A recent study found that students and teachers at sustainable schools and universities enjoy improved health, well-being, and performance compared to those attending classes in traditional buildings. The study from McGraw-Hill Construction also found greater teacher and faculty satisfaction at sustainable facilities. Additionally, 70 percent of K –12 schools and 63 percent of university leaders said that green efforts have raised students’ test scores.

Below, ECOSTRUCTURE talks about these findings with Wendy Rogers, AIA, design principal at LPA, Inc., an architectural firm with extensive experience in designing sustainable structures for public and private educational facilities, including the first LEED-Platinum public middle school in California.

Do your clients report similar health effects as those mentioned in the study?
Our firm has anecdotal evidence that student health is improved by sustainable design. In support of more scientific research, LPA Inc. was a major sponsor for the USGBC Orange County’s green classroom retrofit of Davis Magnet School, a quasi-experiment that retrofit two classrooms with monitoring technology (energy per circuit, light levels, temperature and carbon dioxide levels). One classroom underwent green renovations, the other acted as an experimental control. The initial data is clearly illustrating the health benefits of this approach and we look forward to the forthcoming research.

Were you surprised by the link between green facilities and test scores? Why or why not?
No. A green classroom provides better acoustics, better thermal comfort and better lighting. This improved environment aids in how students think and learn, and the natural outcome will be improved performance.

What should building pros take away from this study?
Where we learn matters, because a great classroom environment allows teachers and students to perform at their best without the distractions of poor lighting, acoustics, or air quality.

What are the biggest challenges in designing sustainable educational facilities?
The groundswell for sustainable design has been significant, but it is too often oversimplified to the simple addition of photovoltaic panels. Energy savings are important, but they are only one aspect of the overall design approach. This study highlights the benefits of creating an improved environment for learning and therefore often these subtleties are the biggest challenge to keep relevant.

What are the most important factors to keep in mind when designing sustainable educational facilities?
Educational buildings must provide teachable moments. They must demonstrate and explain the sustainable strategies to the next generation of leaders.

What are some ways you focus on health and well-being in your education-related projects?
Displacement ventilation is one of the most impactful design strategies that can be implemented in an educational environment. With an effective thermal displacement ventilation system, the classroom is quieter—with better thermal comfort and air quality—compared to more conventional school HVAC system designs. Preliminary evidence from the Davis Magnet School demonstration project indicates that displacement ventilation reduces student absenteeism, presumably due to reduced spread of airborne pathogens. Targeting LEED for Schools Platinum certification, Montgomery Middle School in San Diego, Calif., will open a new two-story classroom addition in summer 2013, also implementing displacement ventilation.

U.S. School Buildings Face Critical Need for Modernization