What can we glean from taking a closer look at today’s learning environments?

For starters, there is a sizable amount of work going on. (If you can get the funding, that is. More on this in a bit.) Even in the current economy, education-related construction continues to be one of the largest markets in the United States. In 2010 alone, more than $14.5 billion in school construction was put in place, according to School Planning & Management magazine’s “2011 School Construction Report.” Of that $14.5 billion, $8.7 billion was spent on new school construction, with the region of Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas reporting the highest spending.

Imagine what it would be like if all of this construction could embrace efficient, ecologically responsible measures such as those showcased in the net-zero-energy Lady Bird Johnson Middle School in Irving, Texas, which is featured here.

The higher-education market is equally busy. According to School Planning & Management’s “2011 College Construction Report,” in 2010, colleges and universities spent $7.9 billion on new construction, accounting for 71.6 percent of the total construction spending. What are they building? The top academic facility types, in order, were science buildings, health-related facilities, residence halls, and student centers. One example: Palomar College’s Multi-Disciplinary Building.

But development—and an opportunity for addressing environmental performance—isn’t limited to new construction. According to the 21st Century School Fund, school districts manage over 1 million acres of school-building site area, and there is an estimated 6.6 billion gross square feet of public-school building space. All of this is space that needs to be maintained. In many cases, this space also desperately needs to be upgraded.

A significant chunk of the country’s existing educational infrastructure needs help. A recent study by the Council of the Great City Schools found that most of the nation’s urban schools are more than 60 years old, overcrowded, and in need of substantial construction and renovation to meet the needs of today’s classrooms. Of 65 large urban school districts surveyed, 50 reported a total of $46.7 billion in needed funds for repair, renovation, and modernization, as well as another $14.4 billion for deferred maintenance. That’s a significant amount.

At the post-secondary level, upgrades most often undertaken are HVAC, electric overhauls, plumbing, lighting, and flooring or carpeting, according to the “2011 College Construction Report.”

Education projects being built today also provide a lesson in innovative budget management and creative problem solving. K–12 schools often require a large community investment, and local government budgets are tight. On the post-secondary front, Paul Abramson may have best described the lay of the land in his introduction to the “2011 College Construction Report,” where he wrote that “many colleges depend on state legislatures for their funding, and most states are broke.” One example: In October, The Los Angeles Times reported that the chancellor for the Los Angeles Community College District called for a monthlong suspension on all spending for new construction projects while the district studied how to pay for building maintenance required by a campus expansion program that is already under way. Sixty-seven planned projects across nine colleges were frozen.

Outside of budget constraints lies the challenge of creating facilities that are healthy for their occupants and the environment, both now and years into the future. If the majority of today’s facilities may see life spans of more than 50 years, how do you build in flexibility to adapt to changing pedagogy or technology? Did school designers 20 years ago factor in plug-load considerations for classrooms where each student works on a laptop? Probably not. What about changing community needs? With luck, the necessity for adaptability, efficiency, and functionality will be seen by the design and construction community as opportunities, not obstacles.

Looking at some other studies (I did my homework) raises another issue worth exploring: What is at risk if we don’t commit to creating healthier, more efficient learning spaces.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, 49.4 million students spend their days in one of 98,706 public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. This number neither includes teachers and administrators, nor community members who use educational spaces after hours. It also doesn’t include private schools. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 6 million adults spend time in elementary and secondary schools. How do these buildings impact them? According to the 21st Century School Fund, a 2005 paper studying facility quality and teacher retention found that teachers in Chicago and Washington, D.C., reported missing four days annually because of health problems caused by adverse building conditions such as poor indoor air quality. In 2011, the National Association of School Nurses and the Healthy Schools Network released preliminary results from a survey of school nurses, which found that over 40 percent of the nurses knew children and staff who had been adversely affected by avoidable indoor pollutants.

Last year, we noted that the industry’s next assignment was improving the performance of today’s learning environments. This challenge continues and I look forward to seeing your responses.