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School Construction 2007

September 20, 2007

Tomorrow’s schools will be greener, freer

  • Technology, cleaner classrooms, individualized study will boost student performance


    Today and into the future, students will still spend the majority of their school time in classrooms.

    Educational facility design can create a sense of organization and connection, essentials for a child’s intellectual, personal and social growth.

    However, the facilities in which future generations learn will be much more than rooms with desks, chairs, and teachers. They will be an environment-friendly and cost-effective promoter of student health … a technology-rich springboard supporting improved student performance and staff fulfillment. It will be a “high-performance” facility.

    Sustainable design is still one of the hottest topics in the architectural community.

    The Northwest has been a leader in the development and implementation of strategies that support the concept of sustainability in our educational facilities, and, over the recent years, the seeds planted have begun to bear fruit. When it ripens, no distinction between “good” and “green” design will exist; they will be one and the same.

    When applied to school facilities, terms like “sustainable” and “green” suggest environmental benefits, but they overlook other critical benefits, including:

    • Reduced operations and maintenance costs. A $100,000 investment for a high-performance feature on a $5 million building will save the owner about $1 million in energy costs over 20 years.

    This comes from “The Costs and Financial Benefits of Green Building,” a 2003 study by Greg Kats of Capital E, which offers one of the most authoritative analyses on sustainable building costs to date. High-performance systems save 25 percent to 30 percent annually on utility costs for new schools and 20% for renovated schools.

    • Enhanced student performance. The high performance facility “harvests” natural light. Daylight increases student awareness, attendance, mood and, ultimately, performance.

    A recent study analyzed test results of over 21,000 students in over 2,000 facilities in California, Washington and Colorado districts. The 1999 Heschong Mahone Group study “found a uniformly positive and statistically significant correlation between the presence of day lighting and better student test scores” specifically when applied to classrooms.

    • Improved attendance. High-performance ventilation systems provide air that is free of mold and airborne infections. That means fewer sick days for student sand teachers.

    Photo courtesy of Ambia
    More schools will be environmentally friendly, cost-effective promoters of student health.

    • Improved curriculum. Through its energy savings, high-performance design offers increased funds for educational programs.

    It also creates “project based learning” opportunities — some high-performance systems function as “hands-on” learning tools to support classroom topics. For instance, teachers can take science classes to their “rain garden” … a field trip without leaving the campus.

    High-performance elements

    Following are a few components of the high-performance facility:

    • HVAC systems that minimize energy output, generate clean air (air pollutants affect health, learning and self-esteem), and maintain a “comfort zone” (both stuffy and cold rooms inhibit learning).

    • State-of-the-art acoustic systems that minimize noise inside and outside the classroom (noises impede student/teacher communication).

    • Daylight systems such as light shelves and skylights that harvest natural light (a proven promoter of student performance) and reduce glare to create a visually stimulating atmosphere.

    • Durable, non-toxic, recyclable materials, which minimize impacts on the environment and promote student health. When the materials are procured locally, there is an additional benefit of reduced carbon emissions associated with transporting the materials to the jobsite.

    • Electric lighting that stimulates learning and saves energy.

    High-performance facilities include light shelves and skylights. When sunlight decreases in winter, the shelves increase heat gain and sunlight. They work by reflecting light to the ceiling, which reflects it into the classrooms. Integrating skylights can bring light into spaces that otherwise would be “buried” within the building and rely solely on artificial light sources.

    Clearly, the “high-performance facility” is so much more than “green”; it respects the environment, but it also nourishes bodies, minds and budgets.

    Especially today, the cost is well worth it: a “smart” school costs only about two percent more than a traditional “dumb” building. And with the cost savings, the systems will pay for themselves in a very short time. Now that is a “smart” school.

    Self-directed students

    An evolution in teaching and learning methodology will also drive tomorrow’s high performance facility.

    Teachers will spend still less time standing before a class in the traditional lecture format. They will empower students, teaching them how to teach themselves the things they need to know so they can do whatever they need to do.

    This change in the classroom habitat will lead to enhanced technology, individualization and flexibility.


    Undoubtedly, technology will play a more active role in tomorrow’s school facility.

    Having worked on and played with computers all their lives, members of Generation Y will lead the classroom. They will use the tools at their disposal: digital simulation, holographic presentation, instant global research and communication.


    Sooner than you might expect, schools will adopt a more individualized approach to student learning. Individualized Education Programs will extend beyond “students with special needs.”

    Rather, every student will have his or her own IEP developed through assessments and team meetings, including parents, counselors, school psychologists and, hopefully, the students themselves.

    In the classroom this individualization will shift the advancement rubric. Students will advance based on demonstrated knowledge rather than by passing a class. Group and individual projects will develop and demonstrate mastery of subject material (although the WASL test is probably not going away).


    Instructors will transform classrooms based on the day’s activities.

    Two faculty members may team-teach a larger class. One teacher instructs 22 students. In another part of the room the other teacher engages six students on a team project. In still another part of the classroom, eight students research a topic on the “network” to prepare a presentation.

    The well-designed high-performance facility saves costs. It also creates a clean, stimulating environment where students and teachers want to be. Already, schools are becoming symbols that represent how much communities care about their children and their future; its systems and technologies will be “high performance,” and so will its students.

    Todd Tovani is the educational studio lead and principal at Ambia.

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