What does sustainability mean for schools?

Where to begin?

Sustainability means to act in a manner that exhibits awareness of how all things are connected and make well-considered choices for the greater good of all.

Schools are great examples of interconnected systems to which principles of sustainability can be applied with wide-ranging benefits. Such systems include the building, its component materials, systems and operation; surrounding natural resources and ecosystems; students, staff, and the community; transportation methods, district budgets, and even global conditions.

We’re living in an age of dwindling resources and growing health awareness­, one in which the interconnectedness of systems has been shown to offer solutions for some of what ails us. We’re pioneers on the path to making those solutions practicable.

As Mark Schneider wrote in Do School Facilities Affect Academic Outcomes? for the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities:

“While existing studies on school building quality basically point to improved student behavior and better teaching in higher-quality facilities, what is needed is more firm policy advice about the types of capital investments that would be most conducive to learning and to good teaching. This would help those who manage construction dollars better target and maximize the return on such investments.”

Following are some considerations for school boards to ponder when exploring this territory:

Choosing the site

Wise selection and use of a site can provide opportunities to study ecosystems, monitor stream quality, reduce transportation costs and reduce non-point-source pollution. Educators and parents have a renewed interest in putting schools on smaller, central sites that allow these institutions to fulfill their time-honored role as community centers.

  • Select a site on public transportation lines and with bike and foot access to encourage physical activity and community interaction while avoiding harm to the atmosphere (avoid the greenhouse effect).
  • Investigate past uses of the site; e.g., was it the site of an underground storage tank, landfill, or mine that could lead to soil contamination? 

Planning the design (new or remodel)

  • Incorporate materials with a low environmental impact: reused, with recycled content, and renewable. These avoid the energy and pollution costs of extracting virgin materials. 
  • Choose high-quality local materials, when appropriate, to support your local economy and preclude shipping-related air pollution and fuel use. 
  • Aim for a high-performance facility, which greatly reduces energy and water needs over its lifetime. While the cost of a high-performance building may initially be higher, you’ll more than make up for it with lower operating costs. 
  • Select a design that provides adequate air flow and avoids materials that give off toxic substances. The healthier your students and staff are, the more you’ll be able to accomplish. 
  • Incorporate natural lighting and outdoor views, which has been demonstrated to enhance student performance. 
  • Design for community or local governmental uses, encouraging community involvement and supplying more learning opportunities for students.
  • Preserve and upgrade existing schools (especially those that students can already walk to). This extends the life of existing resources and avoids consumption of new ones.

Building operation pointers

  • The building should be commissioned to ensure it performs at the level to which it was designed. Systems must be inspected, tested, monitored and periodically retested.
  • The cost and effort to prevent most air-quality problems is significantly less than what it takes to diagnose and resolve such problems after they develop. 
  • Use surfaces that are easy to clean and maintain, and ensure a regular cleaning schedule to reduce asthma triggers. 
  • Use only non-toxic materials for cleaning, maintenance and landscaping to reduce the dangers to people and the environment. 
  • Involve students in facility operation and monitoring to teach them about building design, indoor environmental quality, financial principles, and their local ecosystem. They’ll also learn math, science, health, business and social studies skills.

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