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August 30, 2018

3 keys to building green schools: design, operations and renewables

  • Taking a multi-pronged approach to energy efficiency leads to designs that are resilient, adaptable and healthy for students.
    DLR Group


    Performance-driven architecture and design culture in the Pacific Northwest is one of the strongest in the nation.

    Collectively, we push ourselves and professionals in other regions across the country to employ proven strategies to reduce energy consumption and investigate new, innovative solutions that enhance our educational facilities while reducing our impact on the environment.

    Fortunately, from where I practice in Seattle, both our building energy codes and climate are conducive to an array of sustainable solutions in the built environment. Consequentially, we’re able to set an example for others of what is achievable within the project budget allowance to reduce consumption through a three-pronged approach to energy efficiency: design, operations and renewables.

    The end goal is to design buildings that will leverage the climate to create healthy learning environments.


    Photo by Josh Partee [enlarge]
    A daylit classroom at Sato Elementary in Portland.

    Photo by Chris J. Roberts Photography [enlarge]
    Classrooms at Lake Stickney Elementary in Lynnwood have external shades to reduce glare.

    When designing new schools or renovating existing facilities, design teams consider a variety of options to best fit learner needs, as well as cost implications for local communities before determining a path for sustainability.

    Simple, passive and low-cost design solutions — such as external shading and low-flow fixtures, or taking into account building orientation — can result in a rough range of $30,000-$50,000 of savings per year, allowing districts to redirect funds to other needs.

    Beyond these base-level elements, design teams must lead meaningful conversations with school districts and community members to determine other sustainable strategies that positively impact and enhance indoor-air quality, thermal comfort, visual comfort and total cost of ownership. These sustainable solutions come at a cost and must be weighed against available funding and conflicting priorities. However, setting immediate and long-term goals, and quantifying performance of the strategies, results in informed decisions.

    When it comes to value engineering or value add, a clear list of items should identify short-term vs. long-term decisions.

    Building envelope and selecting a hydronic loop for heating are two such long-term solutions that become intrinsic to the facility’s DNA and will remain for the life of the building. By identifying long-term goals, districts can future-proof their schools and effectively plan for the next iteration of new construction and capital improvements by utilizing design to support plug-and-play dynamics for future systems and renewables.

    Right-sizing equipment now to support the system(s) anticipated down the road will save time and money when those systems are eventually installed.

    For example, future installations of solar or high-efficiency systems impact the infrastructure, and therefore should be incorporated into facility master plans. Sizing of baseboards and hot water piping in classrooms are affected by the supply water temperature and the use of ground-source heating, but with proper planning, a facility can see a seamless transition.

    Here in the Puget Sound area, Seattle Public Schools uses a master planning effort as part of its schematic design efforts to ensure that all decisions will benefit in the long term and tie into the infrastructure anticipated in the future.

    The district has established an owner’s project requirements document that highlights prioritized strategies, allowing design teams to factor these in during the design phase. The document states the requirement of an EUI target of 20 for new construction and 25 EUI for upgraded existing facilities.

    According to the document, “An EUI is like ‘miles per gallon’ for a building, however lower is better. It is the amount of energy a building consumes annually per square foot.”

    This requirement defines the project path highlighting priorities, and sometimes establishes unique goal-setting for projects with varying budgets.


    When it comes to operations, Seattle Public Schools consistently embraces progressive strategies related to sustainability.

    District policy and standards are aligned to meet their set EUI goals. The district utilizes an active operations approach to reduce energy consumption. Its facilities team includes dedicated facility staff and resource conservation managers, and as part of their diverse job functions, this team continually monitors the operations and helps set achievable goals for the schools to target through occupant behavior.

    One of the key strategies at Seattle Public Schools is a robust, active management system that utilizes direct digital controls and continual retro-commissioning of existing facilities.

    Operational schedules and set points cannot be changed without notifications sent to the management team, and a shared-savings program has been put in place to help schools that are able to reduce their energy consumption and meet the goal to be rewarded (http://bit.ly/2odpGfb). The shared savings program incentivizes individual schools to meet set EUI goals and recognizes their efforts and achievements.

    Another example from the standards includes set points that are included in the district’s resource conservation policy and cannot be deviated from without a medical accommodation request.

    This multifaceted approach shares responsibility for energy savings with the users. Occupant behavior can play a large role in further reducing energy consumption, and policy can help set expectations from the beginning to ensure user buy-in.

    This also allows designers to use these as design guidelines, for example, designing mindfully for no cooling through passive cooling strategies.


    Seattle Public Schools has a plan in place to integrate solar in new and existing schools as they build and upgrade facilities. The district is implementing solar at six of its school buildings and intends to include more in the future.

    In the realm of sustainable solutions, solar is icing on the cake. It is important that first investments reduce energy consumption and get to an EUI that can then be supported using renewables to reduce the total energy consumed to zero (or minimal), annually.

    When solar is fully operational, this initiative will reduce energy consumption and has the potential to feed back to the grid for a few months each year.

    When we combine design, operations and renewables we achieve two outcomes: establish future-proof and resilient school facilities that positively impact our planet, and create healthy learning environments that promote environmental stewardship to students, staff and local communities.

    Amarpreet Sethi is a principal at DLR Group and leads its Building Performance Design team. Sethi focuses on bridging the gap between architectural design teams and their engineering counterparts to deliver high-performing buildings.

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