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August 20, 2015

How to make existing schools healthier, more efficient

  • Schools need to consider how performance upgrades will affect the comfort of teachers and students.



    For each high-profile new school built to exacting sustainability standards, there are dozens of existing schools that continue to serve Washington’s students.

    That’s why designing and building efficient schools isn’t just about the projects that make headlines. It’s equally (if not more) important to find ways to ensure what we already have operates more efficiently and effectively.

    There are three ways to improve energy efficiency in existing buildings: capital improvement projects, such as investing in energy-efficient heating and cooling systems; operational changes, such as adjusting heating and cooling temperatures and occupancy schedules; and behavioral modifications, such as student engagement in energy reduction. When all three energy performance methods come together, schools and districts can operate at top efficiency.

    However, efficiency isn’t everything. Schools also need to think about how these changes affect the learning environment.

    Research shows that the school facility affects students’ ability to learn. Factors such as air quality, levels of thermal comfort, daylight, noise, overcrowded classrooms and the condition of the school building all impact the learning experience — and can either help or hurt student performance.

    How, then, to balance the need for efficiency with the requirement for a healthy learning environment?

    Capital improvements

    Image courtesy of McKinstry [enlarge]
    Mukilteo School District replaced parking lot lights with LEDs at its schools, including Discovery Elementary in Everett.

    A healthy, thriving school is a dynamic environment dependent on many interconnected building systems. These systems need to excel today, tomorrow, and — with the threat of budget cuts always looming — for another 20 years. Districts need to ensure that they have quality, reliable systems in all of their schools, both new and existing.

    For example, Mukilteo School District and their energy services partner, McKinstry, have replaced a number of aging heating, cooling, ventilation and lighting systems over the past five years with highly efficient, modern systems. Additionally, Mukilteo replaced their parking lot lights with LEDs, which are more efficient, last longer and improve light quality. These lights also help improve aesthetics and safety, and deter vandalism.

    Mukilteo School District doesn’t just decide which systems to replace and when based on cost and payback; they also consider exactly how it will impact the learning environment. This includes ensuring there is the right amount of quality air ventilation and that there is the right amount of lighting in all the classrooms.

    Cumulatively, these projects have saved the district over $2.5 million in utility expenses, and the district has qualified for millions of dollars of grants, rebates and incentives.

    Operational changes

    A school can have the best building systems money can buy, but they don’t do any good unless they’re operated properly.

    The majority of buildings are operated in a way that uses more energy than necessary and run equipment longer than needed. Schools are no different. Operational changes that accumulate over time place added stress on aging systems and reduce overall efficiency.

    Lake Washington School District has instituted a number of operational changes across the board that help them maintain an efficient and comfortable learning environment. For example, the district and their energy services partner McKinstry have installed “alarms” on critical equipment that alert the teams when the systems are running outside of their expected schedule. They also monitor their energy consumption with real-time data, and get automated alerts when it goes outside of the expected parameters.

    Training and ongoing education is a key element of facility operational excellence. Lake Washington School District and McKinstry meet monthly to review progress against their annual goals, controls contractors lead trainings with staff to help them understand the logic that controls the building systems, and the teams report energy consumption to the leadership of the district on a monthly basis.

    There are many ways to reduce energy in a building, but schools have to always consider how these changes affect the learning environment. All of the standards and budgets in place at Lake Washington School District have been established by first looking to what the students need to thrive and then to how to run those systems efficiently.

    Behavioral changes

    Students, teachers and building operators all play a huge role in maintaining energy efficiency. Additionally, engaging students in energy-efficiency projects can provide a valuable extracurricular experience.

    Tahoma School District works to engage both staff and students in behavior change. This program incorporates outreach and engagement by connecting existing student “green teams” and sustainability programs. Teams at each school participate in tracking energy performance, conduct student energy audits, and take pledges to encourage sustainable behavior at their schools. Thanks to this program, the district has decreased their energy use by more than 25 percent.

    Tahoma School District’s multi-pronged approach to sustainability has been nationally recognized. Four schools and the district itself have been recognized as Green Ribbon Schools, an award program established by the U.S. Department of Education to highlight schools and districts that demonstrate a commitment to excellence in sustainability.

    Tahoma was also the 2015 Washington state Green Ribbon District, recognizing its district-wide approach to sustainability curriculum and commitment to efficient, healthy facilities.

    A sweet spot

    Most people think the only way to reduce energy is to buy better systems. In our experience, that’s only a piece of the puzzle.

    Simply replacing mechanical systems or installing the right controls system won’t deliver optimal efficiency. It requires a commitment to operate those systems effectively with a focus on efficiency, comfort and performance, and then tie that to a robust occupant engagement program.

    All three of these districts participate in Puget Sound Energy’s resource conservation management program, which provides additional ongoing incentive to keep this focus on efficient facilities. This in turn gives districts the confidence to tell a compelling story about their approach to capital projects and bond requests, because they are being responsible with the facilities they have.

    It’s the responsibility of both the district and their partners to consider how these changes will affect the learning environment. Will they keep classrooms at the right temperature, well-ventilated and well-lit? Will the students and teachers be comfortable?

    There is a sweet spot between efficiency and the learning environment. Our collective job is to find it.

    Lauren Frugé is a McKinstry program manager who works with school districts to implement McKinstry’s powerED program. Clint Hawn is a project director at McKinstry and is responsible for delivering integrated projects and services to school district clients.

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