ConstructionPro Week, Volume: Construction Advisor Today - Issue: 129 - 10/13/2011

Most Americans Support Federal Investment in Green Schools: Survey

The U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Center for Green Schools has released new polling data suggesting that most Americans support federal investment in green schools. Approximately 75 percent of survey respondents indicated that they favor federal investment in school building improvements that focus on creating healthier learning environments, saving tax dollars, or lowering carbon emissions. About one in six respondents believe that U.S. schools are in excellent shape.


United Technologies Corp. (UTC) and the Center for Green Schools sponsored the survey. GfK Custom Research North America conducted the survey of more than 1,000 Americans via telephone between Sept. 23 and Sept. 25. 

“Americans understand the importance of our nation’s school infrastructure and see the urgent need for significant investments,” USGBC President and Chief Executive Officer Rick Fedrizzi said. “Too many of our schools are outdated, woefully energy inefficient, unhealthy, and negatively affect our children’s ability to learn and ultimately to compete in a global marketplace. In 2008 alone, the U.S. deferred an estimated $254 billion in school facility maintenance, and inadequate investment into maintaining our nation’s school infrastructure has led to a significant number of schools in need of major repair and replacement. That’s unacceptable.”


USGBC cited a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) finding that at least 25,000 U.S. schools need extensive repair and replacement.

“These survey results demonstrate that the majority of Americans believe that maintaining our existing outdated, inefficient, and wasteful school infrastructure simply isn’t good enough, which is why the Center for Green Schools is driving the green schools moment,” Fedrizzi said.


On average, green schools save an estimated $100,000 per year on operating costs, enough to hire at least one new teacher, buy 200 new computers, or purchase 5,000 textbooks, according to USGBC. “Green schools use 33 percent less energy and 32 percent less water than conventionally constructed schools, significantly reducing utility costs. If all new U.S. school construction and renovation went green today, the total energy savings alone would be $20 billion over the next 10 years. Additionally, a single green school can reduce carbon emissions by an estimated 585,000 pounds annually and, in a survey of green school administrators, 70 percent reported that green school construction reduced student absenteeism and improved student performance.”


Center for Green Schools Director Provides GBI Additional Details

Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools, provided Green Building Insider additional information about the survey and the organization’s mission during a phone interview, an abridged transcript of which appears below.


GBI: For the purposes of this survey, what is considered “green”? A school that meets Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver standards?


Gutter: We define a green school [as] a school that creates a healthy environment that enhances learning while saving energy, resources, and money, so not necessarily being tied to LEED certification but certainly being tied to that which we believe to be the results of LEED certification, which has to do with saving energy, saving resources, saving money, and optimizing learning.


GBI: What are all of the areas that you factor into this healthier learning environment that you are referring to?


Gutter: There are lots of different ways that I could describe this, but let me break it down into some of the key categories that we think about when we think about green schools or, even more broadly, about green buildings, and then I’ll try to explain with each one of those what some of the potential impacts of learning [are].

One of the most important [categories] in a school context is indoor environmental quality, and that’s one of the ones that has the most direct impact, I would say, on conditions for learning. That could range from acoustics, [because] better acoustics in classrooms means kids can hear their teachers teach, [to] things like … indoor air quality, from [carbon dioxide] levels to the amount of ventilation coming in and out of the space.


The second category that we often focus on is energy efficiency, and energy efficiency oftentimes has direct ties to things like ventilation as well as daylight, adequate levels of daylight that are appropriately dispersed across the classroom, proper heating and cooling controls within the building, that kind of thing, and of course the energy-efficiency one is where you start to see the most savings, which is another key aspect of a green school and one that we actually incorporated into the definition of a green school because so much of the [concept] of a green school is about the dollars that are able to be put back into the classroom.


Another category is water efficiency. A lot of the things that I think about in water efficiency, they go from supporting the learning to enhancing the learning, so a lot of green schools incorporate opportunities  for students to learn lessons, for instance, about the importance of water conservation simply by interacting with their school facility, whether it’s because they’re learning about how to save water through water fixtures in the bathroom and signs associated with that or whether it’s because they are monitoring the amount of water that’s in their water cistern that is harvesting rainwater that’s coming from the sky.


And then you’ve got [the category of] materials and resources, and that’s one that is interconnected to indoor environmental quality because so many of the materials that are coming and going into a classroom -- whether it be cleaning products or building products or furniture -- all of those things are emitting certain chemicals, so a lot of the focus on a green school is the focus on lessening the emission of potentially harmful chemicals.


GBI: So, the center’s definition of ‘green’ basically incorporates most of the categories within USGBC’s rating systems that it uses, but you’re not specifying a certain USGBC standard, such as LEED Silver, for meeting the center’s standard for a green school?


Gutter: Yeah. The conversation about a green school I think is significantly more broad, and that’s why I was saying that there are lots of different ways that you could talk about it. I think that the credit categories that you’re picking up on in LEED provide a good [indication] that you’re covering all of the bases, but I think that the critical [thing] that we’re trying to drive home with the general population and other school stakeholders that the Center for Green Schools works with is that [with] a green school, it’s not enough to simply be energy efficient. It’s not enough to simply have solar panels or a green roof, for instance, or a schoolyard garden. A green school is the sum total of those improvements … that leads toward an optimized learning environment.


GBI: How much of a concern, if any, is there that the people actually making the decisions about improvements for individual schools only will choose those ‘green’ improvements that yield the quickest paybacks and save the most money? Will investments primarily be made in energy efficiency instead of an improvement whose value is more difficult to calculate, like indoor air quality?


Gutter: That’s a really good question. I think that there’s always a concern for any building type that a building owner and/or, in this case a decision-maker , might go after that which has the quickest payback, but actually in the case of schools, I think that it’s less of a concern than almost any other sector in the commercial space, and I’ll explain why.


One is because school buildings are owned and operated for a lifetime, and so what looks like in a commercial setting, for instance, a palatable payback for the sum total for energy-efficiency improvements could be as little as a year to two years. In a school setting, 7-8 years, even up to 10-15 years, doesn’t look so bad. For a long time, since the 1980s, when performance contracting became a popular thing for school districts, we’ve found that they make particularly good decisions because they tend to focus on those longer-term payback periods.


The second is I think that schools, more than almost any sector of the commercial construction economy, are focused on the sum total of what the impact will be on learning. In other words, they’re looking more closely at things like indoor-air-quality improvements [and] how shifts in energy efficiency may reduce or improve ventilation. These are the kinds of things that I think school facilities managers are significantly more wise to as opposed to the commercial real estate operator. 


GBI: What specific recommendations, if any, are being made in conjunction with the release of these survey results and to whom?

Gutter: The center’s recommendation is that policymakers wake up and listen to what the American public is saying. So, there are three things that I think the survey is saying that are out of sync with the decisions or at least the spin that we are getting from a lot of policymakers. The first one, and I think the most important one, is that support for federal investment in school infrastructure is a partisan issue. I think in the halls of Congress it is a partisan issue right now, but I think the American public has clearly said that, three out of four of them are saying that ‘No, our communities are hurting.’ We need this kind of money so that we can put teachers back to work so we can put construction workers and other buildings folks back to work and so that we can have schools that don’t get in the way of learning. So that’s the second point. I think it was a big wake-up call for us that about 90 percent of the American public said that the condition of school facilities is no better than adequate, and a third of those people, approximately, said that the conditions of schools were poor. In this case, I will tell you that this very much resonates with the discrepancy that I see in my work at the center. I think, generally speaking, parents, teachers, and principals are saying, ‘Look, our schools need a lot of help right now, and there are no funds to be directed toward those improvements.’ I think that a lot of the folks who could provide that money, whether they’re elected officials or public-private sponsors that could engage in public-private sponsorships with school districts, I think many of them have their kids in schools where the conditions are significantly better. They’re in private schools, or they’re living in neighborhoods with the best public schools, and there’s a lack of understanding about just how dire the need is around improvements to school facilities. The final thing that the results of the survey are telling us are that there is certainly an awareness on behalf of the American public that improvements to school facilities, -- greener school facilities -- equates to tax savings, and that is something that every American is looking for right now.


GBI: What specific recommendations may you be making about certain legislative language, such as particular line items in an education spending bill that may be undergoing consideration?

Gutter: I think it’s the American Jobs Act [bill, ‘AJA,’] where there’s that opening. AJA calls for some $35 billion to fund school infrastructure improvements in public schools across the country for K-12 and another $5 billion for community colleges. 


GBI: What follow-up research, if any, may be conducted on this topic?

Gutter: The Center for Green Schools has an ongoing commitment to convene conversations about and facilitate additional research on topics related to green schools, and, in fact, two weeks ago, [such discussions occurred] along with Harvard Medical School, Boston Mayor [Thomas Menino], UTC, and a variety of the brightest researchers and implementers of green school work. They’re in Boston for a childhood-health-in-buildings summit, where we were [focusing on] the existing research in support of green schools and then creating some recommendations around what the additional needs are related to making that case, and I will say that one of the things that was most striking that came out of that day, and something that will be reflected in the white paper that we’re creating based on that summit, is that there’s a tremendous need to get a handle on what the current condition of school facilities is. We need an update to the GAO study that was done some years ago on school facilities because that data is now pretty significantly outdated. That’s something that the center is going to be working along with our … partners to encourage, a GAO study that would really give us an up-to-date sense of what the overall condition of schools is in America.


GBI: When may the white paper be finished?


Gutter: Sometime in 2012. 


Serious Energy, USGBC Partner for LEED Automation

In other news, Serious Energy has entered into a technology partnership with USGBC, creators of the LEED green building program and LEED Online. Coined “LEED Automation,” the partnership is expected to enable users of LEED to easily sync up data and information with LEED Online, the software platform that manages the LEED green building certification process, and drive continuous improvement in their buildings.


“As of LEED 2012, users are expecting a more performance-based rating system, and our cloud-based technology, together with LEED online, sets the stage for that,” Serious Chief Executive Officer Kevin Surace said. “Building owners and property managers that deploy our algorithm-based adaptive learning energy-efficiency platform have the means to track their energy usage in real time and drive further savings far beyond what people alone can do. With automated sync of this data, users of LEED Online will be able to move to a more dynamic certification process with almost no extra work.”


“This important technology partnership with Serious Energy allows USGBC and LEED to leverage state-of-the-art cloud-based software that will increase customers’ business savings and verification through improved data, information, and content integration,” Fedrizzi said.

SeriousEnergy Manager is an enterprise energy-efficiency cloud-based service. For LEED-certified building owners, the platform delivers real-time tracking, powerful reporting, and control of energy, gas, and water, USGBC stated. “The platform has proven to identify actionable, straightforward savings opportunities of 10-30 percent, even in high-performance LEED-certified buildings.”


LEED Automation can perform the following three key functions for LEED project teams and users of LEED Online by seamlessly integrating third-party applications with LEED Online, according to USGBC:


  • Provide automation of various LEED documentation processes.
  • Deliver customers a unified view of their LEED projects.
  • Standardize LEED content and distribute it consistently across multiple technology platforms.




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