Curious as to whether their high-performance schools were performing as intended, and positively affecting student and faculty health, DLR Group recently completed a study in conjunction with the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University to collect and analyze data from a cross-section of the firm’s recent green schools. This study—“Linking Performance & Experience: An Analysis of Green Schools”—provided a number of lessons for the firm and builds an argument for wider collection of post-occupancy data by architecture and design firms.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that design doesn’t stop when a building is constructed,” says Jim French, AIA, DLR Group senior principal. “One thing we’ve experienced over the last five years is that our clients are really interested in fact-based design. They want you to prove that the stuff you present in an interview and a design charrette really works.”

The challenge is figuring out what to track and at what scale—and then following through with consistent collection. “In education, there are so many variables that we can’t make broad statements,” says Stephanie Barr, research associate and green school specialist at the Institute for the Built Environment. “This study sets a benchmark for a good way of doing a broad-based analysis of an architecture portfolio. It looks at several different variables and gets the larger story behind a portfolio.”

The study examined 10 schools designed and constructed by DLR Group for students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Each school was either third-party certified or in alignment for certification criteria for programs such as LEED or the Washington Sustainable Schools Program, and had to have been in operation for at least 12 months. Samples of teachers and administers were surveyed online, and a facility and maintenance representative from each school was interviewed. Project data such as construction costs, student capacity, and total square footage was provided by DLR Group, while Energy Star Portfolio Manager and Target Finder were used to analyze energy use, and a full calendar year of utility data provided by each school. 

The survey confirmed that many of the schools were meeting a range of DLR Group design goals:

  • In total, 87 percent of respondents reported that they perceived a positive effect on student health, and 85 percent of respondents reported that their health and productivity were positively affected by the building.
  • Overall, 71 percent of respondents reported that the building has had a positive effect on student achievement.
  • Six of the 10 schools studied were built for below the regional median costs for schools in that area in the same year.
  • With a mean sample Energy Score of 81, the schools, as a whole, are operating more efficiently than 81 percent of similar buildings nationwide.
  • Eight of the 10 schools are operating at or better than the 2030 Challenge 50 percent EUI reduction target.

The data also highlighted the value of maintaining a dialogue with clients after construction is completed. Many respondents reported that time was required after taking ownership to “dial-in” the building systems, and thattraining staff members and facilities personnel on how to operate the new systems, as well as problem-solve any complications, is essential. “The biggest lesson we learned was the notion of training after a building is complete. We spend time with many of our custodians and building operators during the design process, but we learned from this study that we need to be more deliberate in training them how to work the systems,” says Rod Oathout, DLR Group principal. “For future projects, we’d like to quantify how much energy is lost in that first year of a building due to inexperienced operators.”
DLR Group next plans to expand the study methodology to high schools, which were not used in this first study because they have more complicated programming and operating patterns. In addition, the institute is considering deeper analysis on energy and construction costs, as well as the sociologic aspects of how people operate in and interact with green buildings. 

In the meantime, “this study allows us to go back to the client with that fact-based data,” French says. “We can prove now that a green building doesn’t mean you’re going to spend more money and [shows that] the overall operations of the building are less. Those are great facts.” 

Click here to download the study.