural lighting and ventilation, indoor air quality, more energy efficiency or use of recycled materials, those responsible for educating our children want a healthier, more natural environment that enhances learning.
Currently, there are no agreed-upon statewide guidelines for school districts wishing to incorporate sustainability into their new and renovated schools. That will likely change, however, with the formation this summer of a broad-based group known as the “Washington Leadership in High Performance Schools Committee.”
The group is spearheaded by Ralph Saxton, outgoing president of the Washington chapter of the Council for Educational Facility Planners International, in cooperation with the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, which is funded by public utilities.
The committee is seeking to develop benchmarking tools and resources that will help school districts achieve and measure sustainability that enhances the learning environment while also being climate-responsive, affordable and inspirational.
The committee includes representatives from the state administration, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, school districts, engineering and architectural firms, professional associations and the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance.
The group will evaluate existing school benchmarking resources, coordinate with school interest groups not represented on the committee, integrate existing sustainable school initiatives, and identify technical and financial resources that would support implementation. It is anticipated that the standards could be finalized by December.
Setting green guidelines
Until statewide guidelines are established, districts can look to a number of other programs for guidance in incorporating sustainable principles into their schools.
The best known program nationally is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.
Launched in the year 2000, LEED encourages the implementation of sustainable “green building” practices for new construction, renovation and commercial interiors projects. While some schools have incorporated elements within the standard, most choose not to spend the extra money required for submitting the documentation to gain official recognition.
Closer to home, California’s Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) has developed a “best practices” manual to assist architects, engineers and school administrators in designing and building schools that offer enhanced learning environments.
Many of the principles reflected in the CHPS design strategies, such as energy and resources conservation, providing a healthy and comfortable indoor environment, serving as a community resource for neighborhood meetings and creating a safe and secure atmosphere, are already being implemented in schools in Washington state.
Principles at work
Mahlum Architect’s design for the new Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Kirkland incorporates many of the principles that could find their way into a statewide measurement program. In Oregon, Portland’s BOORA Architects is also at the forefront of the sustainability movement using these principles in three recently completed schools.
Site selection: The Lake Washington School District, working with the Mahlum design team, preserved a mature grove of second-growth Douglas fir trees by locating the new building on a different part of the site. The forest will be used for outdoor environmental education and also as a community park operated by the City of Kirkland, allowing the site to continue to be a neighborhood asset.
Open activity areas and classrooms in the building have been oriented to allow students to both see into the natural environment and to connect to it for experiential learning activities.
Water: Water will be collected on-site and used as a teaching tool. Rain visibly sheets off the roof and collects through a low-impact bio-retention system. These collection areas, in addition to below-grade infiltration chambers, slowly release to the ground water system. Water will be kept onsite rather than piped away.
One courtyard will feature an intermittent stream activated by the roof runoff that can be used as a learning opportunity. Landscaping will include drought-tolerant native plants that won’t require irrigation once established.
At The Dalles Middle School, BOORA harnessed groundwater to heat and cool the building through a ground source heat pump, resulting in a 51 percent savings in energy.
Ventilation: Franklin will be the first school in the district to employ natural ventilation for cooling and air quality. rather than rely on traditional air-handling equipment.
Louvers beneath the windows will draw fresh air into the classrooms; stale air will be exhausted through chimney “stacks” on the opposite side of the rooms.
Materials: Indoor air quality will be improved at Franklin through the use of low-volatile organic compounds in paint and carpeting, and formaldehyde-free fiberboard rather than plywood.
Building products will be made from recycled materials where possible. The district is also researching surfaces that require low maintenance, reducing the need for toxic cleaning products. The sustainable designs at Ash Creek Intermediate and the other two schools specified materials such as recycled building products, low-emission paints, ceramic tile and linoleum.
Energy: As with the BOORA-designed schools, Franklin will be heavily dependent on natural lighting through careful placement of view windows, clerestory windows and light “shelves” that reflect light onto ceilings and deep into the space.
A model of the building has undergone a series of tests at Seattle’s BetterBricks Daylighting Lab, funded by the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, to help Mahlum determine the most appropriate placement of windows, interior lighting and light shields to minimize glare and to balance the light throughout the space.
BOORA’s schools use light shelves and skylights, and the student commons at Clackamas High School has an angled ceiling that distributes light evenly throughout the space.
The daylight difference
The momentum toward developing sustainable high performance schools is driven in part by several studies by the Heschong Mahone Group, Sacramento consultants who have found that students and others perform substantially better in properly daylighted environments. Test scores rise and the number of sick days tend to go down. While the cloudy climate of Western Washington is sometimes berated, the diffused light it provides is more effective than direct sunlight.
Although Washington state schools have not been in the forefront in building sustainable schools, both this state and Oregon have made remarkable strides in the past year. It is entirely conceivable that within a year, we could be in a leadership position in building healthy, high performance schools.
Anne Schopf is a principal and director of design for Mahlum Architects, a firm of 110 people with offices in Seattle and Portland. She is design principal of Franklin Elementary School for the Lake Washington School District.