During the 1950s and '60s thousands of schools were built across the county, but now those learning facilities have aged to the point that they desperately need modernization or replacement. In the next 10 to 20 years, the U.S. will spend hundreds of billions of dollars on school construction. Each of those schools will last an average of 80 years.
Because buildings are the No. 1 contributor to climate change through their greenhouse gas emissions because of the massive amounts of energy they consume, we have a tremendous chance to address this situation. We can employ a smart, economically viable, environmentally responsible approach to creating schools or we can allow first-cost objections to cloud the judgment of school boards and follow the business-as-usual approaches that will result in a slew of cheaply constructed, energy-hogging schools littered throughout the nation that fail to create better learning environments.
It is imperative that we design the next generation of schools to teach about a more sustainable way of living, use minimal energy, eliminate the creation of toxins and waste and be interdependent with natural systems. The American Institute of Architects Committee on Architecture for Education has chosen Seattle to host its fall conference, taking place next week.
Seattle is the only U.S. city where five projects have received an AIA Committee on the Environment Top Ten Green Projects Award -- one in each of the past five years. We will tour four of those projects and three other LEED-certified projects. The event will feature experts presenting current practices and projects demonstrating leading edge design of sustainable learning environments so that we will leave children with schools that not only meet today's expectations but also set examples for tomorrow.
This country's educational infrastructure desperately needs a modernized green school system. Green, high-performance schools are not a panacea. They will not solve all of the ills in the nation's school system but they will provide a foundation for a better education, in which teachers will more easily be able to focus on what matters most -- teaching -- and students will focus on what matters most -- learning.
Greening America's Schools Costs and Benefits, a report by Capital E in 2006, co-sponsored by the AIA, clearly explains the benefits realized by pursuing green schools. The health impacts of green schools are especially palpable in studies of indoor air quality. The building performance program at Carnegie Mellon University examined 17 extensive studies on the subject. The major health impacts focused on by the program included asthma, flu, sick building syndrome, headaches and respiratory problems. The improvements measured in these studies found a reduction in sickness ranging from 13.5 percent to 87 percent, with an average 41 percent improvement.
Green schools present a direct benefit to students and faculty, while also providing important benefits to society at large. High-performance schools promote energy savings, effect positive environmental change, improve health and educational achievement, and provide hands-on learning experiences. And, improved schools provide natural light to occupants, enhanced indoor air quality and create a superior work/learning environment.
To those who say building green is too costly, consider this: The green schools cost premium is between 1.5 percent and 2.5 percent of the total cost of new projects. Greening America's Schools Costs and Benefits pegs the total financial benefits of green schools at 10 to 20 times the initial cost. And school districts see direct benefits accrue at an approximate level of four times the cost due primarily to energy and water savings. Therefore, the initial investment is easily recuperated over time, reduced school operating costs and the students learning gains last a lifetime.
Green schools are better for the students, the environment, teachers, the community and society in general. A successful program would reinforce the essential message, which is that green schools' time has come. The nation can learn from some of the excellent examples of green schools that Seattle can be proud of. The time is now to put those lessons to use across the country so that future generations can experience the benefits of green schools.
R. K. Stewart is the 2007 president of the American Institute of Architects.
© 2007 The Seattle Post-Intelligencer